Stars: Steve Young, David Letterman, Martin Short, Chita Rivera, Florence Henderson, Susan Stroman, Sheldon Harnick, Jello Biafra, Hank Beebe
Writers: Dava Whisenant & Ozzy Inguanzo
Director: Dava Whisenant
Distributor: Focus World
Release Date: November 30, 2018
BATHTUBS OVER BROADWAY is a documentary that delves into a world most people don’t know about: big-budget musical stage productions commissioned by corporations to sell everything from bathrooms to Buicks. While these shows have costumes, orchestras, sets, special effects and sometimes even name stars – Martin Short, Chita Rivera and Florence Henderson are among those on the record here – they are not open to the public. They are strictly for the company executives and employees, usually one-night-only affairs, a booster shot of morale and information about their products.
To be completely accurate, while BATHTUBS OVER BROADWAY examines the aforementioned productions, the film is actually as much or more about the quest of Steve Young to find out as much as he can about “industrial musicals.” Young, who spent most of his professional life as a writer on LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, is our narrator, guide and focal point here. Although Dava Whisenant & Ozzy Inguanzo are credited with writing here, with Whisenant directing, we’re looking at things from Young’s point of view. Young tells us that he’s never been a fan of Broadway musicals. However, as part of his job on the Letterman show, he finds odd song clips that can be played on air. When Young finds his first “not for commercial use” LP recording of an industrial musical, he is charmed and delighted. Soon he is seeking out and collecting every remnant he can find of this form: film clips, videotapes, audio recordings, even sheet music and program booklets. Young then arranges to meet people who worked on the industrials, including performers, songwriters, and five-time Tony-winning director Susan Stroman, who cut her teeth choreographing these shows. These individuals range from highly recognizable to unknown, but all seem happy to talk about the good old days and what they felt the industrials accomplished.
BATHTUBS OVER BROADWAY certainly provides insight into an unfamiliar corner of showbiz, but because it spends so much time with Young, we don’t get some specifics that might be of interest, like whether anyone’s sense of absurdity got in the way of the work, how the shows differed from making conventional commercials, how scripts for these musicals were worked out, more sense of how product executives worked with the show creators, and so on.
By the same token, since the film is so much in Young’s head, we are asked to accept, rather than empathize with, his passion for this particular subgenre. People who are familiar with fandom (any fandom) can recognize what Young is doing. However, this enthusiasm creates a bit of repetition, as we see maybe a few more pieces of memorabilia than are necessary to get the point across.
There are strong hints as to why Young is getting more and more invested in his investigation, as LATE NIGHT AT LETTERMAN starts to wind down. There is a personal arc, and it’s ultimately an uplifting one. It’s easy to wish BATHTUBS OVER BROADWAY asked a few more questions and moved a bit more briskly, as well as acknowledging its twinned subject matter. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue with anything that helps someone relate better to their fellow humans, and that’s what comes across most powerfully by the end.
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