When Late Night with David Letterman staff writer Steve Young was tasked with finding material for the “Dave’s Record Collection” segments, he stumbled onto a discover that would change his life. While combing through numerous bins of vinyl all over Manhattan he began to find music albums put out by corporations full of songs touting their products. With titles like “Diesel Dazzle” and “The Bathrooms Are Coming,” they were certainly ripe for the Letterman show segment. But Young’s curiosity was piqued and some investigation revealed that they were cast albums for industrial musicals – Broadway-style shows that were presented at company sales meetings and other gatherings for the entertainment of their employees.
Dava Whisenant’s debut documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway spotlights Young and his journey of discovery into this long-hidden and nearly forgotten world. Serving as our guide, he takes us through the heyday of the industrial musical – the 1950s and `60s – tracking down recordings and some of the people who made a living at composing or appearing in these lavish productions.
And just how elaborate were these productions? Well, in 1956 a car manufacturer spent $3 million mounting an industrial musical for a sales convention. By comparison, the Lerner and Loewe Broadway classic My Fair Lady, which opened the same year, had a budget of $446,000. Companies were investing a lot of money into these shows that would literally open and close on the same night.
And the level of musicality and stage craft was indeed of Broadway caliber. The song writing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret) and multiple Tony Award winners composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler On The Roof) wrote for industrial musicals. Additionally performers like Florence Henderson, Bob Fosse, Chita Rivera, Martin Short, Andrea Martin and five-time Tony winner Susan Stroman all cut their teeth in industrial musicals. As the film points out, if you were to substitute the lyrics about bathroom fixtures or the multiple uses for silicone with something a little more pop-y, many of these songs could have very well been hits.
The “Dave’s Record Collection” segments that Young began acquiring these records for was the same as the rest of Letterman’s show – ironic and acerbic. But Bathtubs Over Broadway is anything but that. While there are laughs to be had here, Young’s love and appreciation of the material is pure, no ironic douchebag hipster posturing here. Young’s sincere affection is what gives Bathtubs Over Broadway a sweet emotional core. You need only see the smile on his face upon being shown a cache of scores for shows that were produced but never recorded or upon hearing for the first time an uncredited song and instinctively knowing who probably composed it. But more than that it is a tribute to the performers and creators of an odd slice of Americana that was very close to vanishing from memory if it weren’t for the dedication of a small handful of enthusiasts like Steve Young.