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© Joan Marcus
© Joan Marcus

Curtains Up on Feuding Cosmetics Queens in "War Paint"

Picture of Carey Purcell
Updated: 17 May 2017
A stage extravaganza tracing the battle between gorgons of goo makes Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s Hollywood spat look like child’s play.

When it comes to makeup, experts always say that less is more. Though the new musical War Paint chronicles the rivalry between the groundbreaking cosmetics titans Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, it doesn’t abide by this essential rule of beauty.

Directed by Michael Greif, scored by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), and with a book by Doug Wright, War Paint takes audiences through Arden and Rubinstein’s decades-long battle for dominance in the beauty industry. They are portrayed by two of Broadway’s bona fide leading ladies: Arden by Christine Ebersole; Rubinstein by Patti LuPone.

Patti LuPone as Helena Rubenstein
Patti LuPone as Helena Rubenstein | © Joan Marcus

The two businesswomen comprised a classic case of opposites. Born Florence Nightingale Graham, Arden (1878-1966) was a WASP from Canada; Rubinstein (1872-1965) was a Polish Jewish immigrant. Arden’s infamous red door opens on stage to the pink salon where femininity flourishes among her pastel ceramic jars. Rubinstein provides a more clinical approach to her products, adding hormones to day and night creams marketed in crisp shades of white and blue.

The rivalry between the two women drives the musical, which unfolds between 1935 and 1964, years in which the cosmetics industry was permanently altered by social and political upheavals. Arden and Rubinstein adjust their products to accommodate and promote rationing, but as post-war culture ushers in a more economical approach to beauty, both refuse to market their wares to a lower-income clientele.

Their struggles are not limited to their professions. They also experience difficulty balancing their personal and professional lives, or “having it all,” to use modern-day jargon. War Paint disappoints in this respect. Its portrayal of ambitious women is refreshing, but the conflicts they face with their male companions feel obligatory. When discussing job titles, Arden informs her husband and sales director Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), “The moment I credit you is the moment they discredit me.”

Lewis and Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills), Rubinstein’s trusted aide de camp, each defects from his original team to join forces with the opposition. Upon learning of these betrayals, Arden and Rubenstein speak of their devastation. Sadly, the two male characters are severely underwritten.

Gender politics are explored in the song, “If I’d Been a Man,” which allows Arden and Rubenstein to lament the limits femininity has placed upon them: “A man can set aside his feelings, be a shark in business dealings/ A man on the move doesn’t need to prove his worth, knows his way from birth/ Would I win if I had been a man?”

Sung in rich harmony by Ebersole and LuPone, that song is crucial to War Paint. The show’s delineation of sexism is painful to witness, as if it feels all too timely for 2017’s post-election audience.