There was a time when trilogies were relatively common, particularly in musicals, even if they didn’t use the term ‘trilogy’ back then. Prior to the 1920s, three-act musicals were relatively commonplace, until such time as multiple sets within each act started to become the norm. The 1950s Sandy Wilson musical The Boy Friend had three acts, but it’s unusual these days. That said, the story of Lehman Brothers is indeed unusual, a business that began from humble beginnings in 1850 until it went bankrupt on 15 September 2008, in what remains the largest bankruptcy filing in the history of the United States, and possibly the history of the world.
The story itself begins in 1844, when Hayum Lehmann emigrated to the United States from Bavaria: given the references to how things used to be back at home, as opposed to the American way of life, the story goes back even further. Lehmann became Henry Lehman – as the play would have it, the Americans couldn’t get their heads around ‘Hayum’ so it was almost inevitable that his name would be Anglicised (or rather Americanised), and it was far from the only change in what became a relatively brief life.
It may not have that much to say about the 2008 bankruptcy, but that is an event well within living memory in any event, and speaking to other members of the audience in both intervals, many of us did not know about the events in the history of Lehman Brothers that were given more time and consideration. Nigel Lindsay, Michael Balogun and Hadley Fraser begin as Henry (1822-1855), Emanuel (1827-1907) and Mayer (1830-1897) Lehman respectively but over the course of three and a half hours also play the parts of their descendants, trading partners, religious leaders, clients and so on. A certain frame of mind is required to fully appreciate the production for the whirlwind that it is: it’s focused and it’s detailed, and it isn’t the sort of show to be enjoyed by sitting back and letting proceedings wash over you.
Switching between different characters works remarkably well, by actors modulating their voices and mannerisms, without bothering with costume changes. Certain phrases are almost poetically repeated for emphasis – one, about successive generations of Lehmans having to take their leave because there were other people and business matters to attend to, was something of a metaphor for the business itself, frantically rushing here and there, always chasing various markets and opportunities. Lehman Brothers did not, of course, become a wealthy investment bank by having its directors working regular hours. A case in point occurred in the aftermath of the Great Depression: Robert ‘Bobbie’ Lehman’s (1891-1969) first marriage ended in divorce in 1931, such was the price for working night and day to keep the business afloat.
The set remains constant, with the stage’s revolve kept busy (with the turning of the years and the changing of the seasons, y’see). It’s supplemented with still and moving video projections – anything from nineteenth-century Montgomery, Alabama to twenty-first-century New York. Yshani Perinpanayagam is at a piano, and the music more often than not contributes to an atmosphere that becomes increasingly aggressive. “Buy! Buy! Buy!” is the key message of one boardroom discussion, the details of which are essentially about providing the market conditions for modern-day consumerism. Were company meetings at Lehman Brothers really as invigorating as portrayed in this production? I’ve no idea, but the show is highly convincing in many respects.
Direct addresses to the audience do much to maintain interest, and while there’s a lot to take in, the production strikes a good balance in dramatizing the family’s personal and professional lives. Telling it like it is, it doesn’t sugarcoat the darker aspects of the firm’s foundations, or how it continued to ruthlessly exploit people with every passing generation. Negative opinions of big business are unlikely to change as a result of seeing this show – if anything, they will only be strengthened – but that is all the more reason to take the time to see this tour de force.
On a cold September morning in 1844, a young man from Bavaria stands on a New York Dockside dreaming of a new life in the new world. He is joined by his two brothers, and an American epic begins.
163 years later, the firm they establish – Lehman Brothers – spectacularly collapses into bankruptcy, triggering the largest financial crisis in history.
Gillian Lynne Theatre
166 Drury Lane, London WC2B 5PW
Booking To 20th May 2023