watching the musical War Paint
The musical War Paint chronicles a bitter rivalry between Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) as each strives to monopolize the cosmetic industry. Rubinstein and Arden each have their own major cosmetic companies, make large sacrifices for their work, and deal with a variety of pressures and prejudices. War Paint tries to highlight the groundbreaking nature of these women’s lives through their feud but ultimately falls short in the implementation.
As businesswomen in the mid-20th century, Rubinstein and Arden are pioneers in their own right. They overcome society’s expectations of women, launch themselves into the male-dominated business world, and emerge at the summit. According to War Paint’s Broadway website, “in creating an industry, they reinvented themselves and revolutionized how the world saw women.” The show’s publicists may tout this as a selling point, but loneliness, spite, dissatisfaction, and even regret tinge almost every scene in the production. If one were to believe War Paint, Rubinstein and Arden may have even made it worse for women by fostering a specific view of beauty.
Throughout the show, it seems that for every significant moment (and therefore song—this is a musical) that Arden has, Rubinstein has a coincidentally equivalent one. War Paint places its two leading women in direct parallel, seeming to try to make their lives synonymous in their challenges and successes as well as in their aspirations. But forcing the two women’s lives to be almost identical not only shows a lack of empathy in the musical’s writing but also dehumanizes Rubinstein and Arden by making them into into caricatures of themselves and of each other.
In retrospect, Rubinstein and Arden are difficult characters to attempt to equate, as War Paint so often does. For one, they are remembered in vastly different ways: A simple Google search yields about 2.2 million results for “Helena Rubinstein” but 24 million for “Elizabeth Arden.” However, popularity may not be the most significant difference in their lives. Rubinstein was a Polish Jew who immigrated to the United States late in her life; throughout War Paint, she speaks English with an accent. Though certainly significant to Rubinstein’s American life, War Paint does little to explore or otherwise address these elements of her life besides placing them next to “similar” elements of Arden’s. For example, in the show, when Rubinstein is kept out of an apartment building because she is Jewish, Arden is faced with rejection from a social club because she has not been rich long enough.
Rubinstein and Arden share a common goal: Be remembered. Reflecting upon this desire provides the heart for the most effective scenes of War Paint. Arden sings “Pink,” in which she muses over her legacy—Arden pink. When put into such simple terms, Arden realizes that a color may not have been worth her lifetime. Rubinstein sings “Forever Beautiful,” directly after Arden’s “Pink,” true to the show’s mirror format. The song packs less punch, perhaps because it seems somewhat contrived due to its placement, but resounds more strongly than any other song in the musical besides “Pink” nonetheless. In “Forever Beautiful,” Rubinstein sings of her many paintings as her legacy—she is an avid art collector and possesses many paintings of herself. Similar to Arden, she recognizes that, although she may stay “forever beautiful” in her paintings, she spent her fleeting time building her empire.
War Paint displays the lives of two women who dared to be ambitious in a time when ambition came only next to a man’s name. But the show fails to celebrate them as great leaders or revolutionaries, as it claims to do. Rather, it promotes a skepticism of greed and ambition for ambition’s sake. Had War Paint been framed in another way, it might have accomplished its goal, but its focus on Rubinstein and Arden as women in roles occupied by few women makes it difficult for it to parade their lives as unhappy and relatively fruitless. War Paint occupies a place of contradiction: It presents Rubinstein and Arden as trailblazers but makes others hesitate to follow.