Lehman Lives On as Theatrical ‘Love Story of the American Dream’

(Bloomberg) -- It was a smash in London, so much so that it has added a run starting in May. But until April 20, the play “Lehman Trilogy” is in New York, hitting closer to home.

On opening night at the Park Avenue Armory, there were Lehman descendants, former Lehman Brothers partners and Tony James, vice chairman of Blackstone Group. The private equity firm was founded by two men who worked at Lehman: the late Pete Peterson, who’s a character in the play, and Steve Schwarzman, who isn’t but has been making his feelings known after seeing the National Theatre production directed by Sam Mendes in London.

Lehman Lives On as Theatrical ‘Love Story of the American Dream’

“You have to see this,” Schwarzman told me and Bob Millard, a fellow Lehman alum, last month at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Forget that it’s about Lehman. It’s actually about the immigrant experience and how one guy, a Jewish guy from Bavaria, ends up in Montgomery, Alabama -- like he took a wrong turn -- and ended up carving his way back into enormous prosperity at the center of America, and brings over his brothers one at a time. It’s so moving.”

Schwarzman, the theater critic, continued: “It’s brilliantly written and staged. It should be required for Americans to see it.”

Grit, Ingenuity

There were only about 1,000 tickets left for the New York run as of Wednesday, said Rebecca Robertson, president of the Park Avenue Armory, where the production has been moved at Mendes’s wishes.

The play is a story of capitalism, New York and the delicate and strategic ways a business and a family grow. Playwright Stefano Massini gives us grit, ingenuity and humor -- especially in the scenes where the Lehman men court their future wives. Three male actors take on all the parts.

“It’s a love story of the American dream,” said Simon Russell Beale, the actor who plays Henry Lehman, the first brother to come to America.

Lehman Lives On as Theatrical ‘Love Story of the American Dream’

Audience members found an array of things to admire as they talked about the play during the two intermissions and the cast party that followed, where the bartenders poured the “Lehman Sling” made with bourbon, black-walnut bitters and brandied cherry juice.

“It’s brilliant -- the history, the family,” said David Stockman, who served as budget director under President Ronald Reagan. “It’s just a great drama capturing an American century as it unfolded.”

Lehman Lives On as Theatrical ‘Love Story of the American Dream’
Lehman Lives On as Theatrical ‘Love Story of the American Dream’

‘Different Perspective’

Peter Gleysteen, CEO of AGL Credit Management, focused on how the brothers Henry, Emanuel and Mayer “rapidly evolved” their business, from a store selling fabric to acting as middlemen selling raw cotton to mills, and so on.

“It’s people who have a different perspective who can imagine change,” Gleysteen said. “If you resist change, you have a harder time seeing opportunity and connecting the dots.”

Lehman Lives On as Theatrical ‘Love Story of the American Dream’

Park Avenue Armory co-Chair Elihu Rose was attuned to the story of assimilation. “With every generation, something gets washed out,” Rose said. “My parents spoke Yiddish, my brothers and I, we learned words. My kids know virtually nothing.”

‘Historical Facts’

As for authenticity: Ambassador John Loeb, whose mother was a granddaughter of Mayer Lehman and is a historian of the family who has organized a reunion in Rimpar, the Bavarian town the brothers came from, said “little historical facts exist" about the brothers in their early days. He liked how they came off -- and didn’t like the portrayal of someone he knew: Bobbie Lehman, the grandson of Emanuel and the last Lehman to head the firm.

In the play, Bobbie dies at age 140 as he dances the twist, wearing sunglasses. (He actually died at age 77, in 1969.) “They made Bobbie look ridiculous,” Loeb said. “He was an important man who kept Lehman Brothers going in the crash and built it up after 1929.”

Wendy Lehman Lash was the one guest who could boast of seeing her grandfather, politician Herbert H. Lehman, depicted on stage by the dashing Ben Miles.

“I know nothing about the banking world,” she said.

Lehman Lives On as Theatrical ‘Love Story of the American Dream’

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