Written by the same team that created the musical version of Grey Gardens (Doug Wright, book, Scott Frankel, music, and Michael Korie, lyrics) which gave Ebersole the two best roles of her career, the new show is absorbing, elegant and urbane hewing closely to the facts while at times compressing time and offering a few composite characters. Suggested by the joint biography War Paint by Lindy Woodhead and the documentary film, The Powder and the Glory, the musical tells the parallel stories of the rivalry and careers of these two remarkable women from the 1935 to 1964. As they are never reported to have met, Wright’s book for the musical either alternates their lives or uses a split stage effect to show us both at the same time in their own milieu. Occasionally, they lunch at the St. Regis at the same time but avoid meeting each other seated on their own banquettes.
Both women had more in common than differences: they were both immigrants and both remained outsiders in the U.S.: Rubinstein was a Polish Jew from the shtetl; Arden was a Canadian Episcopalian who had grown up on a farm. Both fled their upbringings to reinvent themselves. The clever set design by David Korins has Arden in interiors of her signature pink, Rubinstein in blue, often using the same set but lit differently by Kenneth Posner. The chic costumes by Catherine Zuber which help give War Paint its notable look are kept down to only a few controlled colors: pink, fuscia and red, grey, pale blue, navy blue and white.
The story begins in 1935 with Elizabeth Arden the cosmetic queen of New York, retailing to an elite clientele. However, she is informed that Helena Rubinstein who had sold her business in 1928 to Lehman Brothers has bought it back and is returning to New York where she opens a salon within blocks of Arden’s flagship Red Door salon. The women quickly lay stake to their territory. Arden who offers beauty culture believes that “Every woman has a God-given right to loveliness” and provides cosmetics in beautiful containers. Rubinstein advertises her science of beauty and believes that “There are no ugly women; only lazy ones.”
Arden’s right hand man is her husband and head of sales Tommy Lewis, while Rubinstein is assisted by gay executive Harry Fleming. Both men resent not having the title and the salary that should go with their job. However, competing in a man’s world, both women are afraid of making it appear that they hadn’t done it on their own. Eventually each man switches loyalties to his boss’ rival and betrays the other to the U.S. Senate which opens an investigation into the ingredients in their products.
World War II offers both women a new opportunity and new markets: cosmetics for the working woman and the woman who has joined the army services. But on the horizon are new competitors and advertising organs which they refuse to recognize: television and the new youth market being supplied by Charles Revson, Helene Curtis, Hazel Bishop, Maybelline and Estée Lauder. Eventually both women discover that they have become old-hat and disposable even to the corporations that they created. Wright’s book cleverly solves the problem of their never having met, at least publicly.
Wright’s book not only tells us about their careers but also about their hobbies: Arden raced championship horses, while Rubinstein commissioned paintings by the world’s greatest artists. However, both women never lost their outsider status as demonstrated by the things that were closed to both of them. Frankel’s lyrics are witty and detailed revealing a great deal about the business and their lives. As the musical gives most of the songs to LuPone and Ebersole, he has cleverly arranged it so that many of them can be sung by both or alternating with different lyrics (“My Secret Weapon,” “My American Moment,” “If I’d Been a Man,” “Face to Face,” “No Thank You,” and finally, “Beauty in the World.”)
Ultimately, each has a concluding solo which is among the best material they have sung. The musical numbers are structured so that they increase in their emotional quotient, building up to Ebersole’s scathing “Pink” in which Arden analyzes the trajectory of her career based on her signature color, and LuPone’s “Forever Beautiful” in which she ruefully examines her art collection as her immortality. Korie’s melodic music is downplayed in Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations and Brian Ronan’s sound design so that every word is crystal clear, a rare thing of beauty on today’s Broadway stages.
The small but versatile ensemble of four character ladies and four leggy ensemble ladies play various roles including society women, Arden girls, beauty technicians, W.W. II WACs and machinists, and television models. Not only are the costumes color-coordinated but the production numbers as well. Among the chic and eye-filling numbers by choreographer Christopher Gattelli’s are “Best Face Forward,” set in Arden’s Red Door salon, “Necessity is the Mother of Invention,” introducing the new women’s roles and products during the war years, and the dazzling “Fire and Ice” commercial for CBS television led by as Steffanie Leigh as model and cover girl Dorian Leigh performed entirely in red satin and silver lamé.
Under Michael Greif’s superb direction, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole give the kind of three-dimensional portrayals that one expects in dramas rather than in musicals. (However, bookwriter Doug Wright has made a career of dramatizing biographical and true stories in both plays and musicals: Quills, I Am My Own Wife, Grey Gardens, Hands on a Hardbody, Posterity and now War Paint). While both embody the arrogance of their characters, there are differences. Ebersole’s Elizabeth Arden is a woman who feels entitled to her success, while LuPone’s Helena Rubinstein believes she has earned it through her hard work. Neither actress has any dancing but their singing is both impassioned and luminous. Both are sophisticated and acerbic, cutting people down to size with a single word. LuPone, of course, has to do all this with a thick Polish accent with which she is most comfortable and the heavy jewelry to which Rubinstein was partial. Both are at the top of their form and create indelible characters.
John Dossett and Douglas Sills as the men in their lives are both blandly written and they do not make much of an impression in the early part of the show. As Harry Fleming, a composite character, Sills has a slight edge playing a closeted gay man walking a thin line and giving jabs as good as he gets. However, both actors deepen their roles in the second half when they meet and commiserate with each other as to how things have worked out in the rueful and bitter song, “Dinosaurs,” in which they realize they have outlived their usefulness. Erik Liberman fares much better as the colorful, crass and vulgar Charles Revson who is not above using hyperbole or television to advertise his products. As Dorian Leigh, who became one of the world’s first supermodels, beautiful Stephanie Leigh goes from gauche hand model to sizzling superstar. The rest of the nine member ensemble demonstrates much range playing a great many assorted characters throughout the show.
War Paint is the sort of musical that will stay with you long after you have seen it. It is unusual in telling so complete a double portrait of two of the most famous women of the 20th century. ys A show with one musical theater legend is rare these days but with both Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole you are offered two of the great ladies of the American musical on the same stage at the top of their form. Sophisticated, chic and elegant, War Paint is an absorbing and magnificent story of two remarkable women who climbed their way to the top of their profession only to find that there were still things they could not accomplish.
War Paint (through November 5, 2017)
Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 877-250-2929 or visit http://www.warpaintmusical.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission