There’s a new documentary on Netflix. It’s called Bathtubs over Broadway and it was written by one of the head writers of the David Letterman Show, Steve Young. The documentary was premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and it has garnered several awards since then. Mr. Young was tasked with discovering unique, oddly funny, recordings for a Letterman segment called “Dave’s Record Collection.” What he unearthed was the hidden world of the industrial musical, a world that has become his obsession for more than a decade.
Industrial musicals were, and still are to some extent, musicals produced by corporations for their salespeople, clients, CEOS, and shareholders to boost morale and increase interest in selling a said product. General Motors, Coca Cola, General Electric, and Westinghouse among many others produced hundreds of industrial musicals between the 1950s and 1980s when new trends in hiring, and employer/employee loyalty signaled a decline in interest. These musicals often had larger budgets than contemporary Broadway shows and were never intended for public consumption. However, LPs were often made and given to corporate staff as souvenirs, and from these albums comes much of what we know about this fascinating subset of Musical Theatre.
In the documentary, stars such as Chita Rivera, Florence Henderson, and Martin Short discuss their time in industrials, alongside notable composer/lyricists like Sheldon Harnick and Sid Siegel. The film features many excerpted videos and recordings of performances from such “notable” musicals as Diesel Dazzle and The Bathtubs are Coming. Mr. Young and co-author, Mike “Sport” Murphy, are credited with writing in 2013 the first history book on the industrial musical called, “Everything’s Coming Up Profits,” upon which the film is based. I don’t own the book…yet.
It’s hard for me to say that the subject matter, the industrial musical, is a particularly important subject upon which to spend too much time and effort. Given the breadth and scope of the history of Theatre, let alone Musical Theatre, the history of the industrial musical is probably deservedly a footnote or a passing mention at best. But with that said, every field of study has fun, crazy, anecdotal fringes that are more than worthy of the attention of a select few devotees. And Steve Young’s passion, here directed and translated to film by Dava Whisenant, is fun, informative, surprising, and at times moving, as we get to know the very talented people who plied their trade in a largely hidden and forgotten theatrical landscape. And if that doesn’t snag you, the movie is only 90 minutes long and features a brand new closing musical sequence featuring many of the stars of the form.
What have you got to lose, but 90 minutes?
Break a leg,
The poster of Bathtubs over Broadway