WARNING: Once you watch Bathtubs Over Broadway, now available to rent or buy from Redbox On Demand, you will be humming the song, “My Bathroom” for the rest of your days.
Directed by Dava Whisenant, Bathtubs Over Broadway discovers a bygone era (the 1950s-80s) when American corporations mounted elaborate Broadway-worthy musical productions for conventions or sales meetings. These gigs paid well and attracted A-list talent, including Broadway composers John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret), Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity) and Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) and future stars Martin Short, Florence Henderson and Chita Rivera. Imagine a musical about the joys of being a Coca-Cola bottler or one that sings the praises of a company’s new line of diesel tractors. Imagine no more!
Bathtubs Over Broadway is funny, all kinds of weird and unexpectedly moving. The hero is Steve Young, a writer on Late Night with David Letterman for 25 years. He was responsible for the recurring segment, “Dave’s Record Collection,” for which he hunted through record stores for offbeat and unintentionally funny albums for Dave to have fun with. One fateful day, he found a soundtrack album for an “industrial musical,” a show produced for an exclusive audience of company employees and never seen by the general public. Curiosity became an obsession and he began to explore this hidden world, eventually reaching out to the shows’ creators and performers. He later co-wrote (alongside Sport Murphy) the definitive history of the corporate musical, Everything is Coming Up Profits, which we also highly recommend.
Young, who teaches television history at New York University, is the keeper of the off-center celebrigum.com and whose credits include The Simpsons and the award-winning animated Christmas special, Olive, the Other Reindeer, spoke with Redbox about his incredible journey that started off as a joke, but led to life-changing personal connections.
Redbox: For those intrigued by the title, what is Bathtubs Over Broadway?
Steve Young: It’s a movie about a lost secret world of American show business with musicals commissioned only for company insiders at conventions and sales meetings. It’s weird and hilarious, but there is this extra dimension, a surprising emotional journey as I dive deeper into this world. The outcome is something people find very powerful. You don’t have to care about Broadway musicals to find yourself completely enthralled by this movie.
RB: Alec Baldwin has called you the world’s foremost authority on the industrial musical.
SY: Well, if you can’t believe Alec Baldwin, who can you believe?
RB: It’s fascinating that this all started out as a bit for David Letterman.
SY: I was buying these records for the show, but around 1995-96, I started realizing I just wanted to find more of these (for myself) and I started looking for the people.
RB: Were you a fan of musical theater?
SY: I didn’t have any idea of musical theater. I was at sea. I didn’t know art, but I knew what I liked, and I wanted to figure out why did I like these industrial musicals so much. When I found Hank Beebe (who co-wrote the industrial musical, ‘Diesel Dazzle’), I realized this is a wise and wonderful person and that there was life wisdom I could gain from this man who wrote musicals about diesel engines and silicon products. I gained a friend and mentor—I was just talking to him a little while ago; he’s 92.
RB: Why do you think you responded in this way to these musicals?
SY: You see in the movie that I had become cynical about mainstream comedy. (These musicals) were so improbable and so well done. I just thought, ‘These are too good; what else is out there?’ It crept up on me that real people created them and I wondered how they felt about it. What could I learn about myself, as I did a lot of (jokes and comedy bits) for Letterman that were (not lasting). It rebounded back to me as a way to ask questions about my own life.
RB: You began your quest in the days before the Internet. How did you go about finding these artifacts?
SY: A lot was done by going to record stores and shows, but boy I was excited when eBay was introduced. I remember sitting there for hours scrolling through thousands of records which were not well-sorted or categorized. Then it would be, ‘Oh my god; the Edsel Dealer Show! It was like I’d struck gold. What I also liked was that nobody seemed to know what this landscape was. I was finding the path myself along with a few other people you see in the movie. But most kinds of collectibles are exhaustively categorized by the time a new collector gets to them. This one is still a jungle-covered continent of unknown size; new things are still turning up.
RB: What elusive recordings are still out there that you are hoping to find?
SY: I do have a want-list with a couple of dozen records. My friend Don Bolles has the only known copy of “Gould Growing,” a 1970s record from an electrical junction box company. There is a 1967 Ford show written by Cy Coleman; only one copy has turned up.
RB: What was it like to find out that Jello Biafra (the infamous front man for the punk band the Dead Kennedys) was a kindred spirit and avid collector of industrial musicals?
SY: That’s one of the many levels of sweet surrealism about this project that I love; getting to be friends with Jello Biafra who I really should have never encountered in a normal logical life. But this whole project has taken me off the rails of normal and logical.
RB: After being a writer on the show all those years, what was it like to actually be a guest on the show to talk to Dave about these recordings?
SY: What a thrill and what a wonderful support he’s been. I was doing my regular day job at the show on the days when I was a guest so I didn’t have time to get nervous. Standing backstage ready to go out the first time, I realized I didn’t know what this was going to be like. What if I was paralyzed and tongue-tied? But I benefited from Dave being a very welcoming presence. He wanted this to go well.
RB: I have to tell you, the finale (a new production number featuring veterans of industrial musicals) really got to me.
SY: I would have to agree. That’s Dava Whisenant; this is her film and her accomplishment. She saw that this is a story about how people connect and judge the value of their lives. It’s movie magic of the highest order.