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‘The story of this family is the story of American capitalism’: Broadway’s ‘Lehman Trilogy’ tells of financial success and failure

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Charles Passy

Broadway’s hit show of the moment isn’t a star vehicle for a legendary actor or a flashy musical with song-and-dance numbers galore.

Instead, it’s a three-hour play that challenges us with a basic question: Is capitalism inherently evil?

“The Lehman Trilogy,” a drama by the Italian author Stefano Massini that has been adapted by British playwright Ben Power, opened on Broadway to mostly glowing reviews — The New York Times called it “a vivid tale of profit and pain” — earlier this month. As its name implies, it tells the story of the Lehman family and the Lehman Brothers firm, which rose from being a humble merchant of goods in Alabama to one of the most prominent investment banks in the U.S. That is, until it collapsed in 2008 as part of the financial crisis brought on by the subprime meltdown.

The play does all this by relying almost entirely on three actors — Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester in the Broadway production. The trio play the founding brothers (Henry, Mayer and Emanuel Lehman), who came from Bavaria to America in the mid-19 Century to embark on their entrepreneurial odyssey. But the actors take on many other roles, from the Lehman family members of later generations (including wives and children) to the non-family members who eventually took over the firm’s leadership.

It’s woven together through the sweeping direction of Sam Mendes, who is perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated work in film (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “1917,” “Revolutionary Road,” “Skyfall,” etc.) Yet another key aspect to the show is its abstract staging: The actors move around within a glass cube of sorts and the various settings, from the Alabama store where the Lehmans got their start in America to the streets of New York, are implied.

MarketWatch spoke this week with Ben Power to get his thoughts on the play and what it says. Here are some excerpts:

On whether “The Lehman Trilogy” is a play about family or a play about capitalism: “It’s both. The story of this family is the story of American capitalism,” says Power. He points to how the family’s tale weaves in key moments in U.S. economic history — the booming farming industry (particularly cotton) in the pre-Civil War South, the rise of New York as the “economic center of the world,” the stock-market crash of 1929 (and the recovery) and, finally, “the cataclysm of 2008.”

On how the concept of money changes as the Lehman family becomes wealthier: Power notes that at the beginning of the Lehman story, the brothers sell tangible goods related to cotton. But within due time, they shift to becoming cotton brokers. A critical moment in the drama, Power says, is when Emanuel observes that people are trading cotton in New York without the actual object being in the room. From there, it’s a short leap to the Lehmans moving into other goods and then into the investment and trading worlds. In effect, money becomes something you can no longer see or touch — and it’s this movement from the real to the abstract that is “the story of capitalism,” Power says.

On what results from this abstraction: The harder it becomes to understand what money is and how it works, Power says, the easier it becomes for financial systems to run amok, especially in an effort to avoid government regulation. Hence, the 2008 meltdown, which resulted in Lehman’s demise. “The systems have been made (overly) complex…and when it starts to collapse, you can’t avoid it collapsing,” says Power.

On whether the play condemns capitalism: Power says “The Lehman Trilogy” doesn’t take a position as such. It’s “not trying to articulate a firm argument. It’s saying this is the story of what happened,” he says. Capitalism is presented as both a “force for good,” Power adds — there’s something to be said for what the family achieves in so short a time — and yet clearly, “there are moments when it goes wrong.” In a way, the issues with capitalism are there all along: The Lehmans built their Alabama business around the cotton trade, which was inextricably tied to slavery. The drama doesn’t go into great depth on that point — “The play can’t do everything,” Power says in defense — but he notes that it’s still part of the Lehman story.

And how the Lehman story continues to this day — in a sense: While the Lehman firm is no more, the financial world remains a complex and, yes, abstract one, Power notes. Think the rise of meme stocks. Or the advent of cryptocurrency. Of the latter in relation to the Lehman story, Power says: “Cryptocurrency just feels familiar, does it not?…It’s the same kind of gold rush into a thing which is not understood by many people.”

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