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BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Powered by a personal journey as eccentric and endearing as the show business subset it plumbs with the precision of a forensic investigator, the documentary “Bathtubs Over Broadway” — Dava Whisenant’s quirky and compassionate directorial debut — wants you to see the world of industrial musicals through the eyes of a cynic who blinked in the face of sincerity. It’s not a tough sell.
If you don’t know what an industrial musical is, you’re far from alone. In the three decades or so during America’s post-World War II economic boom, the relentless quest for profit meant companies like GE, Pepsi, and Ford needed a way to train employees and keep the sales staff motivated. Musical theater extravaganzas designed to entertain and inform could have budgets that exceeded what it took to mount an actual Broadway show — and became a place where composers, lyricists, choreographers, and performers honed their skills (including Sheldon Harnick, Susan Stroman, Martin Short, and Chita Rivera, all of whom appear in the film to contribute pithy, heartfelt observations). While the careers of many flourished beyond the industrial musical circuit, some its greatest contributors remain unsung — an injustice the film and its evangelizing protagonist are driven, by moral obligation as much as artistic appreciation, to correct.
With catchy music and product-specific lyrics (one song was tasked with working in dozens of uses for silicone), these shows were often performed only once, to a highly select audience, and then forgotten. But a fraction of the souvenir LPs and ephemera survived. Sometimes, an album made its way to a used record shop — and that’s how the industrial musical was rescued from the scrap heap of history by an unlikely champion.
In the early part of what would become a 25-year career writing comedy for David Letterman, Steve Young was tasked with digging up oddball audio clips for a 1980s bit called “Dave’s Record Collection.” One of Young’s finds, the title track to the show “My Insurance Man,” was appraised on air by Letterman as “actually more annoying than my insurance man.” When heard in small doses as the set-up for dismissive comedy snark, such clips are, Young admits, “bizarre and hilarious.” But those, he notes, “are only the beginning layers” — and that’s where the film pivots to a place of unexpected emotional depth.
“I did take great glee, from the beginning, in enjoying something that I wasn’t supposed to hear,” Young told this publication in a recent phone interview. “I couldn’t wait to tell people about it, and show people what I found. I still feel that way now,” he said, of what he declares in the film to be a “hyper-American art form.”
With few friends outside of the Letterman show and a self-diagnosed case of “comedy damage” that denied him the ability to consume humor in the manner the masses do with ease, the world of industrial musicals — similar to his day job in many respects (a tight-knit community serving the general population, yet cut off from it) — was a perfect match for Young’s off-kilter outlook and obsessive nature. But a funny thing happened as songs from “Diesel Dazzle” (a 1966 show from the Detroit Diesel division of General Motors) played in constant mental rotation. He became a passionate collector who was smitten by, as he told us, “the weird, unexpected beauty; programs, tickets, playbills — the wonderful professionalism of it all.”
Soon, Young was able to distinguish, and happy to celebrate, the nuances between genre greats. “It varies,” he told us, regarding those who worked in teams and those known for solo efforts. “Some of my great heroes were purely the music and lyric people, and somebody else was writing the book.” (Hank Beebe and Bill Heyer created “Diesel Dazzle,” while, for example, Sid Siegel penned all aspects of 1969’s “The Bathrooms are Coming!,” an ode to new fixtures from American Standard.)
“Some especially talented and ambitious people really had the vision for the whole thing and could carry it off,” Young noted of Siegel, while “Hank Beebe’s late partner, Bill Heyer, was a great talent in comedy and would write the whole show, not the lyrics… but by the time they had been working for, not too long, they seemed to really mesh and be great for each other, and turn out this very unified thing that would seem like a solid vision.” As for picking a favorite, Young referred to another fruitless quest to declare a winner among disparate styles. “Beebe and Heyer vs. Sid Siegel? This is like in the ’60s, the kids would say, ‘I’m a Beatles fan.’ ‘Oh, yeah? I’m a Rolling Stones fan.’ ”
By the ’90s, hooked for life on industrial musicals and emboldened to seek a stronger fix, he began to cold call cast members and creators — leading to a series of face-to-face meetings. Some are genuinely overwhelmed, even a bit uncomfortable, to be validated as artists of worth and integrity by an insistent Young. But they return the goodwill by sharing a treasure trove of anecdotes, insights, and rare items that have languished for decades in storage. As this happens, we see Young’s evolution into a (slightly) less socially awkward fellow with a growing circle of associates. Captured on film as he drives en route to visit the great Sid Siegel, Young invokes the old “don’t meet your heroes” warning, his voice trembling as he asks, “But what if we just don’t click?” It’s a watershed moment that’s tremendously satisfying to watch; a one-time connoisseur of the seemingly odd who’s crossed the Rubicon into a realm where sincere admiration and anthropological curiosity get along like gangbusters — but that capacity, said “Bathtubs” director Dava Whisenant, was always there.
“Steve has this outlook and perspective on comedy that I hadn’t ever seen before,” she told us, recalling her years as an editor on “Late Show with David Letterman.” Whisenant often found herself “laughing out loud at his [Young’s] juxtaposition of these things that weren’t supposed to go together.”
Although she recalled he had “a really cynical attitude” during his early years of consuming industrial musicals, he would later “talk about the people he was meeting, and he’d get teary — and I’d go, ‘What’s going on here? This isn’t the Steve I know.’ ”
Whisenant knew a good story when she saw one, though. So when Young and co-author Sport Murphy released their comprehensive 2013 tome — “Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals” — she chose Young’s journey as the narrative hook for her first film. “The documentary,” she noted, “is the perfect storytelling medium for editors. You get to really explore and create the story arc in the [editing] room, as opposed to getting a script and putting it together. You get to delve into some new world that otherwise you would not get to live in.”
Whisenant does just that, effectively enmeshing the viewer in a realm where worlds often collide, and always inform one another: fellow collectors (including Dead Kennedys singer/songwriter Jello Biafra), bit players from golden age industrial musicals, and Young’s own family (once befuddled witnesses to his knack for these strange songs, his daughters emerge as aware appreciators of dad’s role as the genre’s champion).
“I love blurring the lines,” Whisenant said, of her own film, as well as those she admires — including “Wormwood,” “King of Kong” and “Casting JonBenet.” You can use the medium, she noted, “to tell an amazing story. Ours is kind of like a musical, in a certain sense. We’re using the lyrics from these industrial show tunes to tell Steve’s story.” And with the documentary’s notoriously small footage-shot-to-footage-used ratio, the director told us, “There’s still so much amazing stuff left on the floor. He [Young] has over 2,000 examples of these songs, and they are so fantastic. It was really hard not to include everything.” Pressed for a tidbit that didn’t make the cut (fodder for the inevitable DVD bonus footage?), Whisenant recalled the story of “Michael Brown, one of the composers, who did so well, he was able to fund his friend, Harper Lee. He gave her the money so she could write ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ So that’s a kind of untold industrial musical story.”
Of Whisenant, Young said he “knew she was a great editor and had a great comedic sense,” but learned, over the four-year process of working with her, “what filmmakers do. It was a range of skills I was only dimly aware of.” Still evolving since “Late Show with David Letterman” ceased production (a process we see glimpses of in the film), Young’s quest to spread the gospel of industrial musicals has compelled him to embrace a variety of roles — including live stage show producer, journeyman film historian, guitar-plucking accompanist, and, in the film’s immensely satisfying final scene, a… well, they asked us not to spoil it, and we won’t. Let’s just say the whole thing ends on a high note, and farm equipment is involved.
But will modern audiences be able to make, as Young did, that great leap from ironic detachment to emotional investment? “Since I started out in the ’80s,” he said, “there’s now more of a readiness to look at supposedly disposable cultural things and at least try to understand them in context… I do think people are ready to learn about, and to assess the value of, stuff — more, maybe, than they were a generation or two ago.”
Three of four scheduled Tribeca Film Festival screenings of “Bathtubs Over Broadway” are sold out. Visit tribecafilm.com/filmguide/bathtubs-over-broadway-2018 for Rush Ticket info. Tickets are still available for the Sat., Apr. 21, 2pm premiere at BMCC Tribeca PAC (199 Chambers St.). The screening will be followed by a Q&A with members of the cast, including Susan Stroman and Sheldon Harnick, as well as a live performance (with surprise guests) inspired by the film.