“It was supposed to be all thrown away and forgotten, but we played a trick on history and saved it.” So opens the first entry in Stranger Than Fiction’s Fall 2018 Season, Bathtubs Over Broadway. The film immediately introduces us to Steve Young, a self-described ‘comedy-damaged’ writer for the Late Show with David Letterman. Steve realizes he doesn’t have many interests outside his day job, but a new show segment starts him on an unlikely journey. His job for this one particular segment is to find obscure songs from industrial musicals. Yes, you read that correctly… industrial musicals.
Following the rise of musical theater to immense popularity in the 50s and 60s, many large corporations - General Electric, McDonald’s, Ford, DuPont, Xerox, among others - started staging full fledged musical productions at their regional annual sales meetings. This in turn launched the broadway careers of some of the most recognizable names of that era - Chita Rivera, Kander & Ebb, Florence Henderson, and Bob Fosse. Steve, an admitted non-Broadway fan, became transfixed by these recordings, and thought to himself, “I should have them all. I will have them all eventually.” He’s clearly excited, but not just excited about collecting something - he’s experiencing the joy we all have in connecting to the things we hold dear.
What follows is both a hilarious and heartwarming journey of Steve discovering an entire world that he, and admittedly most of America, knew nothing about. As he dug deeper, he found that “these weren’t jingles, these weren’t commercials, these were full fledged broadway shows for an audience.” These musicals included songs about almost anything you can think of - polyester, spark plugs, even pasta. One musical, The Bathrooms Are Coming, contains what Steve describes as the ‘gateway drug’ to this world, the song ‘My Bathroom.’ Steve gushes that it is “perfection on vinyl.” (You can hear it here.) It’s clear to the audience that he’s no longer just a collector, but is entirely consumed by this magical world he’s discovered.
From there, the film follows Steve on his quest to not only track down all these records, but to meet the people inside this world he now loves so much. It begins with the stars of The Bathrooms Are Coming, and in particular, Patty Smith Stanton, who sang ‘My Bathroom.’ She has a surprise waiting for him - her co-star from the show, Sandi Freeman. Steve then embarks to meet the man behind the music and lyrics, Sid Siegel. In one of the film’s more tender moments, Steve belts out a tune while Sid tickles the ivory keys on his piano a few feet away. “He’s my biggest fan,” Sid remarks, while Steve can’t help but grin ear-to-ear, his transformation from collector to colleague finally complete.
In the Q&A following the film, Steve remarked how he truly wasn’t a collector of anything until the collection found him. While he initially discovered industrial musicals for a segment on the Late Show, he knew he was hooked “by the time I had five or six of them, and I actually realized I was looking forward to getting to other record stores to see if I could find other ones.” In another pleasant surprise, Director Dava Whisenant didn’t originally think Steve would be the center of the film, but “he ended up being so strong and so connected to them that there really was no other choice.” Both she and Steve had no idea of the road it would lead them down. Steve remarked in the Q&A, “So much of what happened we had no idea of 2014… we didn’t know at the very beginning that Dave Letterman was going to retire, I didn’t know I was going to go have this magical meeting with Pat, where Sandi would show up, and we were gonna go find Sid and have this wonderful day with Sid… none of that was on anyone’s radar the first day you set up a camera.”
It’s indeed a serendipitous and enjoyable turn of events. While the film begins with a cynical ‘comedy-damaged’ writer looking for his place in the world, at the very end of the film, we’re treated to a truly luscious musical number with all the fantastic characters we’ve met over the previous 70-odd minutes. As Dava remarks in the Q&A, “it’s a complete 180… the least cynical thing you can do is have a touching musical number, like The Muppet Movie.”
Bathtubs Over Broadway is currently making the rounds on the festival circuit and finalizing plans for distribution, but in the meantime, all progress on the film can be followed at www.bathtubsoverbroadway.com.