'War Paint' and the Gilded Cages of Cosmetics

Melissa Slaughter

  • OnStage New York Columnist

Whoever cast Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden was a flipping genius. Casting two of Broadway's most legendary divas portraying the two women who revolutionized the makeup industry and modern femininity as we know it seems an obvious choice.

Lupone's powerhouse voice and comedic timing rule the stage as Helena Rubinstein once ruled the cosmetics industry. Christine Ebersole's sweet soprano and perfected poise makes Elizabeth Arden the pink paramour for femininity and beauty.

I could wax poetic about these two women for days. They are worth every dollar and cent of the Broadway ticket. But the story, which should be incredible and inspiring on the wake of Third Wave Pink Pussyhats Feminism, feels deflated.

The story begins after both women have had great success, and it follows them until they have faded from their empires. It ends with a meeting and reconciliation that I assume is fabricated. Despite having salons blocks apart, Arden and Rubinstein never met face-to-face.

If the story focused more on a single incident in their lives, like the World War Two or the court case over ingredients or their ascension to being the most formidable (and wealthiest) female CEOs, it would have had more impact. Instead, the story has tried to fit in so much history and narrative that it's flatlined their rises and falls of their lives.

It should be a story about two immigrant women making their way through New York High Soceity by capitalizing on the insecurities of rich and poor women alike. Elizabeth Arden began her career selling makeup to middle aged and poor suffragettes. Helena Rubinstein sold lanolin (aka sheep's fat) face cream i. Australia. Eventually, they leave behind their working class clientele and both catered strictly to the 1% of New York in a literal attempt to join their club.

In truth, it's all too much. Each song and dance seems to cover a few years at least. But if you're like me and you don't know what year the show started in (my guess is in the early 1930's), then it's hard to catch up with only costumes and timely hints to give you clues.

To truly love the show, one has to live in the conceit that there is one type of woman. A woman who is elegance, graceful, poised, and who wants to keep a man. A woman who works is fine, but a woman she must also be straight and preferably married well. And probably white (though the show does a superb job casting WOC in what could have been an all-Caucasian period piece. Whoever cast this show deserves their own award.)

For me, the most intriguing concept of this show was seeing two powerhouse women spend the whole show spouting the power of women while simultaneously casting the net that would disenfranchise many of them. Elizabeth Arden in the beginning tells her shopgirls that women must be "poised, beautiful, and always young." At end, she asks "did we free them or enslave them?" Her character also has a touching moment involving a letter from girl in Midwest.  The girl asks why, after using all of Elizabeth's products and treatments, is she still ugly? I wish I could say there was more to that arc, but alas. Helena Rubinstein gets no such plot line. Her story revolves more about being a Jewess and an immigrant. Both plot lines are timely and important, but underdeveloped. Which in some way feels like a loss and a missed opportunity.

In a show of this nature featuring women of this caliber, people should leave feeling empowered. Instead, much of the stories revolve around the main character's' own cattiness, reminiscent of the antiquated idea that women can't get along with other women. Add to that the face that when they duet, they're never together. They're side by side, parallel, but never interacting, never connecting directly. Just one more glance of what could have made this show incredible instead of a mere star vehicle.

So would I recommend this show? Of course! The costumes and sets are gorgeous; the songs are quilt and fun. When else would you see Patti and Christine onstage together? Hell, the entire cast is excellent. You’ll have toes tapping by the end. Just don't go to see the story itself, or remember the songs for more than a minute. If you want to really see the power of war paint, you're better off watching the documentary.