Undoubtedly, this is the season of the older diva actress, with icons like Glenn Close (Sunset Boulevard), Bette Midler (Hello Dolly!), Sally Field (The Glass Menagerie), and Laurie Metcalf (A Doll’s House, Part 2) being some of the most talked-about performances of the season. Rounding out this impressive list are Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone in War Paint, the new musical by Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music), and Michael Korie (lyrics), directed by Michael Greif. War Paint opened on April 6th at the Nederlander Theater.
The musical tells the parallel stories of Elizabeth Arden (Ebersole) and Helena Rubenstein (LuPone)–the two original cosmetics business tycoons. The two were the first women to own companies in their names and eventually became some of the wealthiest women in the country. Their competing cosmetic empires were massively popular from the 1930s to the 1960s and the musical chronicles the two brands and two women’s bitter rivalries through very changing times.
To guide the audience through these changing times are glorious costumes by the extraordinary Catherine Zuber, which span across the thirty years the musical covers. The historical nature of the show is one of its largest flaws; though it may be an impressive dramaturgical feat, the pacing of the musical is bizarre and often overwhelming. Most of Act I provides the foundation of the 1930s, but in Act II all of a sudden the war happens, then it’s over, then poodle skirts arrive, then before you can blink it’s the 60s, and then show is over. At times it felt like each song was based not off a theme or event, but off a chapter in a biography. The creative team tried to not cut out anything, but in exchange they have a musical that is a bit too full, especially on songs.
The musical may have some structural problems and certainly is not the best written musical, but no one is seeing War Paint for the lyrics or the scenes, everyone is there to see the beloved the stars–and rightfully so: Patti LuPone is fierce and Christine Ebersole is triumphant. They both play their roles with such majestic panache fitting of not only the characters, but the actresses as well. The musical is pretty and has a story that is interesting, but in reality War Paint is a glorified concert for Ebersole and LuPone, but the audience loves that about it. The show is incredibly metatheatrical in that way: a musical about two icons competing, played by two icons, this time competing not only for audience applause, but also for a Tony award. In a cruelly ironic twist of fate, LuPone and Ebersole are both nominated for Best Actress in a Musical, once again competing head to head.
The show certainly takes liberties in regards to the relationship between Arden and Rubenstein; there is no historical evidence they ever met. So in order to stage a musical about their parallel careers, the show was written and staged in a way where one side of the stage is the Arden boutique/offices and one side is the Rubenstein laboratory/offices; they have matching scenes, split duets, and mirrored blocking. This is theoretically compelling and dramatic, but when every single scene and song happens separately but identically twice the magic wears off quickly. The entire musical uses this mirror device and it quickly becomes cliche.
Ebersole and LuPone may be vocal powerhouses, but they cannot seem to fully hold up this flawed musical, with it bad lyrics, lazy staging, and entirely bland supporting cast. John Dosett and Douglas Sills played the two male leads, the advertising partners for each woman, and gave entirely unmemorable and bland performances. The positive side effect of this was that it made LuPone and Ebersole seem even more impressive.
The show itself and the cast as a whole may be lackluster and flawed, but the leading ladies are certainly deserving of praise. Patti LuPone gave a hilariously campy and intense performance, integrating all the nuances of the labcoat and diamond-clad Polish-Jewish Helena Rubenstein’s obsession with the American dream. Christine Ebersole, on the other hand, was serious and passionate, a dominant queen bathed in pink who was not to be trifled with. Of the two, it seems as if Ebersole was the winner, albeit by a small margin. Towards the end of Act II, both characters were aging and being forced into retirement and each sang a solo about their life. LuPone’s song “Forever Beautiful,” though vocally impressive, was a mere ballad about Rubenstein’s legacy via her painted portraits, which was niether sympathetic or compelling. Ebersole’s song, “Pink,” however, was the apex of the musical: the song tells how Arden’s entire life work and legacy is reduced to a shade a pink, a color she made famous in exchange for losing her husband and her chance for children.
The true climax of the show occurs in the very last scene: a fictionalized meeting of the gods Arden and Rubenstein late in their life, when they have lost the grace and poise and traded it in for canes and wrinkles. This scene is what the audience waited for the entire musical, and the face to face tea-time confrontation and song “Beauty in the World” was certainly worth the wait. War Paint certainly is not a revolutionary (or even a very well-written or conceived) musical, but the magnificent performances by LuPone and Ebersole are an absolute must-see.