Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden brought makeup to the masses, becoming trailblazing entrepreneurs at a time when few women ran multimillion-dollar businesses. The little-known story of their 50-year rivalry is headed to Broadway this spring in War Paint, a glamorous new musical starring two-time Tony Award winners Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole.
The Polish-born Rubinstein and Ontario native Arden rose from modest backgrounds to preside over cosmetics empires headquartered within blocks of each other on Fifth Avenue. Rubinstein’s spa had a restaurant and gym; Arden’s salon was housed behind the famous “red door,” with pink product packaging designed to entice women who had never considered using beauty creams or rouge. Together they created an industry that has only grown bigger today.
Director Michael Greif knew he would need a pair of powerhouse actresses to portray the “pioneering, courageous, and iconoclastic” moguls, who sacrificed personal happiness to build their brands. LuPone, beloved for her star turns in Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, and Evita, personifies the earthy strength of the imperious “Madame” Rubinstein. Ebersole, who won a 2007 best actress Tony under Greif’s direction for Grey Gardens, brings an ethereal quality to Arden, a former farm girl who grew up to provide lipstick to suffragettes.
“Everything about Patti and Christine makes them wonderfully right for these parts,” says Greif. “They’re obviously very distinctive actors and singers, and their differences make for a delicious pairing.” The Grey Gardens team of composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie, and book writer Doug Wright has fashioned a lush score and an ingenious story arc for War Paint that allows the two stars to share the stage in scenes, ranging from the 1930s to the 1960s, without interacting directly. (Legend has it that Rubinstein and Arden never met.) The result: double the excitement, and the surprise of how beautifully Ebersole’s crystalline soprano complements LuPone’s legendary belt.
“When we sing together, it feels like another voice enters in — it creates a third tone,” explains Ebersole, praising LuPone as “funny and solid and a pro and a mother, not necessarily in that order. I have tremendous respect for her.” Frankel and Korie’s score, which won acclaim during War Paint’s sold-out pre-Broadway run at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, is “complex and yet accessible,” says Ebersole, “vocally challenging and yet very satisfying in terms of how it furthers the narrative musically. And the music itself is beautiful.”
Agrees LuPone, “Michael and Scott have written a splendid, moving score, and Doug Wright’s book is brilliant. It’s the easiest musical I’ve ever done because Christine and I are equal partners on the stage, and our voices blend ridiculously well. I don’t know how that happens! It’s wonderful that the creative staff trusts the fact that we know how to act these parts. I can’t tell you how lucky I am to be originating this role, and I know Christine feels the same way. She and I get along like gangbusters.”
The stars’ mutual admiration is echoed by Greif. Marveling at LuPone’s and Ebersole’s commitment to the difficult task of refining a new show, he says, “They know how to uncover as they discover. They have the extraordinary instincts that come from years of experience, but they’re also tireless and brave in their willingness to work hard until they find the purest and truest and most dramatic version of a scene. They’re at the peak of their craft, which is incredibly inspiring for me.”
As they tick off the qualities that helped Rubinstein and Arden rise to the top — drive, ambition, passion, ingenuity — LuPone and Ebersole appear simpatico with their hard-driving characters. In real life, however, both stars are happily married to husbands supportive of their careers, and they laughingly confess that they rarely wear makeup off stage.
“I love it in the theatre because makeup helps create a character,” says Ebersole, pointing out that until Arden and Rubinstein came along, “the only women who wore makeup were actors and prostitutes. In the theatre, it becomes a kind of mask, but in real life, I don’t feel the need for it. There’s a feeling of self-acceptance that comes as you get older.” LuPone is similarly low-key, saying, “I’ve been in this business since I was 4 years old, and I’m really bad at putting myself together because other people have done it for me all my life. Recently I’ve taken to wearing concealer and mascara and a little color on my lips when I leave the house. That’s all you need.”
When War Paint begins previews on March 7 at the Nederlander Theatre, Broadway audiences will get to see these two great stars fully made up and outfitted in gorgeous costumes designed by six-time Tony Award winner Catherine Zuber, running their empires from luxe locations evoked by set designer David Korins. “It’s an extraordinary celebration of these women’s achievements,” Greif says of the musical, “and it’s also a lot of fun because it explores their celebrated rivalry and shows how they constantly reinvented their products and themselves. It’s dramatic, theatrical, and there are some wonderful surprises in terms of how Patti and Christine share the stage.”
But let’s give the ladies the last word. War Paint, declares Ebersole, “is very modern, even though it’s drawn from history. That’s what Doug and Michael and Scott do best. It’s a period piece, but it feels brand-new.” Promises LuPone, “It’s a feast for the eyes, the ears, and the senses. And it’s opening in the theatre where I made my Broadway debut with The Acting Company in 1973. After this, I can retire!”
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