CD Review: WAR PAINT (Original Broadway Cast on Ghostlight Records)

by Frank Arthur on July 23, 2017

in CD-DVD

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STAR POWER MEETS GIRL POWER

The new Broadway musical War Paint centers on historical personages and rags-to-riches rivals Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, cosmetic moguls who are not incidentally female and, even less accidentally, played by Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. Their half-century squabble, fueled by polar temperaments, marketing competition, even the men they stole from each other, yields a creamy, catty and cautionary tale. It’s the edifying saga of false Fifth Avenue feminism undermining sisterly solidarity, of “beauty wars” from the Depression through the Eisenhower Era, and of the war on aging that we all must lose.

After opening to positive reviews April 6, 2017, the gloriously produced CD, recorded and mixed with crystal clarity by Todd Whitelock, is now available from Ghostlight Records. Grey Gardens‘ writers Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) reunited with Doug Wright (book) for this fun musical based on Lindy Woodhead’s book War Paint and Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman’s documentary (with the equally wry title The Powder and the Glory). The incandescent, powerful performances of the warring women are perfectly captured on the album: La LuPone is the Polish-Jewish impresaria Rubinstein, and Madame Ebersole plays the whitebread, Canadian-born Arden.

Naturally, the 21 tracks, many of which are full of melody and a rich Broadway sound, are available on streaming, but I recommend the CD which comes with a richly colored 36-page booklet. When you read the synopsis, you may be shocked to learn that the empresses of industry only meet at the end of the musical, which compares and contrasts their tell-tale triumphs and hubristic blunders.

The most wrenching reversals concern the men in their lives: Arden manages to acquire Rubinstein’s right-hand homosexual—her marketing guru Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills)–while Rubinstein wins over (or steals away) Arden’s husband and chief marketer Tommy Lewis (John Dossett). Alas, chauvinists, gay or straight, inevitably feel disrespected when their superiors aren’t their gender. But, however upstaged by larger-than-life consorts, the men find mutual misery in the duet “Dinosaurs,” ruefully acknowledging that they’re not even second fiddles in a very large string section.

War Paint details a catalogue of self-defeating struggles, outsized egos, and signature symbols, but the songs work equally well for this unspooling period piece: Frankel’s pastiche-laden score (brightly orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin) evolves melodically from anti-Depression chic (“Behind the Red Door”) to slinky swing (“Step on Out”) to 50s’ vulgarity (“Fire and Ice”). Two 11 o’clock numbers suit the headliners’ individualized magic: Ebersole endures a conscience crisis in “Pink,” a matronly mad scene that—as a nod to Gypsy—can pass for “Elizabeth’s Turn.” After Arden embraces, then rejects her favorite color, LuPone likewise agonizes over a gallery of her portraits, sadly the sole way a woman can be “Forever Beautiful.”

While sometimes over-the-top, Korie’s sparkling, witty lyrics are both character- and plot-driven. I know it’s out of fashion, but I wish the boys could have delivered a few standalone blockbuster numbers–you know, songs that would be covered by America’s best vocalists (perhaps that’s because Wright’s static plot didn’t inspire them). But tuneful and worth further listenings, the vast vulnerability and awesome actuality that these beautiful belters evoke rescues any downfalls.

production photos of Broadway production by Joan Marcus

War Paint
Original Broadway Cast
Ghostlight Records
21 tracks | total time 75:54
release date: July 14, 2017
to purchase, visit Ghostlight, Amazon, or iTunes
or listen on Spotify

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