Enron on Broadway: $How Business
Gross, Daniel, Newsweek
Byline: Daniel Gross
Finally, someone put the drama on Wall Street to good use--and it's not CNBC.
The plot of an engaging play debuting on Broadway this week is ripped straight from The Wall Street Journal. In the opening scene, high-living finance types celebrate an accounting technique that promises to vault their business into the stratosphere. There are off-balance sheets, conflicts of interest, credulous Wall Street analysts, a hands-off CEO, and a dorky and greasy-haired finance jockey who becomes a buff stud before crashing. When they're not screwing one another, the venal, vain executives are screwing over the shareholder.
The protagonist (played with flair and great energy by Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz) isn't Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld or Bear Stearns CEO Jimmy Cayne. It's Jeffrey Skilling, the now-jailed CEO of Enron. The show, Enron, sends up what was, until the fall of 2008, one of the greatest debacles in American financial history. With the talk of George W. Bush's candidacy, deregulated electricity markets, and trading bandwidth capacity, the content is definitely last decade. But the human foibles it lays bare--the grasping, the arrogance and hubris of financiers, the temptations of off-balance-sheet debt, the corruption of the business establishment, and the refusal to take responsibility--are very much au courant.
This show's arrival on Broadway, nearly nine years after Enron's implosion, highlights a larger point. In our Law & Order, ripped-from-the-headlines times, why has the American entertainment machine been slow to turn the financial drama of 2008 into prime drama in 2010? There are projects in the works, to be sure. Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail, a chronicle of the demise of the system, was sold to HBO; Michael Lewis's The Big Short, a tale of a few misfits who bet against the subprime-mortgage market and won, has been optioned by Brad Pitt and Paramount. But it could be years before either appears. As Lewis noted: "It's hard to turn Wall Street into onscreen drama."
It's particularly tough to turn the most recent crisis into good entertainment. Blogs, in-depth newspaper reports, CNBC's wall-to-wall coverage, and several dozen nonfiction books have turned the players into too-familiar characters. Also, it's still too soon. The best and most enduring Wall Street entertainment hasn't been post-bull-market autopsies, but ripping bubble-era tales. Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities started as a serial in Rolling Stone in 1984 and 1985, and was published in 1987. Oliver Stone's Wall Street came out in December 1987, just two months after the crash. Even in this 24/7 media world, American audiences need more time. It's easy to forget that It's a Wonderful Life, a film that was essentially about the 1933-vintage bank crisis, didn't come out until 1946. As the old formula goes, tragedy plus time equals comedy. But as last week's charges against Goldman Sachs show, this tragedy isn't over--not by a long shot.
Maybe that's why the most ambitious efforts to make dramatic lemonade out of the financial lemons have come from Britain: they come with a built-in buffer, a distance. Enron started out in London, the brainchild of 29-year-old Lucy Prebble, creator of the British series Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Last fall the BBC aired a snappy, one-hour narrative, The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, with James Cromwell in the role of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. The Britishisms can be off-putting--characters refer to Lehman as "Lehmans," and Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis, a Georgia native, has a drawl that sounds more Cornwall than Cobb County. …