Dava Whisenant’s documentary, “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” offers a glimpse into a world few are aware of: industrial musicals — Broadway-style productions similar to Broadway shows except that they promote products like bathtub fixtures, surgical supplies, and John Deere tractors. They were performed exclusively for company members, sometimes recorded or filmed, then forgotten.
Steve Young, a writer for David Letterman and our guide to this world, observes that “This stuff is bizarre and hilarious. But those are just the beginning layers.” The deeper layers delve into the limitations of irony, and how a jaded, ironic point of view can turn into its opposite, an earnest ingenuousness.
After working for a couple of decades writing jokes for Letterman, Young confesses that he had succumbed to “comedy damage.” “Many receptors of my brain that would allow me to enjoy comedy like civilians had burned out,” he laments. Years of making fun of stuff had numbed not just his ability to take things seriously but the desire to laugh.
He didn’t realize how badly this had affected him until he was relegated to searching secondhand shops for albums to be used in the segment “Dave’s Record Collection,” a sketch that featured kitschy, unintentionally funny recordings like “William Shatner Live” and “Speech Training for Birds,” which Dave would play and mock. In the course of this assignment Young came across recordings of industrial musicals like “My Insurance Man” and “The Bathrooms Are Coming.” They seemed dumb, but somehow he found himself repeatedly listening to them at home — and singing along.
These weren’t schlocky amateur efforts, he learns, but expensive (in the 1950s one show cost $3 million to make, almost six times as much as the Broadway production of “My Fair Lady”), well-written extravaganzas that featured talented artists. Impressed, Young became an obsessive collector of these records, hunting for them in stores and on eBay, and connecting with other unlikely collectors, such as punk rockers Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys and Don Bolles of the Germs.
Moreover, some of the people performing in these shows were not unknowns, but included stars like Martin Short, the late Florence Henderson, and Chita Rivera — whom he visits and who fondly remember these gigs as fun and a financial boon in hard times. The songwriters, choreographers, and directors were no slouches either, but featured luminaries like Sheldon Harnick, of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and John Kander and Fred Ebb, of “Cabaret.”
More significant, he discovers that the more obscure contributors were stars in their own right. Like Hank Beebe, the man behind the toe-tapper “Diesel Dazzle” and with whom Young collaborates on a stunning, head-scratcher of a production number that closes out the film. Or the multi-threat Michael Brown, who wrote, directed, and starred in numerous productions, including one for J.C. Penney, in which he plays a young Mr. Penney outside his first store singing anxiously as he waits for customers to show up.
It could be a scene from “Oklahoma!” or “The Music Man.” Or maybe “Red, White and Blaine” from Christopher Guest’s satire “Waiting for Guffman” (1996).
Young would opt for the former. Realizing he has stumbled on hidden treasures, he sheds his cynicism. He tracks down these forgotten legends to tell them how much he appreciates them and ends up writing a book about them.
Has he lost the sensibility that appreciates the silliness of songs like “22 Slices of Bread” or production numbers featuring dancing spark plugs and beer cans? Is irony dead? Perhaps it has just taken on its other guise, sentimentality.
BATHTUBS OVER BROADWAY
Directed by Dava Whisenant. Written by Whisenant and Ozzy Inguanzo. Starring David Letterman, Chita Rivera, Martin Short, Florence Henderson, Susan Stroman, and Jello Biafra. At Brattle Theatre . 87 minutes. PG-13 (brief language).Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.