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'Bathtubs Over Broadway' Takes a Look at Unknown Industrial Musicals

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Longtime David Letterman writer Steve Young explores the hidden world of industrial musicals in Bathtubs Over Broadway, a fascinating documentary that screens at 9:20 p.m. Saturday and 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque.

The film commences with an animated sequence featuring a giddy tune that sounds like a number in a Broadway musical. Then it cuts to interviews with people who know Young from his work on Letterman. We see the dry-witted Young sitting at his desk working on a "monologue enhancement," and we watch him writing funny fake names for headshots while working backstage in the Letterman offices.

Letterman describes Young as the "last vestige" of late-night TV show writers, and an old Letterman segment called "Dave's Record Collection" helps us draw the connection between Young's work on the show and his interest in obscure Broadway-style musicals that were only seen by company employees and their spouses at sales meetings and work-related gatherings.

During the postwar era, some of America's biggest corporations (think GE, GM, Xerox) produced these lavish productions. Professionally cast and staged, they boasted original songs by people like Fiddler on the Roof's Sheldon Harnick and featured songs like "The Bathrooms Are Coming" and "Diesel Dazzle" as they represented the optimism that ran rampant during the postwar boom. 

The output of these musicals really escalated in the 1960s. "I didn't know much about musicals, but I knew this wasn't supposed to be it," Young says at one point while confessing that he often spends the day singing one of the jingle-like songs. Clips from musicals for Ragu and Purina show just how cheesy the productions were.

The film follows Young as he visits hole-in-the-wall record stores in search of the soundtracks, often leaving behind his business card when he doesn't find anything to his liking. His obsession reaches another level when he begins contacting people who had been in the shows to see if they still have records or videotapes from their performances. 

The affable Young explains that many of the records in his collection are the only known copies, and the film provides a great documentation of his collection while including some very funny interviews with a wide range of people (including punk icon Jello Biafra) who share his obsession.

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