The first punch was thrown when Michael Billington, recently voted the most influential critic in London, posted a column on The Guardian website entitled “Enron's failure shows Broadway's flaws,” which lamented “the aesthetic conservatism of a theatre culture” in the U.S. (click here to read Billington’s column.)
But others took a more measured approach. Jason Zinoman, writing on vanityfair.com, suggested that Enron may have failed on Broadway because the show’s 29 year-old playwright Lucy Prebble misunderstood and oversimplified the financial tanglings at the company (click here to read Zinoman’s argument.) While Bloomberg’s Jeremy Gerard hypothesized that Americans may be too familiar with the story or find the 2000 Enron scandal dated in the light of the current shenanigans at Goldman Sachs (click here to read Gerard’s argument.)
I don’t know why Enron flopped. I liked the show. Or maybe admired is a better word. I’m a sucker for imaginative stagecraft (my favorite show in 2009 was the Kneehigh Theatre’s production of Brief Encounters, a delightful mash-up of musical hall numbers, video imagery, puppetry and other spectacular coup d’theatre) and Enron’s director Rupert Goold used every trick in the book, and more.
Puppets and masks turned arcane accounting practices into amusing metaphors—the dummy corporations that Enron execs called raptors because they were supposed to eat up the parent company’s debt were represented onstage by actors wearing dinosaur masks. The complicitous accounting firm Arthur Andersen was portrayed as a ventriloquist’s dummy. Flashy video projections simulated office settings and a giant stock ticker.
I hope I don’t come off as some Broadway Benedict Arnold if I say that the Brits do seem more comfortable playing with this kind of stuff than we do here in the U.S. Inventive shows like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White, a video-projection pioneer that replaced conventional sets with computer-animated scenery of rooms and hallways in a ghost-ridden mansion; and Coram Boy, which mixed narrative recitations, 19th century period dance and Handel choruses, were more successful over there than here.
Like Enron, The Woman in White and Coram Boy also fared poorly with the New York critics, who accuse them all of having more sizzle than steak. Well, I welcome the innovative stylization but I disagree that these shows lack substance.
The Broadway cast of Enron, lead by Norbert Leo Butz as the company’s ruthless former president Jeffrey Skilling; Gregory Itzin as its good old boy CEO Ken Lay, Stephen Kunken, as the diabolically nerdy chief financial officer Andrew Fastow and Marin Mazzie, playing a fictionalized character based on the sole woman in the corporate hierarchy who got out before things fell apart, are all terrific. But you don’t want to root for any of them. I wasn’t bored at Enron but I wasn’t moved by it either.
Still, I’m really sorry to see it go. And not just because I hate to see any show close. Shows that deal with complicated subjects should have a place on Broadway. Shows that experiment with innovative storytelling should have a place on Broadway. And Enron was both.