BWW CD Review: WAR PAINT's Beauty Is More Than Skin Deep
It's not often that listening to a cast album makes one think of Richard Strauss, but such is the genius of Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. The composer-lyricist team best known for the brilliant GREY GARDENS is back with War Paint, the story of rival beauty moguls Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. Here both story and emotion are thinner, but the music is gorgeous--Straussian in its elegiac beauty and bell-like notes--and worthy of its two stars, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, two of the most unique and exciting voices in musical theater. Like a golden-age Hollywood director "managing" the two stars of a women's picture, the score has to find ways to manage its two leads, giving each an equal role. Ebersole gets an old-fashioned entrance--her Red Door spa staff sings breathlessly, "She's coming, she's coming...," bursting into a triumphant "She's here!" LuPone's entrance is less heralded but equally dramatic (and separate), as she steps off a ship in New York. From then on, many of the songs are duets, in which one star sings half of a song about her own experience, and the second sings the other half, with lyrics expressing her different but parallel experience. Occasionally they sing in unison. What sounds tedious as a show (a narrative in which two separate characters have similar, not highly dramatic arcs and don't meet until the very end) enchants on the album. Without the strain of the storytelling, we can simply enjoy the gorgeous songs and their peerless purveyors.
Ebersole would seem to have the advantage; having starred, dazzlingly, in a dual role in GREY GARDENS, she is the voice we associate with Frankel and Korie, and her voice is in prime condition, supple and almost decadently beautiful. LuPone is not at her vocal peak; however, she delivers a song with such gusto and drama that the two are evenly matched, even when, as with the lovely "If I'd Been a Man," the music naturally suits Ebersole better. In fact, their differences make for a two-part song that feels like two different songs--when Ebersole sings the melody, it sounds like Strauss's Four Last Songs, and when LuPone sings it, it sounds like MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG-era Sondheim. Both are sounds that we are fortunate to hear in a new musical, let alone in the same number. The somber beauty of the song is somewhat undercut by the lyrics: a line like "the balls that I have" is at odds with the tone. (There are other hints of Sondheim, too: the introduction to "No Thank You" is straight out of COMPANY, for no apparent reason, while the lush "Best Face Forward" resembles "Beautiful Girls" from FOLLIES, with more reason: in "Best Face Forward," women are taunted into buying skin-care products to compensate for their beauty deficiencies.)
In fact, the two voices illuminate aspects of their characters; Ebersole's effortless beauty suits the WASPy (if not high-society) Arden, while LuPone's greater effort suits the tenacious and driven Rubinstein. Many of their songs, such as "If I'd Been a Man" and "My Secret Weapon," sound almost excessively controlled--delicate, subdued melodies that we expect to burst out to a greater effect. The tension is broken with such numbers as "Fire and Ice," sung insinuatingly by Erik Liberman as Charles Revson (and the only full solo by anyone other than the two stars). The song evokes the tacky spectacle created by Revlon's sponsorship of THE $64,000 QUESTION on TV, an opportunity turned down by both Arden and Rubinstein. Though the tune is not particularly original, it is energetic, and Korie's lyrics conjure up a lost world of 1950s consumerism in this outlandish, irresistible appeal to the glamorous woman of the day. Equally lively and evocative is another break from introspection, "Necessity Is the Mother of Invention," in which the moguls find ways of adapting their products to the needs of women during World War II. It may remind you of "The House We Live In," from GREY GARDENS, another mock-patriotic marching song. Frankel and Korie's regular orchestrator Bruce Coughlin is a master of period who has served the music beautifully in all of their Broadway shows.
As befits a women's picture with two star actresses, War Paint has two George Brents, Rubinstein's assistant (Douglas Sills) and Arden's husband (John Dossett). Improbably, each man switches allegiances and defects to the other mogul. Their personalities are negligible. One is straight and one is gay, and that contrast provides the only real distinction between the two (as when they separately go out on the town). But before the Arden-Rubinstein tete-a-tete takes place, the two male characters meet. Their duet, "Dinosaurs," has great charm. It's reminiscent of "The Day Off" from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE: the men let loose by imitating dinosaurs, to which they've likened their obsolescent bosses. The song has a lumbering, playful rhythm, punctuated by the occasional screech, as the men gleefully mock the "Epidermis Rex."
The greatest challenge Frankel and Korie give themselves in this double-barreled show is to present two eleven o'clock numbers, one for each star. It seems only right that neither has to compete with the other at her climactic moment. It's impossible to hear "Pink," Ebersole's song, without thinking of "Another Winter in a Summer Town" (her eleven o'clock number in GREY GARDENS). The orchestration and some of the melody are similar, and each provides an ideal showcase for Ebersole's soaring vocals and emotional delivery. However, the premises are not evenly matched: a lonely, needy, mentally ill woman facing an interminable future at the side of her harridan of a mother (and so many cats) vs. a successful, if past-her-prime, businesswoman reflecting on the ubiquity of the color pink in her legacy. The poignancy of "Pink" is not exactly ready-made, and the grandness of its tone is at odds with its thin subject matter. It's still more than worth hearing Ebersole wring every possible emotion out of it, and every color (literally) out of pink--listen to the way she utters the names of many shades of pink at the end of the song, making each one different, and ending on "Arden Pink." It would be silly if she didn't perform it so beautifully. She makes us believe that the subject is important to the character, and feel the bitterness of the horse-loving Arden reflecting on "when I'm put out to pasture." (In fact, we should feel grateful that her aria is about the color pink and not racehorses.)
"Pink" has received more attention, but I prefer LuPone's big song, "Forever Beautiful." It is more of a departure for Frankel and Korie, and, perhaps alone among the songs in War Paint, seems tailor-made for LuPone's voice and personality. In recent years, she has redefined canonical Broadway roles such as Rose and Joanne; here she brings the character of Helena Rubinstein into that group. In the song, Rubinstein reflects on her collection of portraits painted of her by famous artists. Even without accompaniment by reproductions of the portraits (they are displayed in the show during this song), the song constitutes a virtual inventory of 20th-century art that illuminates both Rubinstein's taste and her ego. (Arden twits her about her self-centered collection in their final conversation.) She is more sophisticated than Arden; she understands the difference between makeup and art. Korie is at his best when taking on a specific subject, and he clearly relishes the theme here in such lyrics as "Giacometti keeps me slim." LuPone's diction is infamous (on this album it confounds most in the song "My American Moment"), but here she enunciates her words clearly--the way she spits out "Tamara de Lempicka" is memorable in itself. You would think that the harsh mittel-European accent LuPone affects for this role (see her Old Lady in CANDIDE for a preview) would get in the way, but perhaps the effort of altering her pronunciation makes her (mostly) sing more distinctly. Her delivery of the final note of the song is simply thrilling.
Like the Hollywood "women's directors" (such as George Cukor), Frankel and Korie provide tremendous opportunities for female stars. GREY GARDENS made Ebersole immortal, while the underrated FAR FROM HEAVEN gave Kelli O'Hara one of her most perfect performances--although she sings every role beautifully, the character from Todd Haynes's film suited her best of almost any. It would seem masochistic to try to accommodate the voices and egos of two major stars; one can't help but think of the TV series FEUD. But Korie and Frankel have risen to the occasion. War Paint's coda inevitably feels anticlimactic after "Pink" and "Forever Beautiful." It is, of course, gratifying that the two women finally meet, though their imagined exchange seems a bit over-the-top: "With your pretty pink pots and my crème, we might have ruled the world." Nonetheless, the two actresses are ruling Broadway. To borrow a line from "Forever Beautiful," Korie and Frankel have again "made women glorious."