Stories of rivalries between women are always in hot demand, and this season delivers a notable flurry — with buzzy TV miseries Feud: Bette and Joan, under-the-radar film Catfight, and the musical War Paint, now in previews on Broadway.
And it’s perhaps the musical that offers the most complex face-off, with two of musical theater’s biggest stars — Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole — portraying the lives and lifelong competition between two of the cosmetics industry’s most impactful pioneers: Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein.
Still, says LuPone, who plays Rubinstein, “The one thing about our show is that we don’t stress the rivalry or the hatred.” Instead, she tells Yahoo Beauty, “You see the development of these two women. It could so easily turn into something very campy, and that’s what [the audience is] really looking for — that camp, bitchy fight. Which is not our show at all.”
Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden in “War Paint.” (Photo: Joan Marcus)More
Legend has it that Rubinstein and Arden never met — even though they lived blocks from each other in New York City — but LuPone likes to think they “avoided each other and didn’t hate one another, but were in fact stoked, creatively, by each other.” She adds, “I think they had sideways glances toward one another, appreciated what the other one did, and did their best to best it. I also think these two women were so similar, had they actually met and discussed they would’ve been friends… because their ideology was the same.”
That ideology was one of two entrepreneurs, both “outsiders” in different ways, using brilliant innovation and overcoming humble roots — not to mention serious misogyny — to eventually define beauty standards for the first half of the 20th century. Their ideas kicked off what would become today’s estimated $400 billion global cosmetics industry.
Arden (whose brand was recently purchased by Revlon in an $870 million deal) opened her first salon on NYC’s Fifth Avenue in 1910 and became a suffragette, fusing powerful beauty looks (including red lipstick) with her passion for activism; she also had an ahead-of-her-time holistic approach, warning women to stay out of the sun.
Patti LuPone as Helena Rubenstein in “War Paint.” (Photo: Joan Marcus)More
Rubinstein, meanwhile, was born in Poland and started her career in 1902 by distributing beauty cream in Australia — where a stage play exploring her life, Madame Rubenstein, coincidentally opens in Sydney in May. From there she opened her own salon and began to manufacture cosmetics, soon expanding to Paris and New York. (Today L’Oreal owns the Helena Rubenstein brand, and its products are not sold in the U.S.)
Elizabeth Arden in the 1930s. (Photo: Getty Images)More
“Something I didn’t know when I started this project was how they fit into the scheme of American business,” Michael Korie, lyricist for War Paint, tells Yahoo Beauty. “Everyone knows that Henry Ford invented the assembly line, Thomas Edison patented the light bulb. But when you think about it, we don’t really know who founded the cosmetics industry, which is a multi-billion worldwide industry, as big as the other two.”
But with the industry came a new quandary for women: Was makeup providing a new outlet for creative expression, or just the latest sexist shackle? It’s a question that War Paint (which officially opens on Apr. 6) spends time exploring, explains director Michael Greif.
Products from each woman’s brand are still sold today. (Photo: Helena Rubenstein/Elizabeth Arden)More
“A lot of the musical deals with whether these extraordinary pioneers of the industry liberated many generations of women — or in some ways actually held them back,” Greif tells Yahoo Beauty. “What is the double-edged sword of the responsibility of having to look a certain way every day?”
Greif continues, “I think what’s wonderful, thematically, in terms of how cosmetics work in the musical, is that cosmetics serve both as a kind of armor, [which] embolden and strengthen people… and also often a mask, allowing people to transform and change and reinvent themselves.”
Helena Rubinstein in 1934. (Photo: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)More
Of course, women deal with that same duality in everyday life — something that War Paint composer Scott Frankel reflects on with Yahoo Beauty. Regarding Arden’s and Rubinstein’s legacies, he says, they are complicated, “in terms of how they gave women an opportunity to feel better about themselves with this product — but then also hooked them, and made them participate in this ‘you always have to have the latest cream, the latest potion, the latest lipstick.’”
It was largely this tension that compelled Doug Wright, War Paint’s librettist, to work on the show. “I think there are so many rich metaphors in the idea of beauty: There’s how women perceive themselves, how women want to be perceived, [and] all of the societal expectations that we place upon women in the culture,” he tells Yahoo Beauty. “So while it’s ostensibly a show about these two remarkable women, in the same breath it’s about a larger phenomenon of beauty and what it means in the world.”
Arden and Rubenstein, Wright adds, embodied these metaphors. “[They] shattered every glass ceiling, and yet some would argue that they built their fortunes on women’s self-esteem by creating unrealistic ideals of beauty — and suggesting that women had to routinely match them,” he says. “So they’re both magnificently accomplished, and flawed, in fascinating ways. And that’s what makes great dramatic characters.”
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