By Karen Isaacs
Take two Broadway stars – both genuine stars beloved by musical fanatics and a story of two powerful women – and you have War Paint.
The two stars, Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole each have two Tonys plus numerous nominations. The two powerful women are Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. Both were pioneers. Each built a corporation in her own name, and together made the wearing of cosmetics respectable for “ladies.”
The bulk of War Paint takes place in the 1930s and 40s, the heyday of the Arden and Rubenstein brands. They were NOT friendly competitors. Each had overcome an impoverished background: for Rubenstein it was the shtetl of Poland and for Arden it was a farm in Ontario. Rubenstein promoted the image of the scientist who created her own products; Arden’s image was of the society, WASP blue blood.
The show alternates between the two of them, showing their successes, their problems, their competitive urges, and their downfalls. Both faced challenges when WWII limited the availability of ingredients needed for their cosmetics; Arden created a red lipstick to match the red on the Marine Corps chevrons. Women in the Corps were required to wear the “Victory Red” lipstick and nail polish as part of their uniforms. Rubenstein also succeeded during the war after appealing to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Afer the war, each faced questioning by a Congressional committee about the ingredients in their products and the sometimes extravagant claims made for them. It led to regulations requiring ingredient labels on the products. Women learned that the products themselves often cost only pennies while the elaborate packaging (Arden’s included silk ribbons and glass jars) cost much, much more.
Both ended up losing the companies they had built in part because in the 1950s they refused to change and accept the more youth-oriented culture and the need for lower price lines. Soon Charles Revson had outshone them with Revlon. Yet both brands continue today; in fact, Arden’s headquarters are in Stamford and her famous “Red Door Spa” still is on 5th Avenue in NYC as well as other places.
Each also faced discrimination due to the gender and to their backgrounds. In a poignant moment towards the end of the show, Rubenstein is rejected for a co-op apartment because of her Jewish heritage and Arden is rejected for membership in an exclusive “society” club for her lower class background.
In addition, each found that men often assumed that they were figureheads whose
successes were engineered by the men who surrounded them. For many years, Arden’s husband (Tommy Lewis) was head of marketing, but she was careful to keep publicity about the relationship to a minimum. As she said, “The moment they credit you, they discredit me – you’re in pants.”
Two men figured prominently in both their lives. Arden’s husband eventually went to work for Rubenstein after Arden replaced him with Rubenstein’s former head of marketing (Harry Fleming) and they divorced.
The show depends on the two leading ladies and they both deliver. Lupone plays Rubenstein with a heavy eastern European accent that can make it difficult to understand lines. It is especially noticeable in the songs where Lupone has always had a tendency to garble words. But she creates a feisty woman willing to be direct and make difficult decisions. Her competitiveness is born out of her background of being denigrated for her religion in Poland and her immigrant status in the U.S.
Ebersole’s Arden is equally competitive but cloaked in a more genteel ladylike garb. While she can belt with Lupone, her voice is also more lyrical to match the character. If Lupone’s Rubenstein is dramatic and “artistic,” Ebersole’s Arden is gracious and polite.
Yet underneath the exteriors, each had steel core. It is what led to their downfalls; neither was willing to acknowledge the changes in society. Both stuck with their original concepts of making cosmetics acceptable to middle class women. At one point one of them says that teens and young women did not need make-up they had youthful beauty on their side.
The show was written by Doug Wright, a Tony (and Pulitzer) winner in his own right with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie. They are best known for the Tony nominated musical Grey Gardens.
If you don’t walk out of the theater humming the tunes, it may partly be due to the lack of reprises. You don’t have the opportunity for a melody to be reinforced. It will take hearing the CD to decide it the score is merely serviceable of it goes beyond that.
The two ladies are ably assisted by Douglas Sills as Harry and John Dossett as Tommy, each of whom has his own Tony nominations. Sills has the more flamboyant role as the handsome and gay Harry. Both men hold their own on the stage with these to magnetic women.
The remainder of the ensemble play multiple roles. Erik Liberman stands out as Charles Revson, who saw the marketing possibilities of television and created his own brand.
Michael Greif’s direction minimizes the confusions as we go back and forth between the
stories of the two women. By using a small ensemble, the minor characters are unable to develop any specifics; they seem interchangeable – shop clerks, society women, customers, etc. He keeps the spotlight firmly on the two leads.
Christopher Gatelli did the minimal choreography but is also responsible for the choreographed walks on the stage.
The set by David Korns features a backdrop of various cosmetic bottles, vials and others which are cleverly lighted by Kenneth Posner; Posner also creates several other interesting effects.
Catherine Zuber must have had a ball creating the numerous costumes which reflect trends from the late’20s to the ’50 and for a variety of personalities. Rubenstein was more dramatic in her apparel while Arden fitted into the upper class society matron style.
War Paint may not be a great musical but it gives us the opportunity to see two great stage performers show off their talents, with two strong supporting men in the cast and a story about the obstacles women have faced. That makes it worth seeing.
It is at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.