The pairing of Tony Award winners Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone as rival cosmetics pioneers Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein in War Paint is more than a chance for Broadway audiences to witness onstage diva dramatics. For the show’s writers and its stars, it’s an opportunity to examine the American Dream from a female perspective.
“They were immigrants that came to America to live the American Dream,” explains LuPone, who stars as the Polish-born Rubinstein. Both Arden and Rubinstein arrived in the U.S. and began their businesses before women were granted the right to vote.
It was Arden—who herself marched with suffragettes in New York City—who helped bring lipstick into common usage by giving free samples to suffragettes.
“The only women who were wearing makeup at the time were actresses and prostitutes, and so they actually brought it into common usage,” says the show’s book writer, Doug Wright. “These two women legitimized makeup.”
“These women defied statistics, they defied culture even before feminism and before women’s lib,” says Ebersole, who stars as Canadian-born Arden.
“They forged a culture,” LuPone interjects.
In an era where business was purely a man’s world, Arden and Rubinstein revolutionized the female marketplace and ran global brands—brands that survived the Depression and two World Wars. “They both had to make tremendous sacrifices being female CEOs of companies that bore their name in a time when it really was a man’s club,” says War Paint composer Scott Frankel. “Glass ceilings aside, with the recent election, there’s still a lot of frisson on that topic.”
In the current U.S. political climate, War Paint—title alone—takes on a deeper resonance. Frankel asks, “How much have women achieved? Is there true parity with men, and how much is the fight still very relevant today?”
“It has been cathartic to write strong, unapologetic, forward-thinking women,” says Wright. “And to hear them from the stage has been deeply galvanizing, and I think we need to hear them more than ever in this cultural moment. It’s been a wonderful way of celebrating two female pioneers at a moment when we are learning we have a great distance to travel as far as women’s issues go.”
The writers find parallels between Arden and Rubinstein’s spirit and the women who bring them to life onstage. “It’s a thrilling opportunity to write not one great musical theatre role, but two,” says Wright. Frankel adds, “To write for Patti and Christine… You have Patti, who is known for that clarion trumpet, that thrilling belt, and Christine with that silvery soprano. They are both fearless. There is nothing that I can’t throw at them that they won’t knock out of the park.”
In some ways, War Paint is the story of four driven women, Arden and Rubinstein, Ebersole and LuPone, each a maverick in their own right. “Helena had to survive. She was born independent,” LuPone says. “I think that’s one quality both of these women can share. They wanted a better life for themselves and they knew how to achieve it.”
“It resonates for me because they created their own destiny,” Ebersole says. “They paved the way for women in a man’s world. That’s what’s really inspiring. We cannot define ourselves by what culture tells us we are.”