Emmys: 'Bathtubs Over Broadway' celebrates hidden world of absurd yet moving 'corporate musicals'
Documentary traces origins to 'Dave's Record Collection' segment on Letterman show
They sang of Xerox machines and Arrow Shirts, Frigidaires and Tupperware.
"Industrial musicals" flourished for decades beginning in the 1950s--Broadway-caliber productions commissioned by a huge variety of companies to motivate employees and introduce new products to staff. They were never meant for public consumption. GE, American Standard, International Harvester, Purina Dog Chow and other corporations sometimes pressed "souvenir" albums of the shows, but they were generally stamped "Not for commercial use" or "Not for broadcast."
Undeterred by those injunctions, Steve Young, a writer for The Late Show with David Letterman, began collecting those recordings and sharing them with Letterman's audience for the host's regular comedy segment "Dave's Record Collection." The documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway, now streaming on Netflix, follows Young down the rabbit hole into the world of corporate musicals, a preoccupation of the writer's that only grew with time. The film directed by Dava Whisenant is in contention for multiple Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program and Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics for two songs from the film.
Nonfictionfilm.com's Matt Carey spoke with Whisenant and Young after a screening of the documentary in Los Angeles hosted by the International Documentary Association.
Explain what the deal was with these corporate musicals.
Dava Whisenant: It was a huge but very hidden world. That kind of heyday of corporate musicals was between the 50s and mid-80s. Huge companies like Ford, McDonald's, to very small companies that made cafeteria steam tables, all these companies were doing musicals for their salesmen and trying to get them motivated to sell the products and to help them deal with the emotional issues that would come up being a salesman. It's a tough gig. So that was a huge thing, too. 'We understand what you're going through and your problems and we want to make you feel good.'
The shows cast salesmen in a heroic light.
DW: It was very much about making them the hero of the story. These weren't commercials, they weren't jingles, they were a full-blown book musical, for the most part... with a storyline, making that salesman and his team feel better about the work that they were doing. Companies were very different then. It was a different America, really. This was pre-globalization, the companies knew they were going to have these people on their team for a long, long time and they were investing in them. So this was part of that at the annual meeting that they would have, they would do these shows and it was like a big reward and people would look forward to it.
As we see in the film, the documentary idea really began as a bit for The Late Show with David Letterman.
Steve Young: The whole origin [was] looking for record albums we could make fun of on the show and the 'Dave's Record Collection' segment, that's the only reason I was out at these thrift shops and used record stores just for stuff we could make a quick joke about and then move on and forget. But then I found stuff that we made a joke about, but I didn't move on. I kept thinking, 'Why is that so good and how did this possibly come to exist? It's so weird.' I just felt like, 'Maybe it's not even for the show anymore' after a while. 'This is for me now. And I'm going to take a notebook and start writing down my notes about people I interview and ask them what this was all about.' And that was like '95, '96. So it was a long time before this really reached the full flowering. But I wasn't thinking that there would be a book or a movie. I just thought, 'Who else can I find, what else can I find?' It just tickles me so much. I just did it for all the pure reasons.
Wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat. Wheat makes your life complete.
The shows tended to have an absurdly upbeat tone.
SY: They were [optimistic] for a long time, although there's interesting subsections of that. Sometimes you see a show from a company that had had a bad year. And they realized that, 'If we're doing a show that's sort of funny but self-deprecating and admitting the mistakes at top management level that can win back some trust from people who are kind of not sure they want to believe us anymore.' So this was very clever psychology to bring everyone together back on the same page after problems. But you also see in the 70s when we start hitting all these rocky patches [in American business] there was more cynicism creeping in--salesmen singing about what's wrong with the idiots up at headquarters who send us the wrong things all the time. You see the ragged edge of certain kinds of optimism unraveling in the later years of this.
We think of David Letterman's humor as being ironic and detached in certain ways. But neither he nor you were out to simply ridicule this musical genre. It's touching when you meet people who performed in the shows and wrote the music.
SY: I found when I would contact writers or performers and say, 'I'm Steve Young,' and if I mentioned that I worked for the Letterman Show there was a little red flag, like, 'Is somebody coming to make fun of me?' And I would have to get past a little of that skepticism and say, 'No, I'm sincerely interested in your work. I think this is fascinating and wonderful. I'm not here to do a hatchet job on you or get a cheap laugh. I want to know what this was for you and how it worked.' Then people kind of loosened up after a while.
In the film we meet Patt Stanton Gjonala who sang "My Bathroom" in the 1969 American Standard show "The Bathrooms Are Coming." The lyrics are hilarious--'My bathroom, my bathroom, is my very special room, where I primp and fuss and groom.'
DW: That song in particular is such a great example of how something can be poignant and absurd at the same time... This movie is the same. It can be poignant and absurd at the same time. These two things can exist together.
The poignancy comes from seeing performers and composers celebrated, after so many decades, for work they never thought wider audiences would see or appreciate. What does it mean to you to have facilitated something so meaningful for the people involved?
SY: It feels like something much more wonderful that I could have imagined when I started, when I thought I was just collecting for myself. Somebody who saw the movie last summer wrote me a letter, 'You thought, at first, that you were looking for people so you could find records. But it turned out you were looking for records so you could find people.' And so many people have felt a late-in-life surprising thrill that their work has been recognized. It was work that by its nature they understood was never going to be in the public eye and they made their peace with that... Now for so many people they don't have to do that anymore because Dava's movie does it better than any of us individually ever could. So I feel like a great piece of work has been done that's a blessing for so many of these people and their families. And I didn't see that coming in the beginning, but I'm very happy to be associated with it.
In the video below, the creative team behind Bathtubs Over Broadway talk with Nonfictionfilm.com at the IDA Awards.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.