by Ken Bakely
Watching Dava Whisenant’s Bathtubs Over Broadway, we are primarily drawn into the film by the passion that Steve Young brings as the movie’s de facto presenter. A veteran comedy writer for David Letterman who was seeking a new pastime as his boss prepared for retirement, Young’s research for a sketch happened upon industrial musicals: elaborate stage productions for the sales conventions of large companies, performed by professional actors for employees, with storylines and songs about the virtues of the corporation’s products. Their heyday was in the mid-20th century, and with the knowledge that their best days are behind them, Young’s obsession with them grows stronger. He points out that it is quite staggering to consider the scale and cost of these projects, which can compare with or exceed that of a Broadway show; yet only to be performed a few times for a limited audience, and then never thought of again. The only evidence of their existence are cast albums or films of performances, in all their brazenly strange but highly skilled rigor. Young interviews many of the performers and composers who dominated this field. They worked with great skill and dedication without ever expecting the fame that their contemporaries outside the corporate environment found. Sure, it’s undeniably funny to hear an earnestly sung ballad about bathrooms, created solely for a plumbing company convention in 1958, but it’s also just as enlightening to consider the talented individuals hired to create it in the first place.
Whisenant takes us from the most innocuous of talking head interviews to a booming finale, complete with a big musical number, yet Bathtubs Over Broadway always remains consistent in tone and approach. She’s got a clear command over the proceedings, allowing us to both gradually realize the extent of Young’s investigations while keeping the flow of information organic; in other words, the film is never forced, and retains the gentle rhythm of a well-told story, filled with great amusement and sincere fascination. Whisenant has good instincts in how to immerse us in this world, and Young is a cheerful and charming host. His interviews are carefully guided and pointed towards revealing observations on the niche subject matter before him, as his driving desire to learn as much as he can about industrial musicals provides the underlying energy that can convince just about anyone as to why learning about this otherwise obscure bit of cultural history carries substantial benefits for everyone involved.
Interviews with established names like Florence Henderson and Chita Rivera, both of whom performed in such shows early in their careers, are instructive in how the movie balances its wide array of content. It’s certainly interesting to learn about their specific connection to the subject matter, but Whisenant and Young are keen to tie this into a much bigger point. Putting on a major production is a massive undertaking in any context, and knowing that some of the veterans of the corporate musical went on to become celebrities leads Young to make the point that, under slightly different circumstances, perhaps prolific composer Sid Siegel could also have gone onto become a household name. What Bathtubs Over Broadway ends up capturing is a series of precise snapshots: a specific era in American society and capitalism, cast against a specific era in show business and cultural trends. No artist can choose the era in which they work, but the film expresses the hope that the fruits of their labor can be appreciated and respected in whatever form they may come about, even if it’s in something that otherwise seems so silly and disposable from the outset.
While Bathtubs Over Broadway sometimes struggles to successfully incorporate its various moving parts and approaches – from its aforementioned poignancies, to its showcase of the most surreal excesses of the musicals, to its own profile of Young specifically – it’s still an entertaining ride through a most unusual type of performance. Not only does the work of Young and his contemporaries inform us of this compulsively watchable (or listenable) subsection of musical theatre that would have otherwise passed through history unnoticed, but it’s obvious that enthusiasts and collectors of industrial musical recordings also innately understand the larger cultural value of these productions that the film has explained to we, the uninitiated. The movie parallels Young’s own path into this world with a more abstract narrative on what it means to discover a new pastime or interest; he’s fully in a new reality, even if decades in the same job had once left him feeling closed off to the idea that old routines or worldviews could be broken. He’s now found a new role as a sort of chief historian of the industrial musical and its legacy, and it’s hard to imagine a better ambassador.