Few tales of fiction can match the improbable rags-to-riches stories of cosmetic giants Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. Emerging from modest means, each would find initial success in the still-nascent industry of women’s skincare products by promising eternal youth and beauty to respectable women of the middle class—women already intrigued by other signs of post-World War I emancipation. Along the way, Rubinstein and Arden reinvented themselves as icons of glamour and feminine power, using these personas (along with tireless research and innovative marketing) to create what would become one of the most lucrative industries of the 20th century. In a business world dominated by men, these ambitious women achieved almost unimaginable wealth and public success—fueled by professional instincts which surely provided the blueprint for many of today’s business titans. And although they were bitter rivals and lifelong enemies, their names remain inextricably linked as the twin forces behind a revolution that would significantly alter the ways in which women would think, look and act, affording them, according to Lindy Woodhead in her book War Paint, a “freedom of expression analogous to their gaining the right to vote.”
The saga of Rubinstein and Arden is a quintessential American success story, made more irresistible by the vast differences between the women themselves. Arden became the picture of self-styled chic, swathing herself in her trademark pink (a color she even dyed her diamonds) and lavishing her wealth on the race horses she lovingly had groomed with Ardena skin tonic. Rubinstein brought bag lunches to work but adorned herself with top-line gowns, furs and jewels, and used her riches to acquire the works of such artists as Picasso and Miró, buy rooms full of the best contemporary furniture and fund a variety of philanthropic causes. All their incredible success, however, came at a considerable cost to their personal lives. The women each lured the other’s right-hand man to their own company (and in the case of Rubinstein, Arden’s husband), a fact that would seem utterly implausible if it weren’t deliciously true. Such intense competition may well have led to greater heights of success for each—but might it also have distracted them, hindering them in the end from fulfilling all that they could have achieved?
The titanic struggles, outsized rivalries and magnetic allure of their lives and careers are the stuff upon which great musicals are built—and War Paint boasts a creative team as storied as its subjects: multiple Tony Award-nominated director Michael Greif (Rent, Next to Normal, Grey Gardens); Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and librettist Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife, Grey Gardens); the celebrated creators of the scores for Grey Gardens and Far From Heaven, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie and Tony-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli (Newsies, The King and I and the Goodman premiere of The Jungle Book). And bringing to life the legendary characters of Rubinstein and Arden are two incomparable legends themselves: two-time Tony Award winners Patti LuPone (Evita, Gypsy) and Christine Ebersole (Grey Gardens, 42nd Street).
I am thrilled to welcome these amazing artists to the Goodman for what promises to be a truly extraordinary event. War Paint is a fascinating look at a time that saw, for better or worse, seismic changes in American culture and values and the two dynamos whose outsized passions, ambitions and energies gave it its face.