Comedy writer Steve Young discovered corporate musicals while gathering obscure albums for The Letterman Show’s “Dave’s Record Collection” comedy skit. His passion for the obscure tunes grew from there, and he even co-wrote a book about his affinity for the corporate musical.
Years later, Young has become the world’s authority on shows created from the ’50s to the ’80s for company conventions and sales meetings. Dava Whisenant’s award-winning documentary, Bathtubs Over Broadway, chronicles Young’s journey. Steve Young has developed a live show that he’ll bring to the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 9.
In this recent phone call from his New York home, where he was busy booking more live shows, including one for February of next year that’ll require dancers and singers, Young speaks about his passion for the odd musicals.
When you started collecting corporate musical albums, did you ever think it would become a life-long passion?
It started from such humble beginnings with The Letterman Show’s record collection bit that I was gathering the raw materials for. By the time that I had three or four of these things, I wondered how many there could possibly be. They were such unicorns. Now, I have hundreds of them. I didn’t know anything about musical theater, but I thought some of them were high quality, and the conceptual comedy of that existing was real and so off-the-grid of improbable. I love the fact that we were never supposed to hear these things. I thought, “Get out of my way.” Now that I’m told that they’re not for me, I thought I would find all of them.
What did Dave Letterman think of it all?
In the early days when it was just the occasional element in the show, he didn’t think anything of it. he just thought it was weird. It was in about 2013 when the book [Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals] came out that he realized that I had gone pretty far with unraveling this thread of history. I think he takes great pleasure in it now and seeing this curiosity go further and further. I wasn’t trying to suck up to him, but I needed to keep going with this because I was curious, and he loved it.
How did Dava Whisenant find out about you for her documentary film?
She and I met when she was an editor on The Letterman Show. She had moved to L.A. and was working on films and documentaries. When I told her I was getting inquiries from documentary filmmakers after the book came out, I asked her to help me judge the people and their work. The people I showed her weren’t the right match, and she said that if there was going to be a documentary about this, she wanted to do it. I said, “You got the job.” I didn’t want to even dare ask her. That was the beginning of it. She saw something there, and it grew to be even bigger than she imagined. It turned into a much broader and grander story about how people ask questions about what they’ve done with their lives and their careers. How do you connect with one another in a cynical world? Can it be art if it was commissioned by a toilet manufacturer?
What was it like to be the star of her film, Bathtubs Over Broadway?
It was a little strange because I had spent all these years being anonymous in the back room. But I had spent all these years sharpening my voice. Now, I found the perfect thing I wanted to talk about. I was so confident in Dava and that gave me the confidence to go through all these shoots and say all the stuff I wanted to say. It was a better situation than most documentary subjects have when they’re not sure how it’s going to go.
I think you wrote a couple of your own songs and they’re in the film. What’s the story there?
I had been getting into songwriting in the later years of my Letterman tenure. I would occasionally get little jingles on the show. I was a pretty fair guitar player. I found that songwriting was an excellent extension of what I did with my Letterman Show creative muscles. When Dava said that we should have some original songs for the opening and closing numbers, I said I would love to do that. It was a long, tricky road to get it the way she thought it should be, but I loved the process and that kicked off an ongoing round of songwriting. I’ve accumulated a backlog of material, and I have some recordings I made in Nashville now. I’m working on some music videos. That’s going to be one of the next chapters that comes out now – my songwriting world.
When did you come up with the idea for the live show?
The first one was early 2014. The book had just come out, and I had the great fortune to acquire/be loaned some amazing vintage film that nobody else had. I thought it was mind-blowingly weird and funny and I couldn’t wait to show people. I started doing little versions around New York City. [Movie producer] Nick Pruher is a friend and he does the Found Footage Festival, and he showed me some theaters I could contact. I put my toe in the water and suddenly I was in Chicago and Boston and Austin and all these places. I loved it. Sure enough, audiences just could not believe what they were seeing. I thought I could go a long time before I saturated the market, and I keep finding amazing new things. Some dynamite new material comes my way occasionally, and I love people watching this stuff for the first time and shaking their heads because they can’t believe it’s real.
These songs are all so sincere and upbeat. It must be a feel-good kind of show.
A lot of the elements of an industrial show are the cheer-leading about how it’s going to be a great year and the new products and marketing plans. Some of them acknowledge problems at the company. That is another part that got interesting for me. There are organizational questions about how much companies inspire people and get people to believe in the mission of the organization. Sometimes, the executives admit they screwed up, but I think it’s brilliant to do it through a song rather than with a boring speech. As much as the post-war years were economically on the rise, there is always the human drama about the overworked McDonald’s manager or the diesel engine salesman who feels like the world doesn’t care about what he does or sells. Shows that address that are interesting to me too.
Have you been to Cleveland in the past?
I have been to Cleveland only once in Spring of 2022 for the Cleveland International Film Festival. I’m looking forward to coming to the Cinematheque. Here is a bonus element. Dava and I made two short comedy films that were in the film festival, and John Ewing at the Cinematheque said he wanted to show those so we have a curtain raiser bonus element of two short comedy films that I wrote and acted in.
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