In the 2018 documentary, a comedy writer for David Letterman finds an unexpected connection to his fellow man when he unearths the secret world of industrial musicals—bizarre Broadway-style shows about some of the most recognizable corporations in America. It’s a delightful and wonderful look into this world of never-before-seen or heard musicals. And while we all know the popular ones – Rent, Wicked, Hamilton, Phantom and the list goes on, this is a fine look at unearths many treasures.
I had a brief catch up with director/Producer/Writer/Editor Dava Whisenant. Read our chat below and catch Bathtubs over Broadway on Netflix!
What inspired Bathtubs over Broadway?
Steve Young (the subject of Bathtubs Over Broadway) was my inspiration, for several reasons. Steve has a gift for finding hidden value in what others have overlooked or discarded, and that’s an essential part of what our story is about. He was a writer for David Letterman, trying to find inadvertently funny records for a segment on the Late Show, and he accidentally stumbled onto these crazy corporate musical albums. I loved that he started out very cynically, making fun of this material but gradually came to realize that there was a lot more going on – that the music was beautifully crafted, and that there was a huge hidden world here that deserved a second look. Steve didn’t know if anyone else would ever care about this music but he kept digging anyway, hoping that one day people would see what he saw. I found that inspiring, and of course now we do see how right he was to save this material.
I was also incredibly inspired by Steve’s personal connections with the people who made these musicals. He went out to find these folks and hear their stories – many of these people were wonderful artists who thought no one would ever know or care about this work they’d done. Steve formed friendships with so many of them and came to care about them very deeply. That’s what the emotional core of the film is all about.
This is a story about unexpected connections, what were some influences for this storytelling?
Yes! In the 4 years, we were filming, so many things happened that we didn’t expect. The film really started to take on a magical life of its own when Steve discovered that one of the composers he’d been searching for for years was still alive, and he went to meet him. That trip to Chicago altered the course of the movie. Also, very early into filming, Letterman announced his retirement, and this really changed the story, because suddenly Steve was faced with losing the only job he’d had for 25 years. Gradually we realized that we had a beautiful parallel narrative on our hands, charting the rise and fall of this huge, hidden musical world and the very personal story that was developing with Steve and the creators of these musicals. Steve’s openness to letting us explore the personal part of the story was very inspiring.
How did Blumhouse get involved?
After a scrappy first couple of years making the film on our own, the project was accepted into the Sundance Creative Producing Lab, and that’s what turned things around for us. We were introduced to Dan Cogan and Jenny Raskin at Impact Partners, and they introduced us to the team at Blumhouse. Both companies saw what I was trying to do with this film — that there was much more to the story than the kitsch-factor of the musicals — and they decided to team up to finance the film. It was a wonderful experience for me as a filmmaker because they gave me complete freedom to make the film I wanted to make.
Anthony DiLorenzo did the music. It’s all original music, if I’m not mistaken. Talk about the music in Bathtubs?
We are very proud of the original music in this film. Anthony DiLorenzo composed the score, and we recorded it with an orchestra in Seattle. I had worked with Anthony on an earlier film and knew that he would really be our secret weapon on this movie. I wanted something that would stand out from contemporary documentary scores through its use of melodic themes and a throwback style reminiscent of Henry Mancini and Marvin Hamlisch, and Tony is so gifted in this area – he can basically do this kind of thing in his sleep. We also created some wonderful original songs for the film. The lyrics for the original opening song (“It’ll Change Your Life”) were written by our main character Steve Young. The finale (“Take That Step”) is an original musical number, performed by members of the cast and written by 92-year composer Hank Beebe (one of the featured composers in the film) as well as Anthony DiLorenzo, with lyrics by Steve Young.
The archival source music itself was also a huge influence on the film. The vintage style, the quality…but it was also fascinating to me that these songs, which were never meant for the public and which had very specific lyrics about selling tractors & insurance, could also be used to tell Steve’s story. That was very exciting for the writer/editor in me. And it certainly speaks to the talents of the original songwriters that their work stands up so beautifully and could transcend its original purpose to tell this very human story.
There is a lot of never-before-seen footage. Can you tell us about finding some of those clips?
Yes! Finding archival footage of the corporate musicals was one of the greatest joys of making this film. I loved listening to the albums and hearing people’s stories about this world, but seeing the shows themselves, seeing the way they were staged…that was so crucial. And we were lucky to find this footage! Generally, the companies didn’t save any of it, especially from the 1950s-60s (the earlier shows were rarely filmed at all). Most of what we found came from people who created or performed in the shows. We would get a call from Steve that someone he’d recently connected with had found some stuff in their basement or garage, and wham! suddenly we’ve got an extremely rare 16mm film print of American Standard’s 1969 plumbing musical “The Bathrooms Are Coming” or the only known copy of Ragu Foods’ “Raguletto.” We also got lucky and found films on Ebay and in the Library of Congress despite some very vague labeling. One of our holy grail items we thought we’d never find was a film of the legendary yearly fabric company musical known as the “Milliken Breakfast Show” — we finally found one copy in the Library of Congress labeled only as “polyester fabric show” — and it featured Chita Rivera! We completely freaked out. Discovering an archival footage gold mine is one of my very favorite things about making documentaries. And it’s so fun to watch an audience experiencing the clips for the first time as well. I live for these moments.