When the financial crisis met pop culture
The New York Stock Exchange on August 27, 2009 in New York City.
For a very few people, the financial crisis was an opportunity. Jake Seligmann, a longtime composer for TV, was hoping he'd be a winner.
Twenty years ago, he and his brother wrote a musical about a bank that loves to foreclose on people. They were becoming frightened by what they saw in the banking industry. Friends were working long hours and giving up their lives to move up the corporate ladder.
“We were just thinking of what’s the worst thing in business,” he says, before pivoting to the recent past. “And it turns out that the worst thing in business was exactly what was going on.”
People losing their homes in the housing crisis. The show is called “The Big Bank." The bank's theme song is fittingly titled “We Repossess.” It is sung by a bad-banker character, whom Seligmann describes as a Disney-esque caricature of evil, like Cruella De Vil. The composer calls the lyrics devilish.
“It begins with, I’ll take your monthly payments until they all begin to bounce. I’ll take a look at your savings, I’ll play with your accounts…I’ll do my best to calm your fears. I’ll offer my support … don’t think that I am insincere when I take your butt to court.”
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BIG BANK
When the financial crisis hit, Seligmann seized the moment to shop his show around. But after two years of promoting it, only two theaters bit. And even though "The Big Bank" made it to the New York Musical Theatre Festival, it was soon curtains. Seligmann was crushed.
“The show was amazing, people loved it. And the discouragement was pretty severe. And then I just needed to make money," he says.
Seligmann put "The Big Bank" aside, but that’s just one show. Pop culture has the financial crisis covered, everything from a Dave Eggers novel about a middle-class businessman saddled with debt, to movies like "Margin Call " and "Up in the Air," to a smartphone game called Fat Cats.
And yet, there’s still no one iconic work. Why not? The Great Depression has "The Grapes of Wrath" and “It’s a Wonderful Life." Even the debate about the gold standard from the 1890s has its own musical, arguably one so popular we all know the words to sing along with its main character Dorothy as she marches bravely down the yellow brick road to Oz.
“It may be too soon for people to enjoy this crisis because we’re still experiencing it to some extent," says Richard Sylla, a professor of financial history at New York University's Stern School of Business.
Theoretically, he says, one might enjoy a crisis through books, movies and art, but certainly not while your 401(k) is still trying to recover.
“And one characterization of this crisis,” he says, “it’s taken us a hell of a long time to get out of it.”
Consumers need time and so do critics.
“We often don’t notice these great works of art at the time,” says Dwight Garner, a book critic with the New York Times.
“If you look at something like, the book "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, which featured Walker Evans's photographs and was about the Depression, it sold 600 copies when it first came out," Garner says.
He adds that it was only much later, in the 1960s, that the book was seen as an icon of the Depression. And he says, it’s possible that "Breaking Bad," the TV show about the teacher with cancer who sells meth to pay his medical bills, could also one day be seen as a classic -- of this era. Or "Up in the Air," a George Clooney movie where he flies around the country laying everyone off until, well, it's his turn.
And as for composer Jake Seligmann, he's hoping it's his turn for a happy ending. He's shopping his show around again.
In the meantime he's selling real estate.
And here are some more songs from the musical: