The Broadway musical “War Paint”, which ends its respectable run this weekend, flew in completely under my radar, but once it was on it, I was so hooked. A new musical with a brand-new score, telling the story of two of the greatest women in business, and starring two of the greatest women in musical theatre? Sign me up! Doesn’t that sound just kick you in the shins spit on your neck fantastic? I don’t know how the anticipation of this show was so contained, because in theory it is just the greatest idea ever: Christine Ebersole, Patti LuPone, a new score by Korie and Frankel (who wrote the glorious “Grey Gardens” for Christine), and a biographical tale of cosmetics giants Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein and their long rivalry? I still can’t get over how incredible it is in theory. In theory.
I read some of Lindy Woodhead’s book (erma) when writing this up because I am hella professional, but going into the show I knew nothing about the lives of Rubenstein or Arden except that they were successful businessers whose names still carry significant weight today. Going in cold, I was so pumped to be blown away. However, from the start I could tell that I would be annoyingly unsatisfied. There were moments of greatness – LuPone’s humor, Ebersole’s vulnerability, both of their voices (in SUCH good shape), a few of their songs. But overall, the score was mediocre, the book was a g-d mess (such eye rolling at the dialogue and some unnecessary whole scenes), and the choreography was meh. If I’m sitting in an audience thinking “I could do that choreo” and I’m right? That doesn’t belong on a professional stage.
But really no matter how much I criticize it (and how much there is to criticize), it was amazing to be able to see these two pillars of musical theatre not only again but together. Patti’s vocal placement remains unparalleled. Christine is so lovely and heartbreaking as always. The show was unquestionably worth seeing for these performances, even though I questioned seeing it because I’ve seen both of them in other and better shows. At one moment I thought to myself “dammit they are incredible” and then was like “oh well yeah that’s why there are four Tony Awards up there between the two of them.”
Okay so what’s it about plot-wise and not just historically? It starts with a look inside Arden’s well-oiled machine, her super successful and popular salon with the famous red door, and all the inner workings and workers who keep it moving. Arden had pioneered the lighter touch to makeup to make it okay for higher class women to wear it, mostly tricking them with pink porcelain containers that were responsible for like 90% of a product’s cost. But then this brassy Jewish immigrant with an AMAZ accent comes around with an enticing brand that threatens to take Arden’s top spot in the industry. Whereas Arden’s was pink and soft and old moneyed, Rubenstein’s aesthetic is sleek and chic, black and white, sexual and violent, grabbing the attention of a lot of customers. The two battled back and forth, stealing ideas and secrets, trying to get a similar product out before the other, and most importantly upping their game consistently in their rivalry, which actually benefited everyone.
It was most interesting to see the two strong women reconcile the fact that they are pioneers for strong women in industry, with the fact that their success is coming in an industry telling women they aren’t good enough as is. An actual quote of Rubenstein’s is “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones,” which is HILARIOUS but like, terrible. This provocative conflict between what they represented and what they were actually doing added to all the interesting conflict with each other and the competition that was responsible for a lot of later success, when either could have easily just skated by instead of constantly trying to innovate. There was SO MUCH potential for this story, right?? and I hate that it wasn’t a home run.
One of the biggest problems for me was that Rubenstein’s and Arden’s male companions’ and partners’ storylines and songs take up WAY too much space. Their whole thing reeks of fragile white masculinity and it is so eyeroll through all of it. It made me angry that even in my safe space I couldn’t get away from white men complaining when they might not be in charge of literally every single little bit of the world and oh how terrible it was for them to have (gasp) ladybosses. But more than that, I was furious that it seemed like the creators were seemingly trying to shore up a show about two strong amazing women by adding a B plot about their partners, adding a male story just in case the ignorant masses would be too scandalized by a show only about women. Like the thought that “oh to be safe we need a lot about the men in their lives” was probably the focus of a lot of early discussions. And it made the show worse. Trust female stories to be enough.
Aside from these men, my other big problem with the show was another white man, Charles Revson, who grows up to form Revlon and who in the movie version would be played by that creepy guy who shows up in literally every TV show, Isaac Heller. Revson is responsible for nail polish being so easy and accessible. Early on, he tried to sell his product to both women, who both passed. His bit could have been a short thing just so we knew his name and his deal and that both women passed, and his later enormous success – and his overtaking both Arden and Rubenstein in sales – would have had the same impact on the audience, as we realize oh shit this was probably a big mistake on both their parts. But to have looong boring scenes where he tries to sell his product and then later a whole drawn out mess with his big Revlon commercial/musical number? We did not need to see the TV commercial for Not One of the Main Characters. And we REALLY didn’t need that mess where Arden tries to warn Revson’s model girlfriend that she should be careful being his model because…actually it’s unclear why she felt so sad about the model, except that maybe she meant to say ‘don’t rely on your looks, they fade’ and was guessing at how sad the pretty girl might feel one day? BUT WHY WOULD THAT MAKE A COSMETICS GIANT SAD THAT JUST MEANS SHE’D HAVE A DEFINITE FUTURE CUSTOMER.
In the book (#woodhead), it’s clear that both women’s failure to recognize Revson as a serious player in the cosmetics industry and as a potential competitor was a huge mistake, and I think that could have effectively been shown without giving him unnecessary stage time. The women were too busy concentrating on fighting with and one-upping each other to notice new opponents creeping around them. This is an important fact, but the show addresses it way too messily.
But that competition and rivalry was the best part, creating such drama and intrigue between the two as representatives of their companies. They engaged in back and forth recipe leaking thanks to their partners who swapped companies (that should have been the focus of the men’s stories – that they both left to work in the rival company - AND THAT'S IT), and that led the FDA to require cosmetics to list every single ingredient on the label. We have all the shady dealings of these women to thank for knowing what’s in our stuff. How interesting is that? That’s strong material I wish we saw more of. (There was a Senate hearing or two but I wanted more and I wanted facts!) Both had to rename products and rethink advertising campaigns – especially when we saw both of them sell creams that were identical but one was sold for night and one for day. Companies still pull that shit today though when we can clearly see it’s all the same ingredients!
I also loved that we saw how these amazing women adapted when the war broke out – by creating products specifically for women in action and by veering away from using materials being rationed. This was interesting! Do more of that! I loved that they said they were helping to provide women in action with the war paint (take a shot) they needed to stay strong. The commitment of these women to make the companies they built as strong as possible could have made such a solid show if the creators believed in that story enough. Luckily the two performances are incredible, as I said. And not just their singing; they are some of the best actresses too. Patti’s biggest line, delivered when she is yet again trying to think of ways to destroy her rival, was, “It is dangerous to leave an enemy wounded. The attack must be fatal.” It’s a good line and her delivery was one hundred emoji but it did NOT need to get extended audience applause. What the crap kind of psychopaths was I sitting among.
Christine’s best line won’t really translate to the page, but when she was dismissing all the other sources of competition in the industry (really, they only had eyes for each other), she waves off the idea of being threatened by one of them because “she’s from Hoboken!” Right it sounds like nothing but Ebersole’s delivery was maybe the best of any line ever by anyone and the audience was crying. Patti’s funniest moments were from her ridiculous accent that I LOVED. It made her say things like ‘shits’ instead of ‘sheets’. “Where’s that contract?” “It’s right here on the shits.” Obsessed.
See I complain but there was so much good in this show. I just so badly wanted it to be better. The big number “Face to Face”, the duet performed on the Tonys, felt like an important piece of musical theatre history, just watching these two sing a duet. And Arden’s big 11 o’clock number “Pink”, about how her dismay that her entire life’s legacy might just be boiled down to her signature color, was Tony worthy in my opinion. And honestly, the costumes stand out as the most striking part of the show. They really deserved to win the Tony. I’ve never really noticed costumes before, not enough to realize that I’m noticing them, but I was in awe of Catherine Zuber’s work here. She is flames.
Side note, I learned afterward that Elizabeth Arden’s real name was Florence Nightingale Graham lolol her shitty parents.
So if somehow you have the chance to see this show in the next few days, you should. It’s so frustrating that it wasn’t constructed more thoughtfully and that all the songs aren’t as good as the best ones, but there is still some greatness in the story, and seeing LuPone and Ebersole together is a magical experience.
- The Nederlander redid the bathrooms since I was there last and it’s maybe the best bathroom situation I’ve ever seen in a theatre except for the Lyric, that shit is enormous.
- I got rush tickets for a Saturday matinee right before showtime. Definitely one of the easiest rushes I've ever encountered. (Although probably not for its final weekend.)
- This had the latest start of any show I’ve been to, I think. But it was a Saturday matinee and it was the oldest crowd I’ve ever seen too, older even than the people on the cruise I was on 8 years ago when it was me and husband and then 100 people from The Villages retirement home in Florida. So, I guess there's at least a reason.
OMG are you kidding, you do not stagedoor on two-show days for people of this calibre! They're not coming out for shit!