Musical Tribute to Corporate Enron Scandal Collapses on Broadway

May 6, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A Broadway musical about the fall of the disgraced Enron Corporation is closing after just 15 performances, following a hugely successful London run. Jeffrey Brown reports on the tepid reaction to the play from U.S. critics and audiences.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: A play about a financial collapse meets its own unexpected end.

Take one massive financial scandal…

NORBERT LEO BUTZ, actor: I don’t mind taking losses. I just — I can’t report taking losses right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Add a bit of song and dance.

JEFFREY BROWN: And a few debt-eating dinosaurs, and you have “Enron: The Play,” which came to Broadway after a hugely successful London run, and attempted to go where theater rarely ventures: into the dark heart of high finance and corporate corruption, the 2001 collapse of Houston-based energy-turned-trading-giant Enron.

LUCY PREBBLE, playwright, “Enron”: The more I read about that, the more I thought, well, why don’t I fully understand this? And I tend — I tend to get fascinated by things I don’t fully understand, because I want to kind of work out how it works.

JEFFREY BROWN: British playwright Lucy Prebble, now 29, was just finishing college when Enron hit the headlines. When we talked just before the show opened, she told me she had once thought of a career in business herself, but found success in writing for TV and theater.

LUCY PREBBLE: When you start looking for things like whether it’s derivatives or credit default swaps, those things we have been dealing with over the last couple of years, but particularly Enron, financial instruments generally, the more you read about it, the more you think, well, actually, what you are dealing with is a sort of metaphor, particularly with derivatives, or even I would go so far as to say world of illusion.

Now, if you are looking at a world of illusion, you are actually quite well-placed to represent that on stage, because people come into a theater expecting to be sold something that isn’t real. And that’s not a million miles away from how commodities and stocks operate.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet you still have to explain to people mark to market.


JEFFREY BROWN: You start to play with sort of definition.


LUCY PREBBLE: Accounting explanation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Creative, and then illegal accounting, of course, was at the heart of what was then the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history, with company executives in handcuffs and thousands of employees losing their jobs and their life savings.

“Enron: The Play” revels in its own razzle-dazzle, but the focus is on the real-life characters who became synonymous with greed and corruption, most of all CEO Jeffrey Skilling, a man with, at first, at least, an honest dream.

NORBERT LEO BUTZ, actor: We hire the smartest people we can find. We set them free to look at whatever they want, less routine, less structure. Let people’s minds work free from the old assumptions about what this company is.

Don’t part with your illusions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Actor Norbert Leo Butz plays Skilling, whose 24-year sentence on a variety of charges is even now being appealed.

GREGORY ITZIN, actor: Once you bury a dead dog, you don’t dig it up to smell it!

JEFFREY BROWN: Gregory Itzin, familiar for his role as the president in the TV hit “24,” plays a different sort of leader here, Ken Lay, the head of the company who was found guilty of securities fraud, but died of heart failure in 2006 before being sentenced.

GREGORY ITZIN: I find this a very uniquely American story in a way, the greed, the headlong drive towards success, the — once you get success, the blinders that come on, and how — it’s also interesting playing a — well, you’re playing a guy who’s still alive, and I’m playing a man who has passed on. Supposedly, there are — if you go online, he’s somewhere hiding. I mean, it’s…

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, really?

GREGORY ITZIN: Yes, yes. But I….

NORBERT LEO BUTZ: Along with Elvis somewhere. Ken Lay and Elvis are hanging out in a bar somewhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what’s it like playing these characters that are so, you know, alive in people’s — for some people, they’re real vivid characters, because they — they were deeply affected personally.

NORBERT LEO BUTZ: I had no preconceived notions of Jeff Skilling. I — I did not and I do not see him as a villain, simply by virtue that the Playwright is not presenting him as such.

Everything I have ever done in my whole life worth anything was done in a bubble, in a state of extreme hope and trust and stupidity.

The thing we talked about early in rehearsals, and it’s very important to remember, yes, he was a bully. Yes, he was an intellectual bully. Yes, he was crude. Yes, he was manipulative. Yes, he lied. However — however…

GREGORY ITZIN: That’s a litany of stuff right there. Yes, OK.

NORBERT LEO BUTZ: … he also explained, in a very valid argument, that all he was doing was taking free markets to their logical extreme.

JEFFREY BROWN: Maybe so, but now it turns out that Broadway’s free and fiercely competitive market has taken down “Enron: The Play.”

The $4 million production received only tepid reviews here, unlike in London, where it continues to thrive, and U.S. audiences seem to have decided it’s not for them.

Peter Marks, who reviewed the show for The Washington Post, says something happened when the play crossed the Atlantic.

PETER MARKS, theater critic, The Washington Post: We’re two different political cultures. The way we look at the world actually turns out to be very different. And there’s an inherent criticism of American culture. I think we feel somehow that they are judging our system. And we can do our own judging, I think we feel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Plus, says Marks, there’s the inherent difficulty of presenting the news on stage.

PETER MARKS: I think, in this case, this Enron is something we did hear over and over again. We’re pretty sophisticated about the topic itself. And you have got to tell us something new. You can’t just rehash it for us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another possibility: The Enron scandal seems quaint after what’s happened in the last two years. Whatever the case, the show will close on Sunday, after just 15 performances, making it one of Broadway’s more expensive flops in a number of years.