It took an Italian and a team of Brits to bring a quintessentially American story to Broadway. And that makes perfect sense, because this particular story focuses on a few of the many immigrants who have shaped our country’s history.
The Lehman Trilogy, set to open October 14 at the Nederlander Theatre, traces the saga of Bavarian-born Henry, Mayer, and Emanuel Lehman from their arrival in the United States in the mid–19th century to the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., their international finance firm, after the stock market crash of 2008. Written by playwright and essayist Stefano Massini, The Lehman Trilogy was performed in France and Italy before the celebrated English director Sam Mendes recruited dramaturg and playwright Ben Power to adapt it for a National Theatre production that premiered in 2018. After receiving great acclaim across the Atlantic, the adaptation was staged at New York City’s Park Avenue Armory the following year to more raves.
The only production of a U.K.-based play on the Broadway roster this fall, The Lehman Trilogy was supposed to have opened in 2020, but it was halted by the COVID shutdown after only four previews. In the 18 months since, says Power, he, Mendes, and the other artists involved “have been thinking about it and talking about it, so that the play is now in our bones. Everything that happens on a global level or even a local level figures into this story and the way it is told.”
Part of Power’s initial task several years ago was to cut down Massini’s play, which originally ran at five hours and now clocks in at about three (but doesn’t feel like it), without losing its sweep or diminishing the range of themes and concerns addressed. “Once Sam and I got a literal translation, it revealed this epic poem, if you like — this very long verse poem about the history of American capitalism and the immigrant experience and the Jewish experience and the creation of New York.”
Whereas the original version had enlisted an array of actors, Power says, “a pivotal moment for me was realizing that you could do the whole thing with just three.” Henry, Mayer, and Emanuel were respectively cast with Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles in London and at the Armory, with each also playing descendants and other characters. Adrian Lester, another celebrated British performer, will step into the role of Emanuel and make his Broadway debut.
The addition of Lester has brought an added spark as rehearsals have resumed. “Whenever you have a new actor, it’s a whole new thing, because the nature of this work is three people telling you a story, so a different personality coming in is thrilling,” says Power. “The scope of the play is so big that it’s sort of never really finished; you’re always refining and rewriting.”
That process has been influenced by the progression of national and world events, as it was when Power and Mendes began working on The Lehman Trilogy years ago. “At that time, we had the election of Trump in America and the Brexit referendum in Britain — the rise of a populist agenda,” Power says. “What happened in 2008 was still playing out then, and it’s still playing out now. All around us we see evidence of the capitalism born in the 19th century and evolved through the 20th century in its latter stages; what do you do when that system fails, or reveals its failings? Now here we are, after a transformational 18 months, with the election of another president, the pandemic, the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement — all of these things have refocused and repurposed the play.”
Indeed, in addition to the excesses of this system, the play addresses the tension that can develop between spiritual and material pursuits — the Lehmans’ faith and cultural heritage as Jews figure heavily into The Lehman Trilogy, which incorporates lyrical references to Scripture. And it follows the family through its early years in the South, taking in the Civil War and the end of slavery. “It’s clear that the legacy of the Civil War and the meaning of slavery to the Black experience in America is something that Americans are still coming to understand, to learn how to talk about, and the play is very much fitting in the context of those questions and that complicated history,” says Power.
To craft sound design and original music to accompany The Lehman Trilogy’s complex journey, Nick Powell sat in rehearsals with Mendes, with whom he also worked on The Ferryman, and Power and the actors. “I was in the room with them every day, watching them and improvising,” Powell says. “Then I’d take away the stuff I liked and work on it at night.”
The score is played on a single instrument by musical director Candida Caldicot or alternate pianist Gillian Berkowitz. “Because the play tells such a huge story — there’s this narrative arc over 150 years — there was an initial instinct to think I had to be epic,” says Powell. “But sometimes limiting your tools can be the most liberating way of telling the biggest stories. Just having a piano freaked me out initially, but it turned out to be a brilliant idea. It’s almost like a silent movie, except that it’s not silent, of course. There’s a line in the play about America being like a magical music box that the brothers step into, and the idea was to make you feel you’re accompanying that box.”
Powell did draw on a range of styles to reflect the assimilation of the Lehmans and the passage of time. The Yiddish lullaby “Raisins and Almonds” is alluded to, “and then there are a few bits that sound vaudevillian or like ragtime, and then more contemporary minimalist. The piano is completely unadorned at first, and then we use digital effects as we get further into the 20th century. The idea was to have some music pulling you back into the past and some pushing you forward into the future.” (A recording of the music will be released.)
Power notes, “The thing about a production like this is that there’s no dividing line between the elements of storytelling. The text goes with the music, and with Es Devlin’s incredible [scenic] design, and Sam holds that all together. His great skill is utilizing every element in theatre at his disposal, so we’re all joined at the hip. That includes the actors as well. And that level of trust allows you to be really brave with what you’re doing.”
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