“I don’t know whether this is real … or if this has been some wonderful dream!” That fevered confusion is sung with enthusiasm by a Wal-Mart employee in a fairly recent example of the industrial musical, the subject of a delightful documentary that I first saw during AFIDocs. Director Dava Whisenant follows comedy writer-record collector Steve Young along for an obsession that began as a joke and became much more.
Although the term may suggest a tap-dancing number scored by Throbbing Gristle, industrial musicals are in fact a by-product of peak capitalism, big-budget song-and-dance productions commissioned by such giants of industry as Ford and General Electric, or by smaller, less glamorous outfits that manufacture, say, paper hospital supplies.
Young, a self-proclaimed “cynical comedy writer,” first took this stuff as a joke. How else would you respond to something like The Bathrooms are Coming!, American Standard’s musical survey of the season’s new fixtures, with lyrics celebrating a room, “That’s much more than it may seem/ Where I wash and where I cream”?
Industrial musicals became a major part of “Dave’s Record Collection,” a recurring bit on the comedian’s late night TV show (Letterman appears here, post-retirement but pre-beard). Young became more obsessed with this corporate subgenre, its music produced for annual conferences or sales meetings and, as he explains, never meant to be heard by the ordinary consumer. As his obsession grew, he began to track down the people behind the music, becoming their champion and their friend. The movie plays like a thriller, with quests and surprises and personal revelations meted out for full dramatic or comic effect.
Like no other movie, Bathtubs Over Broadway shows you the magic of record collecting, and the connections that the dedicated enthusiast begins to make as they dig deeper into the music’s history.
Industrial musicals starred such familiar names as Florence Henderson and Martin Short. Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, the men behind a Ford tractors musical, also wrote Fiddler on the Roof. Although the shows were made for a limited audience, no expense was spared; one Chevrolet musical had a $3 million budget, as compared to the mere $446 thousand that went into a contemporary staging of My Fair Lady.
Yet other composers, like Sid Siegel, toiled in obscurity, making a living in the scene but never breaking out of it. Young laments this injustice, admiring, “melodies so primal and durable that you wonder if with different lyrics … would everyone in America know this man and his work right now.”
As industry declined, so did industrial musicals; time moved on, the nation changed, David Letterman retired; as hilarious and dazzling as its excerpts can be, this is a finally somber movie about a changing America and the passage of time, marking the end of an era whose like we will never see again.
Quest documentaries that put a seeker in the story can be self-serving, but Whisenant leads us on the quest with all its sense of excited discovery. You might expect a man who was long employed by the nation’s senior wise-cracking comic to be smug about such things, but Young is humbled and awed by this material, and is determined to preserve it and share his passion with the world: “It was supposed to be all thrown away and forgotten, But we played a trick on history and we saved it.”
(Disclosure: Young visits the Library of Congress, where I work, as part of his quest–in fact, he walks into my old office! I was not involved with the making of this film, though I’d love to get a look at the material he dug up in the collection.)
Opens today in Washington, D.C. at Landmark West End Cinema.