Houston embraces Enron musical
Five years after Enron Corp. filed for bankruptcy, “Enron -- The Musical” opened Friday in a mostly filled theater here with 2 1/2 hours of toe-tapping songs immortalizing the collapse of the 7th-largest company in America.
Though the Enron debacle is a sensitive subject in a city still stinging from lost jobs and retirement savings, the show’s author, Mark Fraser, is gambling that at this point, Houstonians are ready to laugh a little. “We’re making fun of what happened, but it’s also in part a satire about greed and corruption,” he said.
Some theatergoers Friday night said they bought the $25 tickets to the show on the strength of its name alone. “I guess it’s a little perverted to come here and laugh at something like Enron, but at some point it’s therapeutic,” said Cathy Henderson, a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization.
Now that the top three Enron executives have been tried and convicted, “the worst is behind us,” she said. “After all the trials, it’s cathartic to try to find some humor in this.”
The idea for an Enron musical grew out of some comedy sketches Fraser wrote for a Houston Press Club show. Four years later, he had a 160-page script with a story line set to Broadway tunes.
The opening scene shows employees of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm destroying evidence while singing “The Sound of Shredding,” to the tune of “The Sound of Music.” Much later, the character of Kenneth L. Lay, Enron’s late founder, sings “Get Me To the Court on Time” (“I’m getting indicted in the morning ... "). Of an unrepentant Jeffrey K. Skilling, Enron’s onetime chief executive, a character in the musical asks: “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Jeff Skilling?” And so on.
Fraser, who works as a manufacturer’s representative for a janitorial supply company, sank $25,000 of his savings into the production. While money was no object for free-wheeling Enron executives, the musical chronicling their excesses runs on a budget. For instance, with six performances scheduled over two weeks, elaborate sets weren’t in the cards -- Enron’s corporate demise is played out on the set of the theater’s current production, a children’s show called “Santa’s Magic Timepiece.”
Six local actors play dozens of parts in scenes that trace the history of Enron from the early years to its 2001 collapse. Fraser said he spent about 100 hours on “Prime Time for Skilling” (sung to “Springtime for Hitler”) to make sure that it -- like the rest of the play -- was historically accurate. “Not everyone in Houston knows everything about Enron,” he said. “This is something they can look at, and laugh and learn.”
Fraser’s attention to detail is why, between the singing and dancing, characters often explain how arcane off-book partnerships, deregulation and energy trading came into play at Enron. “We sell them their energy at higher prices because of a shortage we created in the first place,” one character said in a bit about the California energy crisis. The audience also leans how the creative bookkeeping of former Enron Chief Financial Officer Andrew S. Fastow meant he “kept debt off the books but still left Enron responsible for the debt.”
Theatergoer Joe Marcinkowski said that he and his wife lived the Enron story through their grown children, who worked at the company and eventually were laid off. The Marcinkowskis lost about $14,000 when Enron stock tanked. But Joe -- a furniture restorer -- is making some of that back selling items from the Enron executive offices that he bought at auction, fixed up and listed on EBay, he said.
While others said the Enron musical brought to mind the theater masks that represent tragedy and comedy, Marcinkowski said it was “a good example of an Irish wake. Everybody’s laughing, but it’s laughter mixed with sadness.”