Scott Frankel of Columbia County Storms Broadway with “War Paint”
Scott Frankel with Christine Ebersole.
By Dan Shaw
On a recent Sunday afternoon at his stately, red-brick Greek Revival house in Columbia County, composer Scott Frankel was decompressing after the third week of previews for his new Broadway musical, War Paint, which opens on April 6 at the Nederlander Theatre. It’s been five years since Frankel and his collaborators — playwright Doug Wright, lyricist Michael Korie and director Michael Greif — began working on the show about the 50-year rivalry between cosmetics tycoons Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein, which had its out-of-town world premiere last summer at the esteemed Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
“We always knew the roles had to be played by two larger-than-life stars with big personalities,” says Frankel. Arden is played by Christine Ebersole, who won a Tony Award in 2007 for Grey Gardens, the team’s musical adaptation of the seminal 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s eccentric cousins who lived in squalor on one of the best streets in the Hamptons (in a house that was later bought and renovated by the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn.) Patti LuPone plays her rival.
Frankel and his collaborators dreamed of getting LuPone to play Madame Rubenstein, as she was called, which would make the show a twofer — a pair of legendary Broadway actresses portraying a pair of legendary beauty moguls. “We try not to use the D-word,” says Frankel, explaining that calling LuPone or Ebersole a “diva” is a mischaracterization.
The show is fiction based on fact. “We hew closely to the historical record,” says Frankel, citing the book War Paint by Lindy Woodhead and the documentary “The Powder and the Glory” by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman. Frankel wrote much of the enchanting score on the 1890s Blüthner grand piano in the high-ceilinged drawing room of the house he shares with the architect Jim Joseph. “It’s a very acoustical room, and the piano came with the house,” says Frankel.
Their home, which was featured in Architectural Digest, could rightly be called an “estate” if the owners weren’t so humble. It was built in the 1830s by the Livingston family, and it has the genteel grandeur of nearby Hudson River historic homes like Clermont. Although it is furnished with period antiques — many purchased in Hudson from Vince Mulford and Stair Galleries — the house has a relaxed, don’t-worry-about-mud-on-your-boots vibe.
Frankel is unfailingly congenial in town or country. At a recent preview of War Paint, he greeted friends and acquaintances in the lobby of the Nederlander as if it were his bar mitzvah. He was giddy because this is only his second Broadway opening, although he’s one of the most successful composers of his generation, whose credits include Happiness at Lincoln Center Theater and Far From Heaven, which had its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2012.
Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. Photo by Joan Marcus.
War Paint is must-see unadulterated Broadway — a Technicolor spectacle with dazzling and illustrative sets by David Korins (whose most recent credits include Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen). The drop-dead chic costumes by Catherine Zuber are sophisticated and sublime. The facsimiles of Rubenstein’s jewelry are especially astounding. Known for her patronage of visionary artists and designers (such as Brancusi, Dali, Picasso, Schiaparelli), Rubenstein’s avant-garde eye has been well documented (in books like Suzanne Slesin’s Over the Top and the Jewish Museum’s 2014 exhibit “Beauty is Power”), and Zuber has recreated looks that remain startling in their originality and modernity.
However, style does not upstage substance, and War Paint is a potent history of protofeminists who created a new industry. “They were the Henry Fords of cosmetics, skincare and day spas,” says Frankel, noting that unlike other rich and powerful women in history, they did not inherit or marry their fortunes.
They famously disdained each other, but pop culture critics are wrong when they compare the women to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who are the subject of Ryan Murphy’s new FX series Feud. Arden and Rubenstein were actually more like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs — arguably, the invention of the modern cosmetics industry changed the world as much as the personal computer. Arden and Rubenstein viewed cosmetics and skincare as empowering ordinary women to be their best selves. (Before them, primarily actresses and wanton women wore makeup.) “It’s a conflicted legacy, of course, but they really believed they were helping women,” says Frankel.
And War Paint itself is a vehicle of empowerment because its stars are women of a certain age. “I’m proud to add roles to the repertoire for veteran actresses,” says Frankel. “Everything shouldn’t be about young people.” He credits Ebersole, 64, and LuPone, 67, for collaborating to make their characters multidimensional. “They helped us push beyond catty, facile stereotypes,” he says.
After opening night, Frankel won’t be at the rear of the theater taking notes five nights a week, so he can return to Livingston and unwind. “I’ll go for a walk in nature and then buy some pastries in Hudson,” he says.