There are no ingénues in the musical War Paint. Instead, there are two grown women at the height of their powers, battling to control a world they created.
Those women are the founders of the modern cosmetics industry, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. The show, which is now in previews at the Nederlander Theatre before opening April 6, spotlights their real-life rivalry, and we see them vie for everything from customers to status to the loyalties of men.
The creative team—lyricist Michael Korie, composer Scott Frankel, and bookwriter Doug Wright—purposely focused on their professional peaks. “Because they have these identities that they’ve invented, that gives you a whole language to play with,” says Korie.
Elizabeth and Helena are both women running businesses in the middle of the 20th century, when men controlled most boardrooms. “They think that the nation and the world have deeded this industry to women,” says Korie. “That turns out not to be the case.”
Frankel adds, “Even at the top of their game, they couldn’t do everything a man could’ve done.” That’s why the first act features the duet “If I’d Been a Man,” in which the moguls reflect on the indignities faced by powerful women.
Meanwhile, there’s the question of makeup itself. Despite what Arden and Rubinstein might have insisted, not every woman feels good about painting her face. “That’s what makes them so complicated,” Wright says. “They shattered every glass ceiling, and yet they built their empires, some would say, on women’s self-esteem.”
“They were women of such great substance, both of them, that we were determined not to lampoon them,” Frankel adds.
The production’s stars feel the same way. According to Wright, Patti LuPone (Rubinstein) and Christine Ebersole (Arden) are only interested in portraying rich human beings. “These are two of the greatest actresses in American musical theatre,” he says. “Anything that has taken the script in too frivolous a direction, they’ve resisted. We have very strong safeguards against any facile portrait of Elizabeth and Helena.”