'Bathtubs Over Broadway': Film Review

Courtesy of Cactus Flower Films / Focus Features
An unexpectedly moving ode to an ignored creative world.
11/30/2018

Dava Whisenant's doc follows a 'Late Show With David Letterman' writer who uncovers a secret world of corporate-promo theatrical productions.

A top-notch "isn't this insane?!" documentary that gradually becomes a heartfelt testament to the value of finding whatever strange thing in life makes you happy, Dava Whisenant's Bathtubs Over Broadway reveals the hidden world of the industrial musical — Broadway-grade original plays made solely for an audience of corporate execs or salesmen. Longtime Late Show With David Letterman writer Steve Young proves an ideal guide to this world, funny but with a mild manner suiting the obscurity of his obsession. Though it will take a bit of explaining to attract viewers' interest, word of mouth should be strong for this lovable directing debut.

Young was a writer on both incarnations of Letterman's nighttime talk show, dating back to the days when it was changing what comedy was all about. Letterman calls him "the last vestige of the heyday of the Late Show writers." At some point, he became responsible for finding the weird or horrible LPs that would be featured in a recurring bit called "Dave's Record Collection." Soon, an obsession was born.

Young started coming across inexplicable soundtracks marked "not for commercial use" — records pressed not for sale but as souvenirs of musical-theater productions that were seen once at a corporate convention and then forgotten. The shows could feature serious talent and bigger budgets than profit-minded Broadway musicals, and Whisenant interviews several now-famous veterans of the scene. Martin Short says "it was a dream job" that paid great and kept actors in swanky hotels; Tony-winner Susan Stroman recalls that "you could [afford to] live in New York on four industrials a year" — and could actually become a better actor by doing them.

As he came across more and more of these records in dusty clearance bins or thrift stores, Young became fascinated with their weird, product-oriented songs, which might revolve around a new line of automobile or the many uses of silicone. First he was excited to discover something he found funny: As a jaded writer of comedy, he no longer laughed at much. But he kind of loved the music, too. It was "at the far horizon, where the usual adjectives of 'good' or 'bad' don't apply," and although Young knew nothing about theater (he had to be told who Kander & Ebb were), he grew to know this world so well he could identify a song's composer just by hearing it.

"I had no hobbies," Young explains. "I barely had any friends outside the show." As Whisenant dives deeper into Young's obsession, it's delightful to see how much larger his life grew. He met fellow obsessives at flea markets and through online auctions. (Ariel Pink drummer Don Bolles is one of a few celebrity collectors.) And eventually, as he decided to write a book about the genre and the documentary project came into being, he started getting to meet some of his heroes.

An additional layer of poignancy emerges as Young begins to prepare for the 2015 end of Letterman's Late Show. Having given so much of his career to the series, Young can identify with the forgotten lifers who worked for Detroit car companies or Lipton Tea, perhaps getting an annual shot in the arm from corporate get-togethers with songs written just for them. Bathtubs Over Broadway grows bittersweet for a stretch here (though not maudlin). In the end, though, Young and Whisenant hatch a finale that is corny and wonderful — a rare chance to watch someone's dream come true, and an exhortation for others to follow their own weird enthusiasms wherever they might lead.

Production company: Cactus Flower Films
Distributor: Focus Features
Director-editor: Dava Whisenant
Screenwriters: Ozzy Inguanzo, Dava Whisenant
Producers: Amanda Spain, Dava Whisenant, Susan Littenberg
Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, David Letterman, Daniel J. Chalfen, Jeremy Gold, Marci Wiseman, Charles Layton, Jason Blum
Directors of photography: Natalie Kingston, Nick Higgins
Composer: Anthony DiLorenzo

Rated PG-13, 86 minutes