Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
April 13, 2017 by Aileen Jacobson
Toward the end of “War Paint,” the new Broadway musical about two queens of the cosmetics industry, one Jewish and one not, Elizabeth Arden (the blond, blue-eyed Christian one) asks in a lyric whether they had made women more free or helped “enslave them.”
Helena Rubinstein, the makeup mogul with darker hair and a longer nose, who was born in a Polish shtetl, replies, “Perhaps they will forgive us when they look at what we gave them.” That would be more than just lipsticks and creams to make them more alluring and, maybe, establish a clearer sense of self-worth (or maybe make them doubt their worth if they didn’t embellish their looks). The two also demonstrated how far women could go in business, establishing their own highly successful companies and amassing millions of dollars.
It is a shame that the musical, despite beautiful costumes and pleasant music and terrific performances by Christine Ebersole as Arden and Patti LuPone as Rubinstein, rarely goes more than skin-deep in its exploration of this fascinating duo, whose fierce rivalry lasted until their deaths in the 1960s. Sisterhood was not among their ideals. Indeed, both were often cruel to their employees, male and female, and ruthless in business matters. They almost certainly would not have succeeded if they had been nice, deferential or otherwise traditionally feminine, even though what they sold was enhanced femininity—prettily packaged in pink in Arden’s case, wrapped in an austere cloak of scientific research in Rubinstein’s.
It is astonishing that their names are not better known today, at least among younger women, even though both their brands still exist—Rubinstein’s internationally but not in the U.S., Arden’s as close as Macy’s or your nearest Red Door Spa. (I asked a 23-year-old woman I met at the Nederlander Theater, where the show has just opened, if she had been familiar with their names before this, and she said she’d never heard of them; she came because she is a Patti LuPone fan.) It’s to the musical’s credit that it shines a spotlight on female accomplishments that have become obscure and does so with considerable energy, at least at the beginning.
It’s a tough story to tell, since the women are not known to have ever met in person. Thus, many of the scenes alternate between them, showing both their differences and their similarities, or have them singing in tandem about the same topic even though they are in different spaces, sometimes as improbably close as different booths in the same restaurant. It gets more than a little repetitious, and, at two and a half hours, goes on too long. Director Michael Greif and the musical’s creators—book writer Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie—have thankfully not presented a thoughtless cat fight but neither have they kept the show bubbling with fun, excitement, suspense or surprises. The music is often bland, despite the powerhouse singing, especially by LuPone, whose role is the more abrasive and interesting one. Not lovely by conventional standards, Rubinstein has pretty much willed herself to look attractive. Many women in the audience will feel a kinship. And then she delivers one of the real-life Rubinstein’s harsher pronouncements: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” Women are supposed to feel guilty if they don’t want to spend hours changing the look of their faces?
The play doesn’t delve deep into these paradoxes. It never really examines the fraught relationship between women (especially feminists) and their lipsticks—and eyebrow pencils and tweezers and other paraphernalia. How many of the marchers for women’s rights used some or all of those implements, without thinking about it, before donning their pink knit hats, picking up placards and hitting the streets? Not to worry, though: Arden got her start, we learn, by handing out free samples of lipstick to Suffragettes.
The musical has bright spots. One is a sweet ballad titled “My American Moment,” in which Rubinstein sings that her mission is to show women “they have faces of power and resplendence, a backbone and a basis to assert their independence.” She seems to mean it at the time, though both she and Arden have no qualms about raising prices so their products will seem more valuable or taking advantage of World War II by marketing their cosmetics to female soldiers and factory workers.
There is much to admire about both women. Arden grew up as a poor farm girl in Canada before re-inventing herself. Rubinstein was the oldest of eight girls in a poor Jewish family in Krakow, destined to become the wife of a much older man in an arranged marriage, before she got out. Later, she brought over as many relatives as she could when they were in danger during the Holocaust. She established a foundation that, though the musical doesn’t mention it, gave money to Israel. When a Park Avenue building rejected her application to purchase a triplex penthouse there because she was Jewish, she took action: she bought the whole building.
“War Paint” addresses many of the conflicts the women faced, though sometimes in terms they would likely not have used. In “If I’d Been a Man,” each speculates that she would be more respected by the public, more loved by individual men and even more successful economically if she had been born male. “A man can be an absent parent, stray the way a woman daren’t,” Rubinstein sings. Their bold behavior would be lauded, they both sing: “What man has half the balls that I have?” Though the sentiments are true, and widely accepted in this era, the number sounds like a dutiful attempt by the musical’s writers to check all the boxes that today’s feminists might require of them. On the other hand, a song called “Dinosaurs” makes cruel fun of them. It’s sung by the two men who have helped them most—Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills), an adman who works for Rubinstein before switching sides, and Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), who works for Arden, his wife, until he, too, goes over to the competition.
Rubinstein and Arden are credited with making makeup respectable again when they started their businesses in the early 1900s, when only actresses and prostitutes painted their faces. Their businesses catered to a wealthy clientele. Both refused to heed the trend toward cheaper cosmetics, embodied by Charles Revson (Erik Liberman), portrayed as a lower-class huckster. Neither wanted to hire him, and he went on to found Revlon—a name still widely recognized by 23-year-olds.