From a purely cosmetic standpoint, the Broadway musical “War Paint” seems to have all the makings of an over-the-top season of the FX series “Feud”: Two powerful, successful, ferociously competitive women, locked in an unrelenting rivalry and played by actresses who are storied Broadway performers with a high quotient of gay fandom.
But audiences at the Nederlander Theater, where the $11 million musical is currently in previews ahead of an April 6 opening, won’t be sitting down to the sensationalized story of a catfight. What they’ll see instead is a more measured, thoughtful look at two pioneers of the business world, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, and the ways in which they both influenced and were influenced by changing American perspectives on professional women and standards of beauty — while getting in a few quips and zingers along the way, delivered by Broadway favorites Christine Ebersole (as Arden) and Patti LuPone (as Rubinstein).
“Yes, there is a high-camp drag version of this show that maybe we’ll all enjoy in Provincetown one summer,” admitted composer Scott Frankel. But he and his fellow creatives, lyricist Michael Korie and book writer Doug Wright — also his collaborators on “Grey Gardens,” along with “War Paint” director Michael Greif — scrupulously avoided that approach.
“These women were captains of industry,” Frankel said. “If we were writing about Henry Ford and the head of Chrysler, you wouldn’t be looking for cutting, campy, wink-wink scenes in a cigar lounge.”
“For three gay men to write a camp send-up is no great theatrical achievement,” Wright added wryly. “The three of us challenged ourselves to look past that. And we knew that women tend to buy Broadway tickets, so if we sounded false notes or if the ladies appeared inauthentic, the audience would reject them, and we would have lost on all counts.”
“War Paint” instead takes a more considered approach to its subjects, aiming to embrace the complexities of its protagonists and subject matter.
“Their work is complex, but yet it’s accessible,” said Ebersole, who is reuniting with Frankel, Korie, Wright and Greif after working with the four of them in “Grey Gardens,” in which she won a 2007 Tony Award. “Their songs are always exciting for me to sing because there’s always nuance to be found. The material is not so straight-ahead that you ever find it the first time out.”
The project took a roundabout route to its eventual creative team. Writer-director James Lapine (“Sunday in the Park with George”) initially brought the idea to producer David Stone (“Wicked,” “Next to Normal”), with whom he had worked on “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Lapine introduced Stone to the “The Powder and the Glory,” Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman’s 2009 documentary about Arden and Rubinstein. He suggested the tale might make a good musical, but didn’t see himself as the right fit for it.
So Stone took the idea to “Next to Normal” director Greif (whose other Broadway musical this season, “Dear Evan Hansen,” has been a breakout hit). Just coming off “Grey Gardens,” Greif took the idea to his collaborators on that project.
Once Stone had secured the rights to the doc and the book that inspired it (Lindy Woodhead’s “War Paint: Miss Elizabeth Arden and Madame Helena Rubinstein — Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry”), the team embarked on the project in early 2011. As the musical moved toward its first readings in 2013, Stone teamed up on the show with his “Wicked” cohort Marc Platt, whose Hollywood activities include “La La Land” and the brewing “Wicked” movie.
The biggest challenge in telling any version of Arden and Rubinstein’s true-life story, sensationalized or not, was the fact that by all accounts, the two women were never in the same room together. “There was no suggestion of a dramatic story that you could put on the stage,” Korie recalled. “How do you write a musical about two women who never met? How do you write duets for people who are in different locations? “
The creatives solved the problem by finding links in the real-life turns of events — such as when the two women trade right hand men — as well as thematic overlaps and, ultimately, a longing in each woman to meet the other. “If you play fast and loose with the facts, and let them come head to head all the time on stage, what you achieve is just a kind of conventional, realistic, two-person scene,” Wright said. “The fact they never met is a direct invitation to theatrical invention.”
The show premiered at the Goodman Theater in Chicago last summer, where critics were largely upbeat, and unanimous about how to improve it. Building off those reviews, the retooling in advance of New York and during previews has focused on breaking up the ping-pong rhythm of switching focus between the two leads, and further incorporating the broader questions of nascent feminism and standards of beauty raised by the storyline.
But according to Stone, if audiences go in expecting to see a catfight, that’s fine — up to a point. “If that intrigues people, okay,” he said. “But then what we also must do is deal with other more serious issues: What these women sacrificed in order to succeed, how they created an industry, and became the first women in this country running multinational corporations named for them, all by creating a movement that both empowers and enslaves other women,” he added. “The shows that really work are the ones that give audiences what they want, and then give them what they don’t even know they want, what they don’t expect.”