Anyone who was old enough to legally drink in 2008 will probably know when they hear the name, Lehman Brothers, that it involved the largest corporate bankruptcy filing in U.S. history. The 2022 Tony-Award-winning play, The Lehman Trilogy, written by Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power, which recently opened at Canadian Stage‘s Bluma Appel Theatre, documents the incredible rise of this global investment bank.
The humble beginnings of Lehman Brothers Inc. begin in Montgomery Alabama where Jewish immigrant Henry Lehman opens a general store. Joined by brothers Emanuel and Mayer Lehman, Henry realizes they can buy cotton (harvested by slave labour) from the local plantations and sell it raw to businesses in the north, hence becoming “middle men”. When the Civil War eliminates slavery, the brothers transfer their business operations to New York where they commodify cotton in a new exchange. They also create a coffee exchange and ultimately become members of the board of the new New York Stock Exchange before opening their own bank. Notably absent from the script is the fact that Mayer owned seven slaves – a fact which tarnishes the brilliance of their immigrant success story.
Lehman Brothers Inc. became the fourth largest investment bank in the U.S. until its bankruptcy. What’s interesting is that at the time of its collapse, there were no longer any Lehman family members that were part of the partnership – family members who would have been motivated enough to keep the Lehman Brothers’ legacy going.
“It’s not luck…it’s just strategy.” – Philip Lehman
Lehman Brothers were truly revolutionary in their business strategy. They understood the concept of marketing when it was in its conceptual stages in the mid-20th century and realized that they could target customers who would borrow money and buy products that they didn’t need – what a concept! Their ability to pivot from selling one commodity to another ensured they avoided the pitfall of the 1929 stock market collapse. The brothers (or more correctly, their offspring at this time) also recognized the huge pay-off that investing in WWII equipment would produce and were quick to see the impact that computers would have on business.
It is not only business in which the brothers are persistent. For instance, Emanuel proposes marriage to Pauline Sondheim, whom he has just met. After (not surprisingly) being turned down, he returns to her house to propose at least a dozen and a half times more during which time he builds up emotional and financial capital to impress her father.
Camellia Koo’s brilliant set is comprised of a wall of boxes that acts as a backdrop for the ship crossing the Atlantic, the Alabama general store, the New York investment bank and later, the Stock Exchange. Steve Lucas’s explosive lighting captures the jarring essence of the war.
I enjoyed the creative way in which the story was told – it is basically a three hour narrative (thankfully, there are two intermissions!) interspersed with dialogue: each character takes turns acting as narrator then quickly jumps into his role to deliver dialogue.
All three actors are outstanding! Each plays senior and junior members of the Lehman family. Ben Carlson’s Henry is passionate and driven, but he absolutely shines as Emanuel’s genius son, Philip, whose calculating mind runs circles around those of his uncles. Graeme Somerville brings a forceful energy to his role as Emmanuel while Jordan Pettle is hilarious playing the potential wives being interviewed by Philip.
An extremely entertaining story about the rise of Lehman Brothers Inc., I have to admit that I was looking forward to hearing more of the details of the subprime mortgage debacle, which ultimately sank the company. This monumental event was not even referenced in the last few minutes of the play. Was it because we were all familiar with what happened? Or did the playwright not want to focus on the demise, instead choosing to highlight the illustrious rise of the company built by immigrant brothers and their fulfillment of the American Dream?
The Lehman Trilogy at Canadian Stage Bluma Appel Theatre runs until December 2, 2023. Bluma Appel Theatre is located at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, 416-368-3110. Purchase tickets online at Canadian Stage or in person at the Box Office.
You may be interested in reading, “Crow’s Theatre’s Bad Roads Takes Us to Dark Places: REVIEW“.