How the Lempicka Team Molds the Artist’s Sweeping Story for Broadway

If you’re a fan of art deco, you may be familiar with the work of Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka. If not, prepare to meet an icon’s icon, a woman who lived and loved with the same fierce spirit she brought to her craft, when the new musical epic Lempicka begins performances March 19 (and opens April 14) at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre.

Composer Matt Gould and lyricist Carson Kreitzer, who collaborated on the libretto, are both making their Broadway debuts. They have been working on the project, which pays tribute both to Lempicka’s sheer feistiness and the grandeur of her art, for some 14 years. During that time, they attracted the interest of a pair of high-profile names: director Rachel Chavkin, a Tony Award winner for Hadestown, and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, whose previous credits include the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Strange Loop.

It’s hardly surprising that all four would be drawn to Lempicka’s sweeping story, which was also rich in political and romantic intrigue. Having fled to Paris on the heels of the Russian Revolution, she crafted nude portraits and had affairs with men and women. In the show, former Wicked star Eden Espinosa takes on the role of Tamara de Lempicka, alongside Shuffle Along alumna Amber Iman as Rafaela, a sex worker who becomes Lempicka’s lover and muse.

Chavkin first encountered the musical about a decade ago, after it was commissioned by Yale Repertory Theatre, and “was blown away by it. I love history, and I love very specific, personal stories set against the vast sweep of history, so it sort of fired on all cylinders,” she says. She wound up helming the show’s premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2018, by which point Kelly was also on board.

“I hadn’t been familiar with Lempicka,” the choreographer admits, “but both Carson and I have a history of loving [Andy] Warhol. I have a company, and all of my work has been influenced by Warhol, and is about self-made people, and I think Lempicka was one of those.”

In capturing Lempicka’s work, and the passions that fueled it, the artists behind the musical found inspiration in each other as well. “Matt’s music is very contemporary and sweeping and romantic,” says Chavkin, also citing “the visual lushness of the design, which is very much rooted in the art of the period. I think there’s something about coming out of a pandemic into the lushness of this world, this fusion of now and then, that will serve something people are hungry for.”

Gould notes that when Kreitzer first showed him Lempicka’s paintings, “I heard music right away. Because there’s something about it that is so human and yet so scarily inhuman; this sense of a mask, a façade, is also so much what her work is about. Something about that tension, that juxtaposition, is what gives us a reason to sing, and to try to get underneath that façade and into the mind and soul of this incredible artist.”

For Kelly, Lempicka’s identity as a queer woman is key. “The show itself is so bombastically queer that being a part of it is thrilling,” he says. “And just that it’s a story about a woman; we don’t have enough of those, and it has been remarkable to me to think about how much time this woman spent living and working and fighting and loving — how much she did. It seems almost impossible that it’s a true story.”

Kelly notes that neither he nor Gould nor Chavkin had children when they began working on Lempicka, “and now we all do. I got married and divorced and now I have a kid, and all that’s happened in the time I’ve had this project. When you’re fully living life like that, when you’re really in it, you see its vastness, and I think that’s impacted the show as well.”

Chavkin notes that Tamara’s relationships with her husband, played by Andrew Samonky, and Rafaela are both depicted as “deeply rich — there’s an enormous amount of desire for everyone involved. … I know that this show makes me weep more than anything I’ve ever worked on. It hits me with every single character, with that deep recognition of ambition and loss and grief and desire, more than anything I’ve worked on.”

Gould uses the same b-word as Kelly, describing Lempicka as proof that a musical can be “bombastic and crazy and queer, and it can be about a woman or a space alien, but at the end of the day I think we’re all dying for something real. Carson and I wanted to give Tamara de Lempicka a show that she would have been proud of, and what I love about working with Raja and Rachel is that these are people who want to tell a real story. That’s what each of us is trying to get to, and all of our hearts are up there on stage.”

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