Though it may leave you with some ridiculous ditties resounding in your head, “Bathtubs Over Broadway” is a completely enjoyable documentary about “industrial” musicals — big-budget stage productions commissioned by corporations in the postwar decades and staged for company salespeople to motivate them to excel.
Dava Whisenant, cowriting with Ozzy Inguanzo, both explores the quirky industrial-musical universe and profiles one of its devotees in this small but spirited directorial debut opening Friday at the Opera Plaza in The City.
The aficionado, Steve Young, is, when introduced, a mild-mannered, middle-aged longtime comedy writer for the retirement-bound David Letterman. Young learned about industrial musicals when seeking items for Letterman’s “Dave’s Record Collection” segment.
With their silly show tunes touting products ranging from cars to dog chow to plumbing fixtures, the souvenir LP recordings of these musicals, sometimes sold at vintage record stores, delighted the jaded, hard-to-amuse Young.
A bizarre American phenomenon from the 1950s into the 1980s, industrial musicals combined corporate propaganda and upbeat song and dance numbers and might be called the antithesis of Arthur Miller in terms of their salesman material.
They cost more to produce than Broadway shows and attracted top-rate talent. Bob Fosse, Florence Henderson, Martin Short and Susan Stroman are among those who spent pre-fame time in this arena.
Stroman reminisces about a show featuring dancing beer cans.
Immersing himself in the subgenre, and making friends along the way, Young is shown collecting LPs and memorabilia. He tracks down songwriting giants Sid Siegel, at whose memorial service Young later speaks, and Hank Beebe, with whom Young writes the doc’s closing number. The collectors Young visits include San Francisco musician Jello Biafra.
Performer Patt Stanton Gjonola, who decades ago appeared in “The Bathrooms Are Coming,” provides, to Young’s elation, a DVD of the show. Her rendition of the Siegel song “My Bathroom” (“where I wash and where I cream”) is a show-stopper.
Young also has co-written a book on industrial musicals.
“Bathtubs Over Broadway” is a small film, and neither Whisenant nor Young digs deeply into the industrial-musical psyche.
But as Young begins to regard the musicals as more than “unintentionally hilarious” entertainment, he comes to appreciate them as skillful productions made by artists earnest about their craft who view them as legitimate theater, not soulless commercials. His sentiment and affection for them even proves a little contagious.
With attractions such as Johnson & Johnson’s “sunscreen musical,” Ragu’s Verdi-inspired “Raguletto” and tunes about everything from J.C. Penney to silicone to “wheat wheat wheat…,” the doc shapes up as a thoroughly engaging dip into a crater of batty Americana. It also winningly celebrates the beauty of embracing what you love, no matter how nerdy or loopy it may be.
Bathtubs Over Broadway
Starring: Steve Young, Sid Siegel, Hank Beebe, Susan Stroman
Directed by: Dava Whisenant
Written by: Ozzy Inguanzo, Dava Whisenant
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes