Playwright Ben Power talks about The Lehman Trilogy : The Indicator from Planet Money Just before Broadway shut down, team Indicator saw The Lehman Trilogy, about the origin of Lehman Brothers. We talk with playwright Ben Power about the firm, the family and the consolation of history.
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The Lehman Trilogy

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The Lehman Trilogy

The Lehman Trilogy

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

So Cardiff, the Tony nominations happened this week.

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Yes.

VANEK SMITH: It was a really big night for "Jagged Little Pill" and "Slave Play."

GARCIA: Yeah. And, you know, it has been a devastating year for Broadway.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah.

GARCIA: Broadway was shut down in mid-March, and it won't reopen until next summer at the earliest. And, in fact, Stacey, you and I and THE INDICATOR team went to a play three days before they shut down Broadway.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, we did. We went to see a musical called "The Lehman Trilogy." It was very on brand. It was about Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that famously collapsed in 2008 and ended up being kind of the canary in the coal mine of the whole financial crisis. And it was just - it was a really fun night. I mean, the play was spectacular. We loved it. The pandemic at that time, like, there was news about it, but it seemed very far away. I mean, we were kind of, like, joking about COVID. We shared Purell with the...

GARCIA: Yeah, I remember (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: ...People sitting next to us. Do you remember the lady lent us her watermelon-flavored Purell?

GARCIA: Yeah, we felt so responsible.

VANEK SMITH: We did, too. We're like, look at us using Purell, sitting, like, shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of people.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: We bought souvenir cups. Do you remember Anderson Cooper? We saw Anderson Cooper.

GARCIA: That's right.

VANEK SMITH: We think it was him.

GARCIA: No, I'm pretty sure it was him.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: And it was also just one of the last times that the team was all together. And the next day, the playwright Ben Power came to NPR offices to speak with us, just a couple of blocks away from Broadway.

VANEK SMITH: And I've been thinking about that interview so much recently, so much in all the months, actually, since we talked. I mean, the themes of that play seem almost more relevant now than they did when we first saw the play. It was, like, this last normal moment for Broadway, for us as a team, for the country. I mean, we just - we had no idea what was coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. Today on the show, we are going to play that conversation with Ben Power, the playwright of "The Lehman Trilogy."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: Ben Power, playwright for "The Lehman Trilogy," thank you so much for joining me. So this play is based on a book, an Italian book. How did this play come about?

BEN POWER: About four years ago, the director Sam Mendes got in touch with me and said, I've heard about this play that they're doing in Milan. And it was nine hours long in Italian.

VANEK SMITH: It was nine hours long?

POWER: And it had...

VANEK SMITH: Oh, see - the thing is...

POWER: Yeah?

VANEK SMITH: ...The Italians have opera, so they're used to sitting there for...

POWER: Right. They were very comfortable with that.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

POWER: So then when we got our hands on a script, it was astonishing to me that it didn't begin in a Wall Street boardroom; it started in the shadow of Ellis Island, you know, with this American dream story, right? He begins - he stands there with nothing. He's got one pair of shoes.

VANEK SMITH: He opens a little store that sells cloth and garments...

POWER: Exactly. He's selling...

VANEK SMITH: ...In Alabama.

POWER: ...Fabrics from a tiny, tiny shop in Montgomery on the High Street. And within a generation, he and his brothers have got one of the most significant companies in America.

VANEK SMITH: There's a really funny moment early on in the play when the Lehman Brothers decide that they want to try to buy raw cotton...

POWER: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: ...And sell it to a big fabric-makers. So the actor on stage in the moment invents the word middleman. And he keeps explaining to everybody what he does because nobody can understand what this job would be...

POWER: Right.

VANEK SMITH: ...Because, normally, I guess, farmers would just sell directly to factories.

POWER: Right.

VANEK SMITH: And it was so interesting to me because when Lehman Brothers collapsed, I was covering business and economics, too...

POWER: Sure.

VANEK SMITH: And it was really complicated to explain what they did then because they were also still middlemen.

POWER: They were right in the middle.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah.

POWER: Yeah, I think what the play tries to do is explain how novel it was - a stroke of complete genius and outside-the-box thinking from the youngest Lehman brother, from Mayer, the one who the - his older brothers tease him, and he's there just to keep the peace.

VANEK SMITH: They call him a potato because he...

POWER: They call him a potato.

VANEK SMITH: ...Doesn't have a beard, I guess?

POWER: Exactly.

VANEK SMITH: Because he can't grow a beard?

POWER: Exactly. He's smooth as a newly peeled potato. The thing that happens by the time they're in New York, when they look at the stock exchange and they say...

VANEK SMITH: Which had just started.

POWER: Which had just started.

VANEK SMITH: And it was, like, such a strange conceptual thing. They're like, this is - word is a temple. You just say cotton, and you trade it.

POWER: There's nothing there.

VANEK SMITH: There's no cotton there, yeah.

POWER: So, suddenly, you know, where previously, I guess, at a market, someone would have bought the goods that they wanted to sell, and you would have looked at the goods in three dimensions and take...

VANEK SMITH: Which makes sense. You know, that makes more sense. It's like, well, I want to see this cotton.

POWER: Absolutely.

VANEK SMITH: But this was - yeah.

POWER: And so there is a sort of move into the imagination, right? There's a movement to metaphor. Instead of having the thing, you just have the word. And I think this is one of the reasons why the story works well in theater - right? - is because at the heart of that gesture and of these - all these financial systems is the idea that one thing stands for something else. And you get the distance from the actual thing that you're selling and from the people whose lives you're impacting when you do that. The more you move into the abstract, maybe the harder it gets to have a sort of moral framework around what you're doing.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, it seems like that happens in several times throughout "Lehman Brothers." That's, like, one of the themes of the play, is a sort of a movement away from the tangible...

POWER: Yes, right. Thank you. Yeah, exactly.

VANEK SMITH: ...Into the abstract. And there's this moment where one of the original Lehman brothers, Emanuel, his son, Philip - they're all being interviewed, I guess, by a reporter...

POWER: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: ...Who asks, you know, in this...

POWER: By Charles Dow, actually, who - yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, by - Dow Jones?

POWER: Yeah, exactly.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my gosh. That's amazing.

POWER: Of Dow Jones. And he founded The Wall Street Journal, and it's the early days of that paper.

VANEK SMITH: Oh.

POWER: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Well, he asked a really good question.

POWER: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Not surprisingly, maybe.

POWER: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: He was trying to understand what they were doing at that time.

POWER: Right. Right. Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Which was back in - this would've been the late 18...

POWER: That's, like, the 1880s, yeah.

VANEK SMITH: The 1880s. And he says, like, what do you do? What is the flour in your recipe? And Emanuel, I think, says like, oh, it's railroads and cotton...

POWER: Yeah, yeah.

VANEK SMITH: ...And all the things that they've invested in. And his son Philip speaks up and says, no, it's money.

POWER: Right.

VANEK SMITH: What is happening in that moment?

POWER: What's great about it in sort of theater terms is that it's about two old, powerful men watching their power move away from them...

VANEK SMITH: Yeah.

POWER: ...Because the beat immediately after that is Emanuel and Mayer, the old founder brothers, look at each other, and for a moment, they were bakers who didn't understand what bread is. Like, they don't understand what Philip means. And then in that moment, Philip Lehman says, other people use money to buy stuff; we use money to make more money. And that idea that you can be inside the system and you don't have to worry about the tangible - that's exactly the word - you can move ideas, trade ideas. And that is very sustaining for them and very exciting. And the flip side of that, of course, you get in '29 when, you know, as the stockbroker says, money is a ghost. Like, what? If everyone turns up and asks for the money, asks for the thing that the metaphor stands for...

VANEK SMITH: Right. The big Wall Street crash.

POWER: ...It's not going to work. And then you get the crash of '29 and the - you know, the years that followed that.

VANEK SMITH: But even after that - because the play ends with the death of Philip's son in - it seemed like the '60s?

POWER: So, yeah. So Robert Lehman, Bobby Lehman, dies in '69. The company is becoming a global company, and there's a new approach to marketing that says, we're going to make the idea of consumerism - we're going to make it like breathing. Everybody is going to be consuming. Everyone's going to be buying all the time.

VANEK SMITH: Like, people will buy to exist or...

POWER: Right.

VANEK SMITH: ...Like, life will become equated with consumption.

POWER: Exactly. If you make everything about that kind of transaction, a bank - you know, the supplier of the money - becomes the most important thing.

VANEK SMITH: It's especially interesting, I think, now. I mean, on the night which I went to see the play, the markets had dropped. You had their biggest single-day point drop. And everybody is referencing 2008, 2008, 2008. What is it like for a play to be opening with this backdrop?

POWER: Yeah. I mean, it was a strange feeling on Monday night, and I think it will continue to be a strange feeling, that volatility in the markets is just demonstrating lots of the things that the play is talking about - right? - about, you know, the power of events to undermine the best laid plans, you know? It's fascinating. In a way, I think we should be reassured by looking back and seeing that these moments have happened before. They're always different, right? But, you know, we overcome them. The greater project moves through.

VANEK SMITH: Yes.

POWER: And that's what I find really exciting about the sort of final 20th century part of the play.

VANEK SMITH: Well, Ben, thank you so much for coming in...

POWER: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

VANEK SMITH: ...For talking about Lehman.

POWER: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was, produced by Darian Woods and fact-checked by Sean Saldana. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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