New Broadway Musical 'War Paint' Puts Dueling Cosmetics Pioneers In Feminist Light
The show's creators reveal how they brought cosmetics legends Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein to life.
While Joan Crawford and Bette Davis duke it out in Feud, there’s another tale of rivalry and revenge between two overachieving women that’s playing out nightly at Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre — War Paint, the new musical based on the larger-than-life personas of dueling cosmetics pioneers Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.
Two of the first glass-ceiling-demolishing women to have companies bearing their own names and each at one point laying claim to being the richest woman in the world, they gave as good as they got. Appropriately, the show stars powerhouse performers Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole as the legendary mistresses of makeup. Previewing now and set to open April 6, the project reunites the creative team behind Grey Gardens, with director Michael Greif, music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie and book by Tony Award winner Doug Wright. The Broadway debut follows a sold-out Chicago run this summer.
Depicting decades of battles and bitchiness from the '30s to the '60s, the show lionizes two self-invented trailblazers who were remarkably different and surprisingly similar. It was as much a matter of style as temperament, as lavishly delineated on stage by six-time Tony Award winning costume designer Catherine Zuber. With close to a dozen costume changes for each of the two lead actresses, and a cavalcade of smartly dressed supporting players in each era from the '30s through the '60s, it’s an extravaganza of chic, especially how it displays the evolution of working women's attire, from Rubinstein’s veiled 1930s hat and suit with fur stole slung over one arm, to Arden’s 1960s Chanel-style ensemble with glossy charmeuse blouse.
“Helena Rubinstein was flamboyant and gravitated toward artists and designers like Dali and Schiaparelli while Elizabeth Arden aspired to the Park Avenue mainline aesthetic and her choices were more discreet,” says Zuber.
Underneath the well-dressed veneer, both women were self-invented, notes War Paint author Wright. “Arden had a pretense of WASP glamour,” he says. “Yet she was actually an immigrant from a rural farm in Canada so all of her pretensions to high-class society were just that — pretensions. Similarly, Rubinstein came from Krakow and grew up Jewish. When she got to New York, she saw that the wealthy Jewish community was being underserved because they weren’t granted access to Arden’s salon.”
The kicker is that they never met in person.
“They even refused to speak one another’s name,” Wright adds. “Elizabeth Aden would only refer to Helena Rubinstein as “that dreadful woman” and Rubinstein would always refer to Arden as “za other von.”
Of course, there was much more to these innovators than their fashionable facades. “These women were really ahead of their time. They worked with scientists and invented the products that today we take for granted, lipstick formulas and eye shadow formulas and eyebrow pencils,” says Angelina Avallone, the makeup designer for the production. “Before, cosmetics were used by actors and prostitutes — ‘the painted ladies.’ [Arden and Rubinstein] made cosmetics respectable. They made cosmetics empowering.”
The show begins in the '30s when both women were already well established. Arden realized early on that lipstick could be a tool for the everywoman, and handed out free tubes of her red lipstick to the suffragettes, an early form of guerrilla marketing.
“Even women who are fond of lipstick don’t realize that it has a feminist tradition. If it was 1918 and you saw a fellow sister in Arden-red lipstick, you knew that she, too, was fighting for the vote,” Wright notes. “And both women were really artful about separating makeup from female sexuality. They advocated it as almost a health regime. It wasn’t until men entered the industry later, most notably (Revlon founder) Charles Revson, that the makeup became a key to unlocking a woman’s sex appeal. And that would have mortified both Arden and Rubinstein because they had rescued makeup from the sex trade and never wanted to take it back there.”
In her advertising, Rubinstein promoted herself as a scientist of beauty, earnestly wearing a lab coat in her promotional materials even though she had no training in the field. Arden was famed for her exquisite packaging, with boxes lined in pink satin and artist-designed containers, and she played to the image of a manor-born lady dressed in matching rosy tones. Both strategies live on in the beauty world today, with brands such as Clinique and Kiehl’s emphasizing formulas over frippery, while brands such as MAC and Tarte rely on elaborate color stories and artful presentation.
“Both women died in the mid-'60s and never really saw modern feminism come to fruition, and along with it, what Wright calls the “dangerous premise” of a beauty ideal that makes the world of cosmetics unpalatable to some.
“People who come to the show have two expectations and one is to see a musical about these two very seismic, compelling, charismatic characters acted by these two remarkable Broadway stars,” Wright says. “We want to give voice not only to the joys and pleasure that makeup gives certain women but also the liabilities. I keep saying that if we get the story right it will please everyone from Heidi Klum to Naomi Wolfe.”