The song “My Bathroom” from 1969 never made it onto the Billboard charts. But that doesn’t mean this ode to the commode—with lyrics like “My bathroom, my bathroom, is my very special room, where I primp and fuss and groom”—isn’t worthy of deeper appreciation.
That’s the guiding spirit of Bathtubs Over Broadway, the documentary directed by Dava Whisenant that explores the “golden age” of industrial musicals when companies great and small commissioned Broadway-style shows to celebrate their products and motivate sales staff.
“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,” Whisenant tells Deadline. “These weren’t commercials, they weren’t jingles, they were a full-blown book musical…with a storyline, making that salesman and his team feel better about the work they were doing.”
Bathtubs Over Broadway, from Blumhouse Television, earned a theatrical release last year and is now streaming on Netflix. It’s currently in contention for Emmy nominations and earlier this year won the Writers Guild Award for Documentary Screenplay, an honor shared by Whisenant and co-writer and producer Ozzy Inguanzo.
The musicals uncovered in the documentary—like The Bathrooms Are Coming for plumbing fixtures company American Standard that included the “My Bathroom” number—were private performances never meant to be seen by the wider public. They probably would have remained in utter obscurity if not for Steve Young, a longtime writer for The Late Show with David Letterman, who stumbled across “souvenir recordings” of the shows while digging for potential comedy bits.
“The whole origin of looking for record albums we could make fun of on the [Letterman] 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 looking for stuff we could make a quick joke about and then move on and forget,” Young explains. “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.’”
Among the oddities that made it onto Letterman’s show was the upbeat “Wheat” song created for the Canadian Grain Industry (“Wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat. Wheat makes your life complete”) and a tune for Continental Insurance called “My Insurance Man” (“My insurance man…who serves all coverage needs, that’s why he succeeds”).
Young became so absorbed with these hidden gems of Americana that he began seriously researching them. He discovered some major talents took part in corporate musicals, from composers to choreographers and performers, many relying on the shows as a vital source of income.
“Florence Henderson was so proud of her industrial shows for Oldsmobile and said they stood up to any Broadway shows she had done. Martin Short did them when he was getting his start. Chita Rivera was doing them. Bob Fosse, he did Oldsmobile stuff, because the budgets were amazing,” Whisenant notes. “[John] Kander and [Fred] Ebb, they did them. Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock. These guys are doing Cabaret and Fiddler on the Roof and then [industrial musicals].”
Whisenant, who worked as an editor on The Late Show with David Letterman, joined forces with Young to document his explorations into the “sub-sub-genre” of music and his growing affection for its practitioners. They conducted interviews with Harnick (now age 95), Short, Rivera, Henderson before her death in 2016, and many others who never rose to that level of fame. Bathtubs Over Broadway takes on an unexpectedly emotional dimension as Young interviews singers like Patt Stanton Gjonola and Sandi Freeman and composer Hank Beebe who never anticipated what they did would attract notice.
“It was work that by its nature they understood was never going to be in the public eye and they had made their peace with that,” Young notes. “So many people have felt a late-in-life surprising thrill that their work has been recognized.”
At a screening of Bathtubs Over Broadway hosted by the International Documentary Association in Los Angeles Thursday night, there were plenty of laughs among the audience— and some snuffling.
“First of all, it grabs you with a crazy subject that people have never heard of,” Whisenant comments. “It’s about a comedy writer. It’s a fun documentary, but then it also has a lot of heart that people kind of aren’t expecting…It is extremely gratifying that people are getting what we intended, to have people crying and laughing.”
Producer Amanda Spain echoes that opinion.
“People are literally sending us emails and calling us, saying, ‘Oh my god, this movie made me feel so much,’” she says. “And that’s exactly the point of the film—it was to make you laugh and to make you feel closer to your fellow human beings.”