'The Lehman Trilogy' isn't all about finance and mathematics
The story of The Lehman Trilogy’s success is a trilogy in its own right: The play opened to acclaim in London in 2018, did so again off Broadway in 2019, and was met with the same praise upon its Broadway premiere, at the Nederlander Theatre.
Maybe you’re hesitant because you don’t know much about the Lehman Brothers, the storied Wall Street company The Lehman Trilogy centres on. Or maybe business just isn’t your thing, and you thought right away the show wouldn’t interest you.
But if you think The Lehman Trilogy is just a three-hour play about finance, think again. The business content in The Lehman Trilogy is secondary to a narrative about a family. Three generations of Lehmans helm the firm in the course of the play, each with a distinct approach to life and leadership.
Like many families, the Lehmans supported each other as much as they fought with each other — their arguments just had millions of dollars riding on them. You don’t need business knowledge to be captivated by the actors’ vibrant storytelling and the near-mythic way they portray the smart yet flawed Lehmans without idolising them.
Read on for some background on what to expect from The Lehman Trilogy and what you don’t need to spend time Googling on the way to the theatre.
You don’t need a crash course in Lehman history
The play provides one well enough on its own. But if you want some background ahead of time: Henry Lehman immigrated to America from Bavaria, Germany, in 1844, and was soon joined by his brothers, Emanuel and Mayer. They got their start as cotton traders in Alabama and eventually moved their headquarters to New York during the Civil War.
The brothers set up a stake in everything from coffee to railroads before building the Lehman Brothers firm into an investment bank, making money by trading in — well, money. Emanuel’s son Philip and Philip’s son Robert (“Bobbie,” as he’s affectionately nicknamed) eventually took over the business.
The company, as you may have guessed, massively succeeded on Wall Street. There were some pretty low lows — such as Black Tuesday, the day in 1929 when the U.S. stock market crashed, kicking off the Great Depression — but none compared to 2008. The Lehmans filed for bankruptcy in September of that year, causing a financial panic and triggering the 2008 financial crisis, the worst since the Depression.
The Lehman Trilogy is three and a half hours long
Stefano Massini’s original Italian version of The Lehman Trilogy is five hours long, but Ben Powers’s new English translation shortened the play to a tight three-and-a-half. (Hey, the Lehmans were in business for 160 years — there’s a lot to cover.)
The show doesn’t drag, however; the dialogue and action move along at a clip, and as such The Lehman Trilogy feels a lot shorter. The two intermissions certainly help, allowing the audience time to stretch their legs and making each part feel like new. We do recommend eating dinner beforehand and bringing a snack or two to the theatre.
And if you can’t get enough of the Lehmans after 3.5 hours, Massini adapted his play into a 720-page epic novel you can read. Find out more about running times of West End shows.
The play is chiefly a family drama
The Lehman Trilogy is the perfect show for Succession fans, as both focus on the drama among multiple generations’ worth of a family business. The Lehman Trilogy is, more than anything, a play about family.
The first act focuses on the large, distinct, and often dueling personalities of three immigrant brothers: the overconfident leader Henry, the eldest; the steely and pragmatic Emanuel; and the underestimated yet sharp-witted “baby brother” Mayer.
The second and third acts focus on the next generations, how Lehman fathers raised Lehman sons in their image. You may not become invested in the trajectory of the Lehmans’ business — it's history, we know it booms and eventually collapses — but instead, in how excessive money and success affect one family and their relationships with one another.
You don’t need a business degree to appreciate the play
Or knowledge of stocks, investing, finance, or anything of the sort. You won’t leave with that knowledge, either — in order to focus on the characters’ personalities and interpersonal struggles, The Lehman Trilogy spends little time getting into the nitty-gritty of finances.
Most of the business talk boils down to someone arguing, “Lehman Brothers should start selling/investing in (insert new, hip thing) because people want it and we’ll make more money.”
It’s capitalism 101. Anything beyond that is used in service of a different narrative. You don’t need to understand the stock market to understand that the market’s Depression-era crash drove dozens of brokers to despair.
On the flip side, business talk is sometimes made humorous: At one point, a marketing director wryly describes his job as “getting people to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have.”
The Lehman Trilogy is funny
The play isn’t a comedy, per se, but there are plenty of comic moments that keep the story lively. All three suit-clad men act the part of a young woman and/or a child at one point or another.
There’s a running gag in which Mayer Lehman calls himself the “potato” of the founding trio, belying his intelligence. And with a healthy amount of witty one-liners, watching The Lehman Trilogy is like hearing someone you don’t like make a joke. You don’t want to warm up to them because you know that they were greedy, callous men in real life, but you just can’t help but laugh.
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