The sophisticated and rewarding new musical “War Paint,” about the decades-spanning rivalry of cosmetic titans Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, manages remarkably to be many things at once. First and foremost, it’s a double display of delicious diva-dom, with Patti LuPone as Rubinstein and Christine Ebersole as Arden expertly commanding the stage for most of the show’s two and half hours. And given that they are embodying two of the first women to build business empires, the decades-spanning story also manages to capture the tale of mid-century capitalism, alongside the intrusions of World War II, the introduction of television, the evolving roles of women and the changing notions of beauty. In other words… well, America.
The show is also a demonstration of offbeat theatrical craftiness, as the reunited “Grey Gardens” team of Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music), Michael Korie (lyrics) and Michael Greif (direction) begin with a slightly splashy production number but soon settle into a chamber-ish musical, more driven by character and theme than spectacle. Rubinstein and Arden don’t actually meet until the very end, so rather than traditional scenes of conflict, we are treated to a barrage of clever parallelisms that depict how much these two very different women had in common, until the climactic scene when they wind up in the same dressing room as accidentally-paired guests of honor. No matter: They occupy the same stage throughout, and the heavily melodic score finds ingenious ways of pairing them in mutual contemplation — the duet “If I’d Been a Man” is only the most obvious opportunity, as each considers what it would be like to have their ambition go unquestioned.
While “Grey Gardens” was a story of American privilege and a descent into kooky decay, “War Paint” depicts two social climbing outsiders-cum-insiders (Arden was from Canada, Rubinstein from Poland). LuPone’s Rubinstein, aided by Catherine Zuber’s layered costuming, is the epitome of Eastern European exotic — a characteristic that possesses a certain chic appeal but also attracts anti-Semitism aplenty. Ebersole’s Arden is all sunniness and good cheer, but her riches are too nouveaux to enable full entry into the social stratosphere she courts.
By the time we meet them in the 1930s, they have already achieved business success but have to struggle to maintain it, grow it and define what they want from it.
After an opening song about “A Woman’s Face” – “A woman knows / Her looks are subject to approval/ In the competition’s eyes./ Youth comes and goes./ The trick is keeping the illusion up,/ So nobody gets wise” — the story starts with Rubinstein’s return to New York, after having re-purchased her own brand, presenting a potential threat to Arden’s domination of the Fifth Avenue elite.
Arden and Rubinstein had managed to make make-up more than respectable, Arden by packaging it in pricey porcelain containers with pink bows, Rubinstein by emphasizing the supposed science of skin types. The Arden Girls, young and lovely and dressed in pink, sing the catchy “Behind the Red Door” as they aid their clientele in putting on new faces and new selves. Rubinstein’s aides are older and severe. They’re called “beauty technicians” and dressed in lab coats. “There are no ugly women,” LuPone informs us. “Only lazy ones.”
They are mutually obsessed with the other, so much so that Arden poaches Rubinstein’s ad man Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills). In return, Madame Rubinstein hires Arden’s ex-husband Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), whom Arden never allowed to own any piece of her company. Of course, the best efforts at sabotage lead only to mutual problems, as both women find themselves called before congressional hearings that demand to know exactly what animal parts are in these lotions, and what marketing claims might be exaggerated.
Wright’s book is a model of efficiency here: All he needs is to allow each woman one clever response to flummox the questioner, who then puts regulatory obstacles in their way. Suddenly, the two women realize they may have a mutual enemy. In the storytelling’s one odd moment, the Act I finale “Face to Face” seems to promise an upcoming tete-a-tete that doesn’t emerge.
The Act II opener “War Paint” chronicles how the threats of rationing materials during World War II led instead to major opportunities: As more women enter the workforce, they need more lipstick. But when CBS comes a-calling for quiz show sponsors in the 1950s, both women make the same miscalculation by protecting the exclusivity of their brands rather than descending into mass marketing. Revlon — embodied by an easy-to-underestimate Erik Liberman as Charles Revson — emerges as the victor. Their time on top has passed, and each must come to terms with it
The show ends with a series of extraordinary highs. Dossett and Sills — who are both excellent, and as core to the show as LuPone and Ebersole — step into the spotlight, singing the comic but emotionally resonant duet “Dinosaurs.” Then Ebersole and LuPone get climactic solos. Ebersole’s Arden sings “Pink,” questioning whether she’ll be remembered for a color she doesn’t even like that much when she felt she’d accomplished so much more. LuPone’s Rubinstein sings “Forever Beautiful,” an ode to art that touches on how she loved having Picasso and Dali paint her portrait.
Like so much of the score, both solos contain the emotional thoughtfulness that makes this show deeply appealing, if not exactly rollicking. Far more a well-heeled dinner party than a rave, “War Paint” embraces its offbeat structural equation — the songs are often “about” subjects rather than scenes in and of themselves. And while the show follows the business of beauty, it may have an over- focus on the business end, leaving the elusive and myriad interpretations of beauty as an opportunity still to be plumbed. A line in the final scene gives this important thought a clear nod, but only seems to note what the show does not yet fully confront: “Did we make women free-er, / Or did we help enslave them?”
For this final scene, set in 1964, these two lifelong rivals meet. For the duration of the show, they’ve shared a theatrical space, but stared each other down only figuratively. Greif and both actresses understand the appeal of this scene so well that each glance, each supposed compliment, each application of lipstick, becomes multiply meaningful. Not a moment is over-done, and their final duet, “Beauty in the World,” only confirms what we have seen all along. They are peas in a pod, rivals who never would have worked so hard, achieved so much, without the competition of the other. It’s a satisfying ending to a richly rewarding show.