War Paint: A Review

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Before Bobbi was even born, there was Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, two of the biggest American beauty pioneers of the early 20th century. Recently, we saw the Chicago production of the new musical War Paint, starring two-time Tony Award winners Patti LuPone as Rubinstein and Christine Ebersole as Arden, based on the book by Lindy Woodhead. Now, Rubinstein and Arden weren’t just big names in cosmetics—their rivalry spanned decades into World War II, even though they had a lot in common: they were two of the first women in America to build empires and become moguls in their own name, and their different approaches to cosmetics and skincare paved the way for beauty entrepreneurs nowadays.

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We start in the 1930s in this musical. Arden and Rubinstein are outsiders who became insiders through hard work and innovation—Rubinstein is a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe who must grapple with anti-Semitism with World War II on the horizon. Arden is blonde and WASP-like, with lots of wealthy friends on Fifth Avenue who were also her best customers, but she was denied entry to the prestigious Colony Club for being too nouveau. The two rivals don’t actually meet until the end of the musical, when they’re honored with a lifetime achievement award and forced to acknowledge that they’ve gotten older while the beauty industry has gotten younger. The same people that once admired them and banged on their office doors for advice and mentorship are the new moguls in the beauty industry—and many of them borrowed from Rubinstein and Arden.

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Why are beauty products are so scientifically sound nowadays, with extensive testing by doctors and scientists? It’s because Rubinstein donned a lab coat and demanded clinical results from her creams and serums. (Her brand created the first waterproof mascara—something we take for granted nowadays!) Why are cosmetics brands are so obsessed with cult-favorite and iconic packaging? It’s because Arden knew that her personal shade of pink, Arden Pink, wasn’t just a color—it was a lifestyle, a philosophy, an aspiration for women. In the first act of the musical, Arden and Rubinstein sing a duet—they haven’t met yet, but they occupy the same stage—called “If I’d Been a Man,” speculating on how much easier it would be to be ambitious and successful if they weren’t women, if they didn’t have to assuage the egos of their husbands and male business partners.

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“There are no ugly women,” LuPone (as Rubinstein) tells us. “Only lazy ones.” This is an actual declaration from Rubinstein, one that is been repeated throughout the decades by self-made women. “I pick good women, but I haven’t had any luck with my men,” Arden once declared to a magazine. These two women, in spite of their rivalry, were supporting women and pushing them to the front of society at a time when women were expected to be shadows of their male counterparts. The stage aesthetics of musical itself is very pink, full of pantyhose and short skirts, but that doesn’t take away from the seriousness of Arden and Rubinstein’s endeavors and struggles.

 

Rumor has it that War Paint will be hitting Broadway in the near future—in the meantime, we recommend reading the book!

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