Like an army heading into battle, a new musical needs strong leadership to ensure its success. War Paint, with its much lauded creative team of book writer Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie, director Michael Greif and choreographer Christopher Gattelli, certainly has its share of talented and dedicated figures behind the scenes. War Paint marks a reunion for Wright, Frankel, Korie and Greif, all of whom earned Tony Award nominations for their work together on the acclaimed musical Grey Gardens.
“Great theater feels like the product of a singular voice,” said Wright (a Pulitzer Prize winner for I Am My Own Wife) shortly before rehearsals began for the production, “so we’ve all worked very hard to complement each other in order for our contributions to feel truly unified. We all know each other extremely well and have developed a certain shorthand, often with rambunctious and energetic conversations. When the team meets, there are a lot of dramatic hand gestures, voices rise and explosive laughter erupts. Underneath it all, though, there is a real mutual respect for one another.”
The team, joined by Gattelli (a Tony Award winner for Newsies), was attracted to War Paint not just for the opportunity to collaborate again, but because they found the story about the dueling empires of cosmetic titans Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden perfectly suited for the stage. “You can certainly imagine how juicy, passionate and theatrical their lives were,” said Greif (director of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musicals Next to Normal and Rent). “What makes for such wonderfully dramatic material, though, is not just that they had this rivalry, but how their animosity toward each other actually fueled their creativity.” Though Rubinstein and Arden oversaw their lines and companies from the 1920s to the early ‘60s, the team is confident the impact of the women’s work and their history will resonate with modern audiences. “Together, they not only forged an industry, but a way of life,” said Wright. “Every time you walk into a drug store and see three aisles devoted to cosmetics, that’s the legacy of Rubinstein and Arden. They absolutely shattered glass ceilings as women in industry. In the same breath, they left a legacy that some women adore and others find continually vexing because it invokes basic questions about appearance and beauty and how they function in the world.”
The bold, distinct personalities of Rubinstein and Arden, who were frequent presences in newspaper headlines and gossip columns during their heyday, allowed the creative team members to craft their contributions in playful ways. “Rubinstein and Arden both have their own camps of women, so it’s been really fun coming up with two different vocabularies for each set,” said Gattelli. “The Arden girls are tall, leggy, light and fluffy and represent Elizabeth’s vision of beauty. Their dancing is technical, exciting and flashy, but all done without breaking a sweat. With Rubinstein, she was from Poland, and the women who work for her have a more diverse background. Their movements are more down to earth.” Korie also incorporated the women’s varying characteristics into his lyrics. “Their language really had a kind of musicality to it, which I found immensely appealing,” he said. “Arden took expensive elocution lessons, while Rubinstein peppered her language with all sorts of eccentric, international flavors.”
With War Paint’s storyline spanning four decades, the artists pulled from the culture of the differing eras as well. “I’m a huge fan of music from the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s and ’60s and, without making it a pastiche, I soaked my brain in the fluids of those periods to see what absorbed naturally,” said Frankel. “Both women have a very brassy presentation, literally and figuratively, but there are also some beautiful ballads. The [music] really rides a roller coaster of styles and tones.” Gattelli used a similar approach for his choreography. “The ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s and ’60s were such exciting times for dancers, so we’ve been able to showcase styles from each decade,” he said.
While Rubinstein and Arden provided plenty of inspiration, the team has been further galvanized by the musical’s two-time Tony Award-winning leading ladies: Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. “Rubinstein and Arden were unquestionably larger-than-life personalities and we have the great fortune to have two larger-than-life personalities playing those roles,” said Frankel. “[LuPone and Ebersole] are the foremost singing actresses of their generation, and to be able to tailor this piece for their many, many skills is an extraordinary luxury.” Greif agreed, noting, “I’ve never looked forward to a rehearsal process so much, just to see how these two women will tackle these roles and how they will inspire one another.”
Even with the wealth of rich material available to the team to help shape the musical, a stern determination has emerged within the group, perhaps inspired by Rubinstein and Arden’s own tough work ethic. “We’ll be tinkering with the show until the day it opens,” noted Korie. “You have to go in working toward the best possible version with no loose ends. But I’m not comfortable with just that; I’m only happy with creating the best and then making it even better.”