Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone
"Every woman has the right to be beautiful," cosmetics titan Elizabeth Arden famously observed, speaking from somewhere behind her elegant Red Door, through which a wealthy-enough woman could, like Arden herself, maybe transcend the class of her birth.
Helena Rubinstein, her notorious rival CEO in the cutthroat makeup business of mid-20th century America, said much the same thing, albeit with less finesse, a stronger immigrant belief in America as egalitarian meritocracy, and way, way more gut-tested bite: "There are no ugly women, only lazy ones."
So did these great saleswomen speak the truth through their powers and potions? And — yet more importantly — did the signature businesses of these pioneering women frame the question in such a way that they helped women cheat the inevitable ravages of time and retain their youthful optimism and glamour?
Or did they, in fact, trap an entire female generation in male constructions of their own attractiveness — an objectification that, luckily for Arden and Rubinstein and their empires, ultimately costs every woman a lot of time, effort and money to fulfill? For the woman who can manage not to age is a lucky woman indeed.
That issue certainly informs the very classy and elegant new Broadway musical from the Goodman Theatre, "War Paint," which opened Thursday night at the Nederlander Theatre under the deceptively complex direction of Michael Greif and with a sparkling retro design by David Korins. Those themes float in the air during the most poignant numbers in the score composed by Scott Frankel, and they suffuse the lyrics of Michael Korie. Those signature lines — part of a book by Doug Wright filled with bon mots juiced by the dramatic irony of the recent decades of feminist advancement — ring out loud and clear. Especially since they are spoken, respectively, by the formidable Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone.
But while there is enough substance in "War Paint" to make you feel like everyone involved here is fully aware of the complexity of what these characters represented, the show ultimately demurs when it comes to holding the great titans of makeup, and the men who surrounded them, to moral account. And that is what might just have made "War Paint" a truly great musical, instead of a highly entertaining and provocative one.
The piece remains — for me, anyway, and with ample stipulation of the singular achievements in business by Arden and Rubinstein — a tad too admiring of its subjects for its own good, and insufficiently willing to really probe what was happening to the women opening their purses at cosmetics counters.
That’s intensified because these spectacular stars — each at the peak of their powers, each with a magnetic pull and yet an ease in the shared spotlight — are inseparable from the characters they were hired to play.
The presence of these stars is an essential and premeditated part of "War Paint," in that Ebersole and LuPone occupy niches in the realm of musical theater that offer a rough equivalence with the niches exploited by Arden (blonde, classy, WASP-ish of appeal) and Rubinstein (exotic, singular, technically flawless) in the makeup business. Part of the show’s fun — and it is indeed great fun — is enjoying that self-aware parallel, which helps float these extraordinary stars through the show toward their deserved ovations and puts you in mind of the complexities of the path a talented women must carve out to survive in show business, never mind makeup.
But there’s a downside, too. On occasion, it makes everything feel a tad too much on the nose.
Granted, the real-life parallels between Arden and Rubinstein are uncanny. Each had a complex relationship with her male subordinates, even stealing he who belonged to the other, a biographical fact explored in this musical through two mostly self-loathing subservient males, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills) and Tommy Lewis (John Dossett). Fleming was hired by Rubinstein; Lewis was Arden’s first husband. It’s hardly fair to criticize any homogeneity of structure; it is biographical fact.
Some of the challenges baked into "War Paint" (based on the biography of the same title by Lindy Woodhead) flow from the creative team here setting itself the fiendishly tricky task of building a musical from equal-status protagonists traveling on parallel tracks that never meet (the women avoided each other in real life), even through their destinations are much the same.
Most biographical musicals, of course, go with one choice: Aaron Burr, for example, is kept from the center of "Hamilton," which is reserved for you-know-who. That’s far easier. "War Paint" was more ambitious. In the time between Chicago and New York, most of the forced parallelisms were excised from the show, allowing each woman to feel more of an original, and so they mostly do, thanks in no small measure to the detail within, and the commitment behind, the leading performances. But the structure, of course, has its price. With two such women needing their stories told, it is not easy to include their customers.
I suspect everyone involved with "War Paint" had more they wanted to do than really was possible — understandably, these men were compelled by these women as business leaders and much of the music and lyrics sing well of resilience and opportunity ("My American Moment," "My Secret Weapon," "Better Yourself").
But as the evening wears on, we are, of course, drawn far more to personal matters. The emotional strengths of Frankel and Korie’s work lie in ironic songs of self-doubt: "Pink" for Ebersole (the best song in the show) and "Forever Beautiful" for LuPone. Each respective performance is of a wattage ample to send home the patron feeling like existential revelation was imbued in those final moments, even if the women’s affect on us all remains, well, overly concealed.
You certainly start to think about how, whatever war paint anyone might try to put on, the theater always is most necessary in the business of makeup removal.
"War Paint" "plays at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St.; 212-239-6200 or www.warpaintmusical.com.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.