War Paint: B’way musical as corporate history

"War Paint" curtain scrim as viewed from mezzanine at New York's Nederlander Theater. Photo by Marian Calabro (c) 2017.

I admire great Broadway musicals and good corporate histories equally, so “War Paint” was a must-see. Alas, in the words of novelist Janet Burroway, “Only trouble is interesting.” And there’s not nearly enough trouble, conflict, or call it what you will in this twin biography of cosmetics pioneers Helena Rubinstein (played by Patti LuPone at high diva pitch with a Polish accent) and Elizabeth Arden (played with nuanced intensity by Christine Ebersole). The real women were fierce rivals who never met. Although they were the only females of their time to head self-named companies in the US, neither of them wrote an autobiography or executive memoir; the libretto writer Doug Wright drew on nonfiction books as his main source material. In the play, Arden and Rubinstein meet in a concocted last scene when they’re both over the hill. It’s sad but hardly climactic.

As befits a show about beauty and self-image, the production glitters and the costumes dazzle. Kudos to composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie for clever and heartfelt songs such as “If I’d Been a Man” (and for rhyming Manhattan and tomcattin’ — Ira Gershwin must be smiling down on that one). The Elizabeth Arden company thoughtfully provided White Tea eau de toilette in the ladies’ room, a nice touch of branding. But for business history that really sings, we need to go back to the fictional “The Pajama Game.” And for a play that’s serious about corporate history, life-and-death conflict, and company founders who are true villains, there’s Lucy Preble’s “Enron”–an excellent UK import that understandably never caught on in New York.