There’s nothing alternative about the fact that the Broadway-style show on the marquee at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre this week is far more fun than a roomful of lawyers discussing ethics.
Now in its 10th year at the Empire, Ethics Follies is a homegrown performance created by local attorney Lee Cusenbary 12 years ago, and produced by the local chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC).
The two-act show starring a mix of local attorneys, other professionals, and actors uses music and TV parodies to teach lessons about right and wrong in corporate America and beyond. It features rousing dance numbers, grand angst-filled solos and moving duets, sweet romance, lots of humor, plus doses of introspection.
Attorneys who attend the show earn two of the annual 15 hours of continuing legal education credits required by the State of Texas, and ticket sales proceeds benefit the Community Justice Program, a nonprofit legal aid service.
Now so popular and widely known, Ethics Follies goes on tour, both virtually through livestreaming at bar associations and courthouses around the country and with a traveling cast to ACC meetings. The show, called “Being Walter Decent,” will be presented in New Jersey next month.
Opening with a Wednesday matinee, this year’s show stars accountant Walter Sanders in the lead role as Walter Decent and brings to life ethical dilemmas ripped from today’s headlines.
“Being Walter Decent” revisits the fictional scene of a 2007 Ethics Follies show, Decent Food & Drugs. Then, the script focused on relationships between people and companies, law firm management by non-lawyers, sexual harassment, concerns about confidentiality, loyalty, and respect for employees. This current show reflects some of the same ideas but with “a worldlier view of ethics,” according to the playbill, covering the use of digital information, captured marketing data, cybersecurity threats, and doing business in foreign countries.
In Act One’s finale, “Stuff Like That There,” the cast sings, “Let’s walk the walk of integrity.” It’s clear, though, the cast is having fun within its serious messages, transitioning like pros from hip hop to hymns. The Renaissance Guild, a local theater company, performs a crowd-pleasing and intimate “Lean on Me.”
In Act Two, attorney John Heller’s character, Buddy Cojones, sings “Legislators,” a song he wrote to the tune of the Eagles’ “Desperado,” that implores lawmakers to do the right thing on issues ranging from immigration to tax reform: “Set aside partisanship before it’s too late. Make America great.”
The scene-stealing villain the other characters call an “unethical scumbag” – a hostile CEO with a penchant for belting, “You’re fired!” – is played by Cusenbary.
“Jack Baldwin, my character, has literally abandoned the concept of ethics and morality because he knows it’s a faster path to get rich, and he’s okay with that,” Cusenbary said. “That being said, Maria [another character], should have stood up and said, ‘I’m not going to work here unless there are some policies and procedures in place. An ethical environment is important to our company’s growth.’”
The general counsel at San Antonio-based Mission Pharmacal, a privately held pharmaceutical company, Cusenbary has been writing and directing the show since its earliest days as a one-scene cabaret. He writes material for the show daily because it’s his hobby, but rehearsals generally start four to six weeks before a show, many held in a studio at his home.
“I keep a folder on my desk at work and when I see something in the news that has ethical implications, I save it,” Cusenbary said. “I read it a few times before I start writing, and I try to infuse the script with nonpartisan but relevant ethics issues. I don’t really think it’s beneficial to further divide people by talking about how the President behaves or why Hillary Clinton is this or that.”
He tries to raise issues about personal responsibility – as information consumers, data consumers, internet users – and being more careful about what we understand is true. “And to be sensitive to why it’s not appropriate to assume everyone has your same ethics.”
The next and final performance of “Being Walter Decent” in San Antonio is Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Empire Theatre.