Do you know who Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein are? If you don’t, you’re probably not a makeup specialist, or maybe you’re just a millennial.
Arden, performed by Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole, and Rubinstein, performed by Patti LuPone, also a Tony winner, essentially created the makeup industry. Rubinstein preferred taking a scientific approach to makeup while Arden was all about class and visually appealing products. They also inspired the new Broadway musical “War Paint,” which is playing at the Nederlander Theatre.
This show was a history lesson you’d never thought you would need or want, until you sat in your seat and were educated. LuPone and Ebersole were truly captivating.
LuPone and Ebersole were flanked by John Dossett (Tommy Lewis) and Douglas Sills (Harry Fleming). The two swap allegiances over the course of the show. Lewis is married to Arden, but after a divorce, he joins sides with Rubinstein. Fleming, on the other hand, is fired by Rubinstein and is then hired by Arden.
The production is full of dazzling costumes and stunning sets. The beauty of the show and the legendary appeal of the female leads is secondary; it is the power of the show’s meaning that really grabs your attention. It’s about two females, one born in poverty in Europe and another born in similar economic conditions in Canada, whom move to America, change their lives and build an empire. The song, “An American Moment,” is a discussion of their aspirations.
What is most incredible, or arguably bothersome, is that Arden and Rubinstein don’t come face to face until the show’s climax. The closing of the first act, “Face to Face,” is actually the first time they look in each other’s direction, but they do not interact.
The rivalry they share is outstanding and makes for perfect drama in a musical. They refuse to call their prospective competitor by name, only “she” or “her” is sufficient. But finally, after a two-hour-plus journey through the history of their personal lives and brands, the two appear in the same room together. After solo performances by LuPone and Ebersole, both deservedly received long applause and finally converge upon the same room.
In that room, the pair talk and Rubinstein calls out Arden for using her shade of pink. Pink was Arden’s signature color but even her vast collection didn’t have the right shade for her attire. They talk about the world they created and the industry they built to tear each other apart. This is theater’s purpose – to create historic moments that seem real and to explore a story and find bigger meaning.
When someone comes to usher them into a room, Arden says, “We don’t follow other women; we lead.” That is exactly what the two of them did. Even in a fierce rivalry like this show, after bows and a standing ovation, the legendary performers shared an embrace and chatted as they walked off stage after being rivals for two hours, and then finally, friends.