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Elizabeth Arden (left) and Helena Rubenstein are the subject of the world-premiere musical “War Paint” at the Goodman Theatre. | SUPPLIED PHOTOS

In ‘War Paint,’ two formidable women do battle with lipstick

SHARE In ‘War Paint,’ two formidable women do battle with lipstick
SHARE In ‘War Paint,’ two formidable women do battle with lipstick

Women have been using makeup since the beginning of time, with such Egyptian queens as Nefertiti and Cleopatra famously enhancing their eyes with black kohl, and Renaissance England’s Queen Elizabeth I applying a white lead “foundation” to create a “Mask of Youth.”

‘WAR PAINT’ When: Through Aug.21 Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Tickets: $39-$177 Info: (312) 443-3800; http://www.goodmantheatre.org

But here’s an intriguing fact: Despite what is now annual global sales of $150 billion for beauty products, the widespread use of makeup in ever-puritanical America only began to take off in the 1930s. Until then it was generally considered part of the arsenal of ladies of ill repute, from prostitutes to actresses.

Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden were the two extraordinary, ferociously competitive women who did a great deal to change such attitudes, turning themselves into business titans in the process. And they are now the subjects of the much-anticipated new musical “War Paint” —the work of Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), the same creative team behind “Grey Gardens,” the 2006 musical about Jackie Kennedy’s more-than-eccentric aunt and cousin. Now in previews at the Goodman Theatre, where it will receive its official world premiere on July 18, the show arrives with two Tony Award-winning divas —Patti LuPone (as Rubinstein) and Christine Ebersole (as Arden) —on the marquee. And while the phrase “pre-Broadway” is implicit, it has not yet been spoken by any tightly sealed, bright red-lipsticked lips.

Based on the 2004 book, “War Paint,” by Lindy Woodhead, and the 2007 documentary, “The Powder and the Glory,” by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman, “War Paint” moves from the early 1930s to the 1960s, as these two very different but supremely enterprising women —who worked just blocks apart from each other in New York – made it their business never to meet.

Rubinstein (1872-1975), was born into a large Jewish family in Krakow, Poland and, in 1902, fled (perhaps to escape an arranged marriage), to live with relatives in Australia. She soon opened a shop and began selling pots of face cream made according to Old World recipes, and using easily available lanolin from the ubiquitous sheep. She moved to London in 1908, and opened cosmetics salons both there and in Paris. But in 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, she headed to New York along with her husband (a journalist/publisher who became her publicist), and their two young sons, and opened yet another salon.

Patti LuPone stars as Helena Rubenstein in “War Paint” at the Goodman Theatre. | Lou Foglia/Sun-Times

Patti LuPone stars as Helena Rubenstein in “War Paint” at the Goodman Theatre. | Lou Foglia/Sun-Times

Arden (1878-1966), was born Florence Nightingale Graham, and raised on a farm in rural Ontario, Canada. Arriving in New York in 1907, she worked as a clerk in a shop specializing in facial massages, and within a few years reinvented herself as Elizabeth Arden and opened her own salon. In 1912, she joined the fabled New York Suffragette Rally on Fifth Avenue, in which the wearing of red lipstick became an emblem of women’s emancipation.

As Wright described them: “Rubinstein, who had a thick Polish accent and was fabled for her hilarious malapropisms, had an overall bearing that was darkly mysterious, like that of silent screen star Theda Bara. Through sheer determination, Arden, who aspired to the sun-drenched American beauty allure, and aligned herself with her wealthy Wasp customers, acquired a patrician accent. High society at that time was a hotbed of anti-Semitism, and Arden would not hire Jews. Rubinstein, well aware of that, saw affluent Jewish women as her customers.”

Christine Ebersole stars as Elizabeth Arden in “War Paint” at the Goodman Theatre. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Christine Ebersole stars as Elizabeth Arden in “War Paint” at the Goodman Theatre. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“‘Miss Arden,’ as she was always called, was kind ofa steel flower whose staff lived in fear of her, although she gave the Arden girls in her salons security and a way of life. Rubinstein was a citizen of the world —a firecracker with an impetuous, imperious manner. Both women started with nothing, both understood that cosmetics had to be marketed for self-esteem and health, and both were wildly ambitious, so when one launched a successful product the other quickly tried to outdo her. At separate times both also were the wealthiest women in the world – an exceptional accomplishment for their era.”

And there was this irony, as Wright explained it: “Although Rubinstein and Arden brought makeup out of the brothel, and marketed it as a tool for self-esteem, by the 1960s sex had become the selling point for cosmetics, and both women were appalled. The youth market emerged, as did the desire for cheap and fast. And men, including Charles Revson of Revlon fame, started to move into the business.”

For lyricist Michael Korie, Rubinstein was a familiar name.

“My father and grandfather had a pharmacy that carried Helena Rubinstein products, and I remember each year there was a one-time sale of her ‘estrogenic hormone cream,’ and jars of it just flew out of the store. Both Rubinstein and Arden understood the concept of branding long before that word was ever used.”

Composer Scott Frankel, who described working with the show’s two divas as “like having a Maserati and a Ferrari,” crafted music with hints of the characters’ roots, “with a bit of an Irving Berlin riff for Rubinstein, and a more elegant sound for Arden. There’s a big 1950s-era production number, and a movie musicals-style spectacle for the Arden girls of the Red Door salons who are clad in pink.” And there is more.

“Although the two women never met, we knew audiences would be hungry to hear them together,” said Wright. “So we’ve used some theatrical conventions that will allow them to share the stage.”

And LuPone and Ebersole, who in height and aura naturally mirror the characters they play, will bring their characters’ distinctive vocal qualities and backgrounds with them, in both dialogue and song.

LuPone, who knew nothing about Rubinstein at the start, but is now “enthralled by the woman’s drive, and foresight and phenomenal life,” discovered a great deal from a recent exhibition about Rubinstein mounted at New York’s Jewish Museum.

“I love her quote, ‘There are no ugly women, only lazy ones’,” said LuPone. “She never appeared at ease in her body. But she always knew what she wanted. And while I’m not sure I would have liked her in person, I sure would have loved to have seen her triplex on New York’s Upper East Side, with art by Dali and Picasso, her duplex in Paris, her house in the south of France, and her Connecticut estate.”

For Ebersole, one great lure of “War Paint” was the chance to work once again with the team behind “Grey Gardens,” the show that earned her a Tony.

“Of course they are extraordinarily talented, but what makes them special is their sense of collaboration —their willingness to have everyone bring ideas to the table,” said the actress.

As for Arden, she noted: “Long before this show I made visits to Arden’s Red Door salon in New York. In fact, my favorite quote from her is on a jar of cream I bought there. It says, ‘To be beautiful and natural is the birthright of every woman’.”

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