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Comedy is often spawned by the joining of two elements that have no business going together. If the hilarity of their union is unintentional, it’s all the funnier. Take, for example, the rapping dog that exclaims, “It’s party time!” while aboard the titular doomed vessel in Italian director Camillo Teti’s astoundingly wrongheaded work of animated plagiarism, “Titanic: The Legend Goes On…” Or the flirtatious overtures of Betty Luster’s terrifyingly chipper Peter Pan-like sprite in “Mr. B Natural,” Phil Patton’s half-hour ad for the amusingly named Conn Instruments.
Neither of these uproarious curiosities would’ve seen the light of day had they not been unearthed by the satirists behind “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and their online disciples such as Doug Walker (a.k.a the Nostalgia Critic). They are a special breed of art enthusiast—purveyors of the unloved and unknown, who find value in what shouldn’t have existed in the first place. Though it’s unclear whether Steve Young was born a member of this obsessive group, the “comedy damage” he sustained while writing for more years than anyone on “Late Show with David Letterman” led him to discover a most unlikely passion project.
Documentarian Dava Whisenant’s debut feature, “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” follows Young down the rabbit hole of his insatiable infatuation with industrial musicals, a jaw-dropping oddity confined within the most exclusive of hidden worlds. People not invited to these productions would have zero knowledge of their existence, apart from the times when Letterman would play one of their records, if only to razz it. That’s because these obscenely self-important, exorbitantly expensive spectacles were never meant for commercial use. They were each written for a particular corporation and designed to be performed only once at the company’s national—or, in some cases, regional—sales meeting. The incongruity inherent in talent on the order of future Oscar/Tony/Emmy-winner Bob Fosse choreographing and future Tony-winner Sheldon Harnick writing songs celebrating the functions and revenue of products as generic as Dog Chow and plastic wrap boggles the mind.
So wasteful were these epically mounted corporate back-slaps that their budgets dwarfed those of shows open to the general public. Whereas the premiere run of “My Fair Lady” cost around $400,000, no less than $3 million was spent on a Chevrolet musical around that same time. Though many of these companies settled for mere parodies of classic tunes (“Everything’s Coming Up CITGO” comes to mind), Young favors the shows that actually put forth an effort to come up with original songs. Perhaps the most memorable of them all is Sid Siegel’s “The Bathrooms Are Coming!”, a 1969 filmed musical about American Standard’s “revolution in plumbing fixtures.” Maintaining remarkable deadpan composure, actress SuEllen Estey—dubbed by Patt Stanton Gjonola—gazes at her reflection in a mirror and sings about how her bathroom is “a private kind of place” where “I can cream and dream” while making “faces at my faces.” It’s a schizophrenic domestic rhapsody fit for the family in “Hereditary.”
There’s no question “Bathtubs Over Broadway” could’ve been a much more scathing film, in light of how these corporations made a mockery of an art form, rendering the hard work of its hired visionaries as disposable novelties. Songwriter Hank Beebe recalls the heartache he felt while listening to his own songs from his perch in the crowd, knowing fully well it would be the only time he would hear them with an audience. Yet just as Christopher Guest paid loving homage to the cheesy yet endearing genre of folk music in “A Mighty Wind,” Young, Whisenant and co-writer Ozzy Inguanzo approach their material from an angle of genuine affection. Young’s excitement is infectious when conversing with fellow collectors like Jonathan Ward, who share his appetite for such bizarre titles as the Johnson & Johnson Sunscreen Musical of 1978.
Perhaps the comedy writer can relate to how these artists were forced to churn out songs so fast that they, as he notes, “didn’t have the luxury to asses what they were doing.” He makes a convincing argument that many of these numbers could’ve become bonafide hits, had certain lyrics been swapped for less mundane topics. Thanks to some internet sleuthing, Young managed to locate Siegel at his home in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, before his passing in 2015, and ended up speaking at his memorial service. The filmmakers’ desire to champion the unheralded ingenuity of these talents leads to the film’s emotional highpoint, when Gjonola sings “My Bathroom”—the song she and her husband had chosen to accompany their first dance as man and wife—for an enthused crowd at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. The ovation she receives leaves her feeling not only deeply moved, but acknowledged, a gift all creators should have the opportunity to experience.
In essence, industrial musicals now serve the same purpose as the educational movies screened by the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” crew, not least of all “Mr. B Natural.” Together, they form a portrait of the optimism that had once characterized America, fueled by a thriving middle class reliant on jobs that sustained them for life. Whisenant echoes Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me” by utilizing footage of citizens dressed as spark plugs parading through Flint, Michigan in the era when its General Motors plant supported the surrounding community. Five-time Tony-winner Susan Stroman points out that these corporate shows, however silly, provided reliable employment as well as valuable experience for directors and choreographers starting out in New York City. One sequence she oversaw involved a dance between giant beer cans, and when they accidentally collided into each other, Stroman found the sight so funny that she incorporated it into the choreography. The noble service provided by industrial musicals to instruct managers on how to better treat employees is upheld by Beebe, whose own mother never expressed pride in his work, believing it all to be just “a bunch of commercials.”
With its balance of exuberant humor and rigorous insight, “Bathtubs Over Broadway” provides as stellar an education for the uninformed as Siegel’s “The Bathrooms Are Coming!” If there’s any shortcoming in the movie, it’s that the song excerpts are too fragmented, making viewers yearn to see a whole lot more. Nearly four years after Letterman’s retirement, Young has certainly found a new calling as the foremost historian on industrial musicals, and has already found success with his 2013 book on the subject, Everything’s Coming Up Profits. My honest advice for him would be to turn his attention to Broadway and stage a musical comprised of the best songs from these productions. As evidenced by “Take That Step,” the original number coauthored by Beebe that marvelously concludes this picture, what Young himself lacks in musical ability he more than makes up for in rhythm and sincerity, and that combo can take one a long way indeed.