War Paint by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie
At the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway
BS rating: D
Show Score rating: 55
Two certified Broadway legends do not a musical make any more than the simple facts about the conflicts between two of America’s first female corporate heads are likely to engage an audience. But that’s about all you get with “War Paint,” the new musical that stars Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. The writing team and director that brought us the deservedly praised “Grey Gardens” several years ago have adapted two biographies into a stylish but sadly boring musical documentary. Even the power and polish of the two leads could not keep me from longing for this thing to end.
There is a difference between a star vehicle and a good musical with great stars. Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie, the book, music and lyrics writers, seem to have been obsessed with the former. For every passionate ballad given to Ms. LuPone, there is an equally fervent number for Ms. Ebersole. The rest of the show is taken up with a sort of history of the evolution of cosmetics couched in production numbers that neither excite nor provide any insightful observations. There is little originality but lots of sparkle and occasional spectacle.
The basic story has a lot of potential. The tale of two women who rise to corporate superiority in the 1930s and 40s and then lose their power as they refused to respond to the changes in American culture in the 1950s and 60s certainly has the making of an intriguing journey. Add to that the disdain that each woman had for the other and their starkly different backgrounds, one a Jewish refugee from Poland, the other an immigrant from Canada who could never break into the white society circles of New York. That sounds like the making of wonderfully complex and engaging story line. This musical has ability to use songs to go inside the heads of these two feminist ground-breakers under the tutelage of two Broadway stars with a history of bringing conflicted women to life. How can it go wrong?
But Doug Wright’s book is more interested in recording history than it is in delving into the inner workings each of these women’s minds. Their hate for each other is portrayed largely as a matter of corporate competition with little reference to how either views the person behind the business. Both characters express frustration at their own circumstances, but the “war” of the title never goes beyond their desire to dominate (as so many wars do). There are many scenes that go back and forth between the two women in their own environments, but even those scenes do not amplify their inner thoughts and vulnerabilities. They merely reaffirm their competitiveness and their need to succeed at all costs. There is never a hint of the irony that these two women broke the corporate glass ceiling by inventing and perpetuating an image of women that would come to be seen as a major challenge to women in corporate cultures. The most telling moments in the entire show occur at the very end when both women are asked to speak at a “woman of the year” event and they finally meet each other in the dressing room. Here Rubinstein and Arden confront their view of each other and what their lives have meant to them in a touching musical interchange, made totally disarming by two actresses with the power to captivate.
The songs in a musical can amplify, explain, and analyze. However, Mr. Frankel and Mr. More’s score rarely enters those realms. The music is largely bland and unmemorable. There are several production numbers that describe the history and marketing of cosmetic products. There are also a number of songs, distributed evenly between our two stars, that suggest some insight into these two dynamic women. But Mr. More’s lyrics are mundane, superficial, and, at times, misguided. An example of the latter is a duet in which these corporate heads lament “If I’d Been a Man.” The lyrics carefully articulate the stereotypical qualities of male CEOs. What they do not show us is what it is like to be a woman who is entering new territory – do they really want to be like a man or are they forging the qualities that will eventually lead to the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 70s? Are we expected to empathize with these two women who can only express their identity in terms of the opposite gender? Surely the real Arden and Rubinstein had more “balls” than that.
The show has plenty of the pizzazz that comes along with Broadway ticket prices – chorus lines, evocative settings, lush orchestrations, etc. But none of those elements show much invention nor provoke the desired “oh, wow!” response in the audience. Michael Grief, a veteran of any number of highly imaginative Broadway stagings – look no further than his current hit, Dear Even Hansen — seems to have simply provided whatever the audience expects rather than taking them to places they never imagined.
So, if your admiration for Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole is enough to sustain you for two-and-half hours, this is your show. Just be sure to have coffee or some other stimulant before you enter the theatre – It’s a long way to that beautiful final scene.