The Powerhouse Women Bringing Lempicka to the Stage

In the new musical epic Lempicka, set to begin previews March 19 and open April 14 at the Longacre Theatre, Eden Espinosa and Amber Iman will play a pair of women whose refusal to conform made them mavericks in their time — and whose boldness in life and art is sure to stir contemporary Broadway audiences.

Having played feisty, independent-minded women, from Rent’s Maureen to the protagonist of Brooklyn, Espinosa seems born to play the woman who inspired Lempicka. The Polish painter and art deco icon Tamara de Lempicka, who gained attention for her nude portraits of women and men—and her affairs with both— proved as bold in other aspects of her life as she was in her groundbreaking work: She fled St. Petersburg after her husband was arrested during the Russian Revolution and becoming a celebrated artist in Paris. “Eden arrives onstage with such a natural regality that you instantly believe her as royalty in exile,” Kreitzer says.

But Espinosa admits that her research into Lempicka was of limited use “because there are so many conflicting stories about her” — a point that Kreitzer also makes. “When we did the show in Williamstown [in 2018],” says Espinosa, “it’s not that people didn’t like Tamara, but a lot them weren’t ready to see this conflict women with ambition can have, weighing their roles as wife and mother with their own dreams. I think now women and people are ready to look at her and say, ‘I’ve had that hunger and ambition,’ or ‘I had that conflict about weighing my roles as wife and caretaker with my own dreams.’ It’s a gift to be here now because you see how society is changing, and that you can trust the timing of things. So it was beautiful to have a writer who could tell me how to perceive her.”

Espinosa’s Tamara de Lempicka has a worthy partner in the production: Shuffle Along and Hamilton tour alumna Amber Iman as Rafaela, a fictional character inspired by Lempicka’s outsize passions. Playwright Carson Kreitzer, who wrote lyrics for Lempicka and collaborated on its book with composer Matt Gould, describes the latter as “very much our invention. We know a lot about many other people in the show, but the only thing we know about Rafaela is that there are these seven canvases painted [of her] in one year — and she is most likely a prostitute.”

Kreitzer stresses, however, that their Rafaela is “not just a prostitute, or a muse. The whole point of this project is to show women as full human beings.” That’s also true of Tamara, whose husband is a substantial character as well. “It was important for Matt and me to tell the story of a bisexual woman who truly loves these two people,” says Kreitzer. “It’s emotional, it’s sexual, it’s everything.”

Espinosa points out that Tamara’s intimate relationship with Rafaela is made “very obvious” in the musical, which is directed by Tony Award winner Rachel Chavkin. “They are very much lovers. It’s the same as it would be if they were a male and a female character” in a more conventional musical. The identity of bisexual “was not something you could really use at the time,” the actress notes. “That’s a running theme in our show: that it wasn’t safe or permitted to be in something other than a heterosexual relationship.”

Ironically, Espinosa had, years ago, first read for the part of Rafaela, and Iman had initially auditioned for Tamara. Kreitzer vividly remembers Iman’s callback: “This song Rafaela sings is very sexy, but these various other women were coming in wearing their New York audition uniforms, maybe in high heels. Amber walks in in a mustard sweater and boots, just solid on her feet, like, ‘Hey, I’m here, and I’m going to sing this thing and read this thing.’ And she read this scene that was about a page and a half, and got jokes that Rachel had told me no one else would get.”

Iman laughs. “Why would I wear high heels? I thought, ‘This girl has to be ready to pick up and go at any moment’ — it’s all about survival for her, about never having to depend on anyone — so combat boots made more sense.”

Both Kreitzer and Espinosa point out that Iman played an integral role in helping develop her character. “The role has grown partially because an actor like Amber asks questions,” Espinosa says. “And also because the writers recognized that we need to show these women in all their glory and all the space they inhabit.”

Iman agrees. “I love when the text allows my imagination to run wild,” she says. “Carson is a researcher and a storyteller, and she gives you everything you need on the page. It was just a matter of reading it 97 times, and looking at all the paintings. Not many supporting roles get this much meat. I really get steak and potatoes; you see all sides of Rafaela.”

Kreitzer did not rely solely on her extensive research; she also drew on more recent history — specifically, the friendship between Madonna and Sandra Bernhard that preoccupied the press and fans in the 1980s and early ’90s. “There were all these hints and rumors about them,” the playwright recalls. “It was, ‘Oh, they were seen together again,’ and ‘Sandra is pretty butch.’ If they had been more obvious back then, or started living together, people would have dropped Madonna like a hot rock.”

The playwright admits, “This is my dream — to be writing these incredible powerhouse roles for women. And what thrills me about having it on Broadway is that more people will see those powerhouse women than have seen all the plays I’ve written in my life. That people who love to see musicals will now see these women embodied.”

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