Bathtubs Over Broadway
(USA, 87 min.)
Dir. Dava Whisenant
Programme: Artscapes (International Premiere)
Forget Bye Bye Birdie. Forget Cats. Forget An American in Paris, Rent, Fiddler on the Roof, Phantom of the Opera, Cabaret, and especially Mamma Mia. The truly American art form is not the Broadway show but the industrial musical. This obscure corner of show business receives a laugh-out loud appreciation from director Dava Whisenant in Bathtubs Over Broadway. Audiences having no familiarity with the wacky world of industrial musicals are in for a treat! Get ready to laugh, sing, cheer, and be dazzled by the unsung art of capitalist show tunes.
Bathtubs Over Broadway uncovers the peculiar art form of industrial musicals by following the exuberant enthusiasm of Steve Young, a former staff writer of The Late Show with David Letterman, as he digs deep into the history of the genre. These musicals aren’t the average song and dance numbers performed nightly for the masses. Industrial musicals, Young explains, are obscure productions created by companies of 1960s/1970s corporate America. They are rare to hear since companies performed them infrequently and distributed recordings as mementos to employees, if they even recorded them at all.
Industrial musicals offer full-fledged numbers about the company product and mission, like ditties about sliced bread or razzle-dazzle diesel songs. They are the hallmark of pure American cheese, yet the performers sell them with the utmost sincerity. The euphoric goodwill of musicals translates to an energized rally to motivate salesmen to peddle more cars, refrigerators, and even toilets.
Young is a really fun guide who leads the audiences through the oddities of his guilty pleasure. His appreciation of the industrial musicals debunks the preconceptions that one might have towards them and breaks them down in an unabashed appraisal of an American idealism that seems forgotten. As Young combs through his extensive collection of industrial records and shares some highlight songs, he ponders what might possess an aspiring performer to slum it singing and dancing about Fords and Frigidaires.
The more Bathtubs Over Broadway digs into the niche market of industrial musical fan culture, however, the more it reveals how these singers actually had it made. It turns out that industrial musicals were bigger business than Broadway. The metaphor Young uses is that Broadway musicals were the tip of the iceberg while industrials were the hidden 80-90%. Performing is performing and the stars of the industrials made far more money than they would have on Broadway, while the seemingly silly performances dressed up in Miller Beer bottles or fast food attire provided invaluable training and experience. The doc scores interviews with stars like Martin Short, Chita Rivera, and the late Florence Henderson who all got their breaks in industrials. Young even finds industrials penned and scored by famed composers such as Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof), Stephen Sondheim (Into the Woods), and John Kander and Fred Ebb (Chicago).
The real find of the documentary, however, is the master of the industrial musical composition, Sid Siegel. His musical The Bathrooms are Coming receives a vague reference at the beginning of the doc as Young’s daughters mention the album as evidence of their dad’s quirk, and Whisenant delays the revelation of the music until one can have a full appreciation of its greatness and novelty. The Bathrooms are Coming is a 1969 musical presented by American-Standard that exalts the all-American magic of bathroom fixtures. The songs are deadpan hilarious, but sweetly earnest. Young’s delight in the musical highlights the difficulty of his research as he shows images on the album art: a caveman with a bathroom plunger, a hillbilly with a jug of moonshine, and some go-go girls throwing come hither glances that only lets one speculate about what transpired onstage in these rare performances. Young tracks down a performer from the musical to learn more and, lo and behold, she reveals that she has a 16mm recording of The Bathrooms are Coming. The find is so rare that she might as well have produced Orson Welles’ original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons.
And what enjoyable crap The Bathrooms are Coming is. It’s the best and worst of industrial musicals as Whisenant shows clips of the stars sing about “dreaming and creaming” in the bathroom and croon about the bathroom being “a special kind of place.” Archival finds rarely strikes gold as well as they do in Bathtubs Over Broadway.
The hidden gems of Young and Whisenant’s discoveries reveal far more about show business and Americana besides the mere novelty of the industrial musicals. The documentary evokes the spirit of Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet from Stardom by casting the spotlight on some great talents who found (relative) success by deviating from the conventional path. At the same time, the bizarre greatness of the industrial musicals evokes nostalgia for a bygone era of America values. These musicals hale from a time when companies genuinely cared about their employees.
Making employees feel valued and appreciated really matters and if corporate America needed to make strange self-congratulatory musicals to show people they contributions to the success of the company is meaningful, then so be it. The film tips its hat at a forgotten art, which reminded people that they matter. America might be going down the crapper, but this riotous doc reminds us that, like bathrooms, it can be a special kind of place—and certainly was, way back when.
Bathtubs Over Broadway screens:
-Tues, May 1 at 9:30 PM at Hart House
-Thurs, May 3 at 9:00 PM at TIFF Lightbox
-Sat, May 5 at 3:45 PM at Isabel Bader
Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.