Reviewer: Mark Clegg
As we sit in the gap between the announcement of nominations and the actual ceremony of the 2017 Tony Awards, War Paint is getting a lot of attention. Nominated for both best costume and scenic design, the main talking points are the two leading ladies both of whom are nominated for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. Hardly surprising when you consider that those two ladies are Broadway legends Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole (although the smart money is on Hello Dolly’s Bette Midler beating them both to the Tony)
Chronicling the real-life rivalry between two icons of the twentieth century, War Paint casts Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden and Lupone as Helena Rubinstein: rival Manhattan cosmetic queens, both of whom are pushed to achieve success by the fear of the other besting them. Plot-wise there is little else to discuss as not a lot actually happens, but fortunately, the talent involved makes this a minor concern.
The story takes place from the 1930s through to the 1960s and Scott Frankel’s music subtly acknowledges each era with the score evolving as time passes. The chirpy Behind the Red Door is reminiscent of pre-war musicals while Necessity is the Mother of Invention is steeped with good old USA patriotism as America enters World War II. All the music is tuneful and fitting despite being pretty unremarkable or particularly memorable.
Michael Korie’s lyrics are smart, witty and completely wrapped in the narrative. The beauty of this is that as long as you know the basic premise of the central relationship, the songs establish the characters, tell their own stories and create a satisfying overall arc.
Of the two leading ladies, Ebersole comes across better on this recording with Lupone’s (no doubt authentic) thick Polish accent often getting in the way of clarity and occasionally veering into caricature. However, both performances are strong and powerful whether alone or blending with a chorus or each other. Each convey a myriad of emotions through their songs and wring genuine emotion from the listener at times. However, War Paint, while a strong score is ostensibly a two-woman-show to the point of leaving one wondering how much the recording is relying on Ebersole and Lupone to carry it.
Although all of the elements of this soundtrack are impressive and polished, it remains somewhat slightly lacking. This is partly down to the absence of a big, memorable, standout number or any tune that sticks in the head. The main problem is that despite excellent performances of well fleshed out characters, it is still difficult to care about a petty rivalry between two multi-millionaires who made their money exploiting other people’s insecurities. It is also hard to imagine that the show itself will have much life once the two leading ladies move on to other projects.
Like the makeup that both Arden and Rubinstein peddled, this slick product doesn’t quite stand up to close inspection. But on the surface, it is admittedly beautiful.