According to the New York Times, prestige beauty sales in the United States rose six percent in the year ending in February, tallying $15.9 billion. Most women, it seems, prioritize keeping up appearances despite financial setbacks. The timely subject of War Paint is heated competition between two fabulously successful female entrepreneurs, both cosmetic pioneers.
Helena (Chaja) Rubinstein (1872-1965) came from Poland with homemade beauty recipes and had her first company success in Australia. London and Paris followed before opening a Fifth Avenue Salon in 1915. The lavish establishment featured a restaurant, gym, and rugs by Joan Miró. Rubinstein was an avid collector of art (she also sat for numerous commissioned portraits) and jewelry. The beauty innovator believed in making the most of a woman’s attributes. “There are no ugly women, just lazy ones.”
Down the street, Elizabeth Arden’s already established Red Door Salon would, by 1929, be one of 150 in the entrepreneur’s empire. (Florence Nightingale Graham chose Elizabeth to save money on signage and Arden from the name of a farm near her native Canadian home.) Arden innovations included the use of estrogen, makeovers and coordinating colors. It was arguably she who convinced “us” that women could wear makeup and still be ladies. Her motto: “Purity, Grace and Eternal Youth.”
Contrasting the outsider status of dark, diminutive Rubinstein (Patty Lupone) who was rejected by a co-op board because she was Jewish, turned around and bought the building, with blonde, blue-eyed, nouveau riche Arden (Christine Ebersole) who fraternized with socialite clients, makes a natural scenario. Both women were philanthropists, both were indomitable, short-sighted, and likely as lonely as portrayed. Neither achieved the kind of class acceptance she craved.
Creatives involved have done their homework. Some of the plot is concocted, certainly trading the important men in their lives didn’t occur. Douglas Still plays Rubinstein’s head of marketing, Harry Fleming, while John Dossett enacts Arden’s husband/head of marketing Tommy Lewis. (Both actors deserve better.) Still, much is accurate and rather interesting. (A litany of cosmetic ingredients might be somewhat curbed.) Watch for the early appearance of a lean, hungry Charles Revson. Two long, heavy handed numbers: A Fire and Ice television commercial and Lewis taking his wife’s Salon girls out could be easily jettisoned.
The musical takes us from the opening of Rubinstein’s atelier to the end of both careers.
Douglas Sills and John Dossett
Several of this year’s Tony Award aspirants for Best Musical have opened on Broadway with music and lyrics the weak link of elaborate productions. This is one of them. While Doug Wright’s book is grounded, clever, and illuminating, music by Scott Frankel is bland and repetitive, lyrics by Michael Korie range from congested to cliché.
There are exceptions to both. Elizabeth Arden’s/Ebersole’s “Pink” which despite a fluffy title becomes the moving eruption of a Valkyrie and the wry “Dinosaurs,” performed by Lewis/Dossett and Fleming/Sills stand out for musicality and expression. Titles like “If I’d Been a Man” and “Beauty in the World” promise much and deliver little.
Christine Ebersole’s Elizabeth Arden is palpably formidable. The actress doles out glimpses of vulnerability that make them all the more effective. Her interpretation of Arden is that of a cold woman. Ebersole is in superb voice.
As Helena Rubinstein, Patti Lupone’s vibrancy is equally forbidding, but her brush stroke is so wide, we see a cartoon. Despite impressively soaring vocals, Lupone is extremely hard to understand when singing. We do, however, feel her desperation.
Helena Rubinstein; Elizabeth Arden (Wikipedia)
Director Michael Greif gives each diva her due with grand entrances and clear-the-stage solos. Book scenes are well crafted. Extreme similarity in music makes it difficult to discern emotion in most vocal performance. Restaurant scenes at The St. Regis Hotel and the men’s two-hander at its King Cole Bar are deft. The ladies’ eating habits are droll.
Choreography by Christopher Gattelli reminds one of 1940 movie musicals. Make of that what you will.
David Korins’ fanciful salons offer evocative backdrop, but the neon signs of each lady’s name are irritating and unnecessary. (They might just as well read: APPLAUSE.)
Catherine Zuber’s Costumes are terrific, especially the hats. When it comes to the leads, color coordination is uncomfortably contrived, however.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Patti Lupone, Christine Ebersole and The Company
Book by Doug Wright
Music by Scott Frankel
Lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by Michael Greif
208 West 41st Street