In “War Paint,” Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole are sharing a Broadway stage for the first time in their careers, portraying rival cosmetic industry pioneers Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. If I might have preferred they be given a rivalry as grand as the talents of these extraordinary performers – say, Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots, whom she beheaded – they do much to help make this new musical both entertaining and fabulous. No, they can’t make it a great musical. But LuPone and Ebersole, each with two Tony Awards apiece (LuPone: Evita, Gypsy; Ebersole, 42nd Street, Grey Gardens) , give star turns of equal weight, Most impressively, although they are portraying life-long rivals, these are bravura performances that don’t clash; they blend.
They and the rest of the 15-member cast are costumed by Catherine Zuber, likely to snag her ninth Tony Award for designs that are to die for, especially her literally over-the-top hats, offered like a tour of twentieth century fashion.
Songwriters Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, book writer Doug Wright and director Michael Greif – the team that put together the much-admired musical Grey Gardens, based on the true story of Jacqueline Kennedy’s aunt and cousin – here explore another pair of real-life magnetic women.
Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein were exact contemporaries – both born in the 1870s (the one Florence Nightingale Graham in Canada; the other Chaja Rubinstein in Krakow), both died in the 1960s – immigrant outsiders who changed the face of America’s women, becoming rich and famous in the process, but never as powerful or accepted as they would have been had they been men.
There are some lovely, funny little scenes, such as one in which Helena tries her new secret formula face cream on her assistant. As she vigorously slaps her face with it:
HELENA: Sit down, darling. There are no ugly women; only lazy ones. Every day you must apply. Always with the up motion. To rub this cream into the skin is to swim in the Fountain of Youth!
Voilà! How you feel now, Magda?
MAGDA: Like rich woman with expensive cream.
HELENA: And when women feel rich, I become rich. Dziekuja, Magda. [Thank you in Polish]
Yet, for all its appeal, “War Paint” does not surmount some logistical problems that are likely to make some of the scenes heavy-going to all but ardent students of the beauty industry that the two women helped create.
The musical, inspired by a book of the same name and a subsequent documentary, The Powder and the Glory, must grapple with the fact that the two women apparently never met. Most of the songs they sing are solos; their duets are not with one another, but side by side. We hear them disparage one another, but not face-to-face.
They also apparently sacrificed most of their personal life to build their respective empires. There is a subplot involving the husband of Arden and the gay business manager of Rubinstein, each of whom feels taken for granted, which leads to a remarkable development; they both switch sides. But this is the only thing that one can call personal in the show. “War Paint” becomes something of a history of the beauty industry.
Some of the tidbits are fascinating. When I began my business, the only women wearing lipstick were on the stage or in the gutter,” Elizabeth lectures her new assistant. “I needed brave young women to broaden the trend. So what did I do?”
“Free samples to the Suffragettes,” her assistant responds.
“And now I cater to the very highest echelons of New York Society.”
We see the two women trying to one-up each other in beauty products in the 1930’s; their rivalry results in a Senate hearing that concludes with their being forced to reveal the ingredients of their products, a revelation that they fear will cause their customers to flee. During World War II, they both cleverly innovate products that will appeal to women newly enlisted in the armed forces and the workforce, and that work around the material shortages. In the 1950’s,they both ignore the competition from those who indulge in the growing trends that they abhor – teenagers, television!
Their rise is far less interesting in this musical than their fall. The last half hour of “War Paint” is as good as it gets on Broadway, with two women knocking us over with back-to-back powerhouse solos that are both touching and tuneful – Ebersole sings “Pink,” her signature color that now haunts her; LuPone sings “Forever Beautiful” about the portraits of herself she commissioned over the years. Then there is a final scene in which they meet at last – with hilarious digs, and affecting reconciliation – followed by a rousing finale. If only that had actually happened.
Book by Doug Wright; Music by Scott Frankel; Lyrics by Michael Korie; Choreography by Christopher Gattelli; Directed by Michael Greif
Cast: Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein. Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden. John Dossett
as Tommy Lewis.Douglas Sills as Harry Fleming. Mary Ernster as Society Doyenne, Mrs. Trowbridge-Phelps & others; David Girolmo as Senator Royal Copeland, William S. Paley, Mr. Levin & others. Joanna Glushak as Countess, Magda & others. Chris Hoch as Mr. Simms, Hal March, Mr. Baruch & others. Mary Claire King as Miss Beam, Tulip, Arden Girl & others. Steffanie Leigh as Dorian Leigh, Arden Girl & others. Erik Liberman as Charles Revson, Sailor & others. Barbara Marineau as Grand Dame, Beauty Technician & others; Stephanie Jae Park as Arden Girl, Beauty Technician & others; Angel Reda
as Heiress, Miss Smythe, Arden Girl & others. Jennifer Rias as Miss Teale, Arden Girl & others.
Running time: Two and a half hours, including a 15-minute intermission
“War Paint” is scheduled to run through September 3rd, 2017