That far horizon, where distinctions between good and bad cease to matter, and simple joy takes over.
This is how comedy writer Steve Young describes the strange and wonderful land he discovered during his years on the Late Show with David Letterman, where one of his jobs was to find campy vintage albums to be mocked on a segment called Dave’s Record Collection.
In the course of these duties, Young discovered recordings of “industrials” — full-on Broadway musicals (often featuring Broadway talent). They were written to be performed just once at annual corporate events — you might find a song titled “Everything’s Coming Up Citgo,” an opera for Ragu called “Ragu-letto,” or music for dancing Miller Lite cans, doing the cancan.
You see actual footage of these show tunes in the amusing and surprisingly touching documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway, the story of Young’s 20-year quest to curate and venerate this forgotten corner of the musical world. Young starts out as coldhearted satirist. He’s a self-described comedy burnout who had stopped laughing at even funny jokes. He finds something in the so-called industrials that moves and alters him. The musicals are silly, but they are also sincere, well-crafted, and uniquely poignant — designed to be seen just once and forgotten. Musicals that always close on opening night.
Young becomes a fan and ardent collector — bidding against the half dozen other aficionados for rare albums and film. (One is Jello Biafra, former lead singer for the punk group the Dead Kennedys). Most agree the apotheosis of the genre is “The Bathrooms Are Coming,” a 1969 show written for the American Standard Appliance Company, featuring the showstopper “My Bathroom.” (“My bathroom, my bathroom — it’s more than what it seems. My bathroom, my bathroom/ where I wash and where I cream.”) Young’s search for the talent behind the show becomes a touchstone here.
Bathtubs is also the story of how Young, a shy and inward man with few friends outside the show, found himself developing a newfound ability to connect with people. He opens up as he tracks down some of the quiet giants of the genre — Sid Siegel and Hank Beebe — and listens to their stories. Young also consults better-known names — Martin Short, Chita Rivera, composer Sheldon Harnick, director Susan Stroman — who paid the bills with industrials while waiting for Broadway work. (Short can still remember the lyrics for his stage ode to the Chrysler Cordoba, and of course is happy to sing them).
Their stories are charming, and telling. Bathtubs quietly describes a bygone age of prosperity and priorities, when corporations were less ruthlessly efficient, and spent lavishly to entertain and inspire their employees. Beebe notes that in the 1950s, the budget for My Fair Lady was less than $500,000, while the cost of a one-night only GM musical might top $3 million. The talent was well-paid, the employees who saw the shows were often rapt and always appreciative.
The elegiac air that surfaces here and there in Bathtubs blends nicely with Young’s own final days on Late Show, reading his separation papers and wondering how to look for a job in his 50s.
He’s happy, though. A comedy writer cut off from laughter becomes a fellow who can’t stop smiling, making music with his new friends.
Bathtubs Over Broadway
Directed by Dava Whisenant. Featuring Martin Short, David Letterman, Chita Rivera, and Steve Young. Distributed by Focus Features.
Running time: 87 minutes
Parents' guide: PG-13
Playing at: The Ritz at the Bourse.