Part of being a theater junkie is that we demand that the people we love feel as we do about a given work; when they don’t, we often ask ourselves what the hell is the matter with them. In the past ten or twelve years, I have often attended a new Broadway musical that seemed to me not only emotionally engrossing but fresh and inventive in some crucial way, only to listen in dismay as my friends told me that they “just didn’t get it.” The Light in the Piazza comes to mind, and so do Passing Strange, The Bridges of Madison County, Next to Normal, and Scott Frankel and Michael Korie’s brilliant Grey Gardens.
Recently, I had that feeling once more when I attended Frankel and Korie’s most recent show, War Paint, about the decades-long empire-building and intense rivalry of cosmetics queens Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, played by powerhouse Broadway stars Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone. Many of my friends have judged it a hugely enjoyable vehicle for the two gifted women, but somewhat disappointing as a show. Having listened fairly obsessively to the original cast CD on Ghostlight Records (https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/war-paint-original-broadway-cast-recording/id1235156376), I can’t help but wonder if many of them, blinded by the brilliance of Catherine Zuber’s costumes, weren’t really listening to the score.
Scott Frankel’s music evokes the great period of fashion (and entertainment) that was mid-twentieth century America. Yet he doesn’t burlesque it. His melodies are rich and varied, and marvelously crafted. Some of the orchestral details are marvelous, such as the quasi-dissonant brass chord that opens “If I’d Been a Man,” a poignant duet in which the two women ponder the ways in which their gender has worked against them; I also loved the dying-swan riff that he came up with for the end of the number. As he did in Grey Gardens, Frankel crafts melodies that accent and underline the rhythm of speech without overwhelming it; in this respect, I occasionally found myself wondering if Poulenc might have been an influence on him. In “If I’d Been a Man” and the show’s best number, “Pink,” in which Ebersole’s Arden laments that posterity threatens to boil her achievements down to a single color, Frankel builds to an impressive emotional peak. And he constantly comes up with funny surprises; in “Back on Top,” the establishing number for LuPone’s Rubinstein, he uses the word “top” not as a trumpeting high note but as a growling low one, cleverly presaging the professional roller coaster ride that awaits her.
War Paint cements my belief that Michael Korie is the most talented lyricist currently working in the musical theater. As he demonstrated in Grey Gardens, he has no peer in having a character reveal her foibles in song. In “Back on Top,” he puts an entirely fresh twist on the ‘Here I Am, World!’ number that has been a staple of musicals for years. Rubinstein, having just descended the gangplank of a ship in her mission to take Manhattan: “A lucky thing before the Wall Street crash,/My intuition told me, ‘Take the cash’/So I sold out, made a mint,/But I like more my name in print/Right back on top!”) And Korie’s words can be achingly moving as well; in “If I’d Been a Man,” I was particularly struck by Rubinstein’s observation:
A man can be an absent parent.
Stray the way a woman daren’t.
Build an empire for his sons,
And everyone’s his fan.
I love only men I can’t caress.
Two sons ashamed of my success.
Would they loathe me less
If I’d been a man?
In his New York Times review, Ben Brantley, despite generally liking the show, complained that its “compression of extensive research can make War Paint sound like a singing Wikipedia entry.” I find that a fairly staggering comment, because one of War Paint’s great strengths is that it brilliantly plumbs the emotional lives of both women. Biographers claim that Arden and Rubinstein never met, but Frankel and Korie have created a kind of unseen third character that underpins the entire show. It’s the two women’s awareness of each other—their mutual skepticism, mistrust, and even grudging admiration. This comes into bloom in the climactic number, “Beauty in the World,” in which the two women do meet—in the most plausible and theatrically satisfying way.
Recently, I spoke with Frankel and Korie by phone.
BK: I’d love to know a little about your songwriting process. Is it a straightforward matter of lyrics first, music second, or do you work it out in together?
SCOTT FRANKEL: When we started working together, I preferred getting a lyric from Michael first. I felt like it gave me so much more information in terms of character and language and plot and structure, He used to give me long and elaborate lyrics that weren’t ABA; they had a more complex, unusual structure. And it was interesting, because it would take me places I would not have thought of otherwise. I still like getting lyrics first, but as we work together more over the years, I’m not adamant against going the other way. If we agree on a song or moment, especially if is a more visceral or feeling-oriented lyric, as opposed to a comic thing, I will say to him, “I feel something churning, and let me see if I can go off and etch something and then give it back to you.” If it’s a comic moment or a wordy, plot-oriented thing, we normally go lyric first. If it’s more emotional, it’s often music first. We also get together with Doug [Wright], the librettist. Doug and Michael are very good at cannibalizing each other’s work, and I don’t mean it in the pejorative. Sometimes Doug will write a scene and Michael will extract an idea from it, and vice versa. Good cross-pollination there, between the two of us, and among the three of us.
MICHAEL KORIE: Scott does prefer lyrics first. But sometimes I will write a lyric which is not what he hears at all, and he will dash off the music first. And it’s much better.
So, with War Paint, let’s see … “Best Face Forward” was lyrics first. Vastly edited. “Behind the Red Door”: music first.
“Back on Top”: music first. “My Secret Weapon” was music first.
“If I’d Been a Man” was lyrics first. No one had a clue what to do for that moment. I have a girlfriend who says, “You have no idea. If I’d been a man.. .” So I thought, let’s just go for it. They weren’t sure, but I did it. It was expanded, because originally, the second verse was half the length, but Patti wanted a full verse to equal Christine’s. I had to think of more reasons why she wanted to be a man. (Laughs).
BK: There’s a line in “If I’d Been a Man” that stopped me cold in the theater, and the same thing happened when I was listening to the CD. It’s when Helena Rubinstein, talking about her sons, sings, “Would they loathe me less?/If I’d been a man.” It’s so moving, and it tells you so much about Rubinstein’s backstory.
MK: That’s one of the additional lyrics I came up with. Patti is usually right about these things; she may not know exactly what she wants, but she knows something is missing. And you’re right: when you hear it in a lyric, you kind of don’t need a whole scene about it.
“Pink” was lyrics first. Christine loved the idea, but wanted a different song, so Scott rewrote the music but kept the same title and I rewrote a lyric to the music. And “Beauty in the World” was music first. But really, we try to make it imperceptible. Sometimes we can’t, but we try to fudge the lines over which came first. Everyone thinks the patter songs are lyrics first, but actually, in Grey Gardens, “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” was music first.
BK: I’m curious: in Grey Gardens, which came first, words or music, for “Another Winter in a Summer Town”?
SF: Words first. We were at Sundance working on the show, and we had generated a lot of material for the second act, and Michael had generated a complete lyric for that. I had already written three songs that week and I didn’t feel I had the music in me for the climactic moment. We did a simple run-through for the guests and the company and Christine read it like a poem when we got to that moment. She just recited it. And of course, she’s marvelous, and it’s an emotional moment. And people started saying, Well, it’s not traditional, but maybe it should be a poem, maybe there shouldn’t be any music. I said, “Are you kidding? It’s not an 11:00 poem. Let me write the damn music.” We came to New York, and I finally figured out what I was going to do.
BK: In War Paint, what was the most difficult number for the two of you to write?
SF: The final song, “Beauty in the World,” was our third try for that slot. Because these two strong female protagonists never met in real life, according to urban legend, we take liberties and have them meet at the end. That said, they don’t walk off arm in arm together and become friends. It became tricky to find the right tone and to find what the hell they would sing to each other. We did a first stab called “It was “Always You,” which the ladies labeled without much affection “The Lesbian Love Song.” They thought it was not credible, with the animus Elizabeth and Helena had for each other, despite this detente and grudging respect. The second stab was more in the style of Kander and Ebb, highly ironic. It was called “You Never Know.” It had bite to it, but that didn’t feel satisfying in terms of where they could land, so I finally had this notion of making it about this triangulated third thing, something that was not about each other, but something they could agree on that wouldn’t go back on their lifetime of animosity. So we landed on this idea of writing about a time when there was art and beauty and culture, absolute standards of beauty, and a bemoaning of a culture and a time and a sensory aesthetics that kind of disappeared. Once we figured that out, then that song kind of fell into place. And what else does one do but steal from Strauss when you have two ladies of a certain age at the end of a musical? Renée Fleming came to see it, and she said, “Maybe Susan Graham and I should sing some of these duets.”
MK: “Beauty in the World” was a number that the two women were instrumental in the helping the two of us find. Doug had written a more talky scene with them hurling accusations at each other, and the women just read it and said no, no.
SF: With “Beauty in the World,” I also had it in the back of my head that it’s also about musical theater—that there was a time when there was more music, and elegance and craft and structure, so we are simultaneously bemoaning the loss of a time when those things were appreciated and valued in society. I think, like the culture at large, the musical theater has been coarsened generally by the absence of those things.
BK: How do you feel about how the Broadway audience has responded to some of the great new musicals of the past few seasons? So many wonderful, exciting shows—Grey Gardens, Light in the Piazza, Bridges of Madison County—didn’t have an easy time finding an audience.
SF: When I was growing up, one thing I loved about going to a musical was to be taken to a world that was very far away from suburban Cleveland, Ohio: to Siam with The King and I, or the Industrial Revolution with Sweeney Todd. It was interesting to see that culture and those people portrayed onstage and to see certain universal things where I could see parts of my life reflected in those exotic locales.
Now what I see with younger theatergoers is that they want to see their own lives reflected back at them, but in a very, very literal way. They want the characters to be in street clothes, to have cell phones onstage, a pop score—they don’t want to be taken somewhere else. They want their experience confirmed and somehow boomeranged back at them.
BK: From the beginning, did you plan to have Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein meet, in a “Mary, Queen of Scots” moment?
SF: Despite the legend that they didn’t meet, it seems inconceivable that they weren’t at some point in the same room together. But I loved the deliciousness that they purported that they never met. And they stuck with that. There are times in the show where they are singing a duet but in different locations, but I thought it essential that they meet. It wouldn’t be satisfying without it. I did love at the end, when Doug wrote some lines, and Rubinstein says, “It never happened.” They agree that it will be between themselves.
BK: When I’m working on a biography, there’s always a point at which I find a potent point of connection with the subject; something from my personal life begins to resonate in a big way as I write about this other person. As you were writing, did you find that you found a stronger connection to one of these women than the other?
SF: Yes. Rubinstein spoke to me immediately. The determination and the kind of slightly mangled English-not-as-a-first-language, and the humor and chutzpah and the ambition. She’s very, very colorful, and those colors really pop. Initially, I identified more with Rubinstein and was drawn more to her. Arden was complicated and fascinating, but also in a somewhat diametrically opposed way. She was more emotionally buttoned up, I think, and partly out of this kind of gentility that she was not born into. When she rips the band-aid off in “Pink,” it makes it more effective and surprising, because she’s been less self-aware throughout the evening. But Rubinstein as Jew, as someone who couldn’t pass—yes, as a Jew and a gay man, I probably identified more outwardly with Rubinstein.
MK: We had to connect with both of them. I think at first I connected with Helena, because of the Jewish background and because I felt that Elizabeth was imperious as well as slightly anti-Semitic. But the truth is neither of them wrote biographies that were truly revealing about themselves. We did have access to their letters. We kind of had to figure out what was going on inside for both of them, and when you go inside, you end up connecting. Helena was to me, hilarious, with all her chemistry–but also, with her notions of grace. We also went to the show at the Jewish Museum where they showed Helena’s paintings and it was said of her collection that she owned the worst paintings by all of the world’s greatest artists. That’s because she liked to bargain. My mother loved Helena Rubinstein and thought she was the most beautiful woman. She was kind of dumpy and short and always had herself air-brushed to take off some wrinkles or whatever, but she carried herself like she was beautiful, and she believed it.
Elizabeth I found appealing because nothing got in her way. She wouldn’t even allow her husband to have an executive title in her company. And she was resourceful. I would love to have had another hour to do the back story of those two women, because they’re fascinating. Ultimately, I related to them both, and when the time came for Elizabeth’s 11:00 number, we had already written “Forever Beautiful,” which she thought would be hard to equal. We were trying to figure out what to do. I said, “Leave this one to me, too.” I went home and wrote the lyric to “Pink.” I came up with the notion of them trying to take the company away and trying to take away the color and leave only her name. What would that do to such a hard worker and someone with such an inflated opinion of herself to be suddenly kicked off her perch? I think all artists go through ups and downs where we have to believe in ourselves and think we’ve written the greatest thing, and along comes someone who says, “Why did they write this at all?” Or (laughs) my very favorite critic in Variety, Marilyn Stasio. She said that War Paint is about two women flouncing around in hats. And then I get indignant and I say, “Maybe it is. Shit.” And then I feel flicked off my perch. I understand what that’s like. We put ourselves into all these characters. I think that’s why we have cores of darkness in all of our shows. Those are the projects that Scott and I gravitate to.
BK: There’s some remarkable work being done now by Broadway composers and lyricists. And some of the stories have great depth and the shows themselves constantly take you by surprise and teach you things. Do you get frustrated that so many lovers of Broadway musicals don’t seem to want anything but the next revival of The Sound of Music or The King and I?
MK: I get frustrated because I think people don’t want those shows to come back. The Sound of Music maybe less so. I respect Rodgers and Hammerstein’s craftsmanship, and they always wrote from character. Anna in The King and I is a very interesting character. With her and the king at the end, it’s just staggering. I wish that people would forget the kind of music they think they want to hear and listen to what the composer feels, and put themselves in it. They do seem to accept the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon, but because it’s the R&H canon, they are able to say it was written fifty or sixty years ago. But if you write in a classical Broadway style now, they say, where’s the pop/schlock/ rock beat? That annoys me.
SF: Sometimes there is this fetishized affection for certain pieces of the Golden Age. It happens in the opera, too, Ultimately, I still have faith in the form and the ability to tell stories that audiences can respond to, but the newness of new work is always going to be new! (Laughs) It’s not going to be like the rapturous hosannas of the people rediscovering Hello, Dolly!
BK: I know. I’m not that keen to see it, really. I’d much rather see a new show.
SF: I think some of it is a longing for youth and a more innocent time. But to me, it’s such a mirage. The whole Hello, Dolly! of 1964—I suppose it’s a little like “Make America Great Again.” Except that back then, so many of the men were cheating on their wives and having three-martini lunches or getting blown by sailors. I look back on that period and those shows with a little more skepticism than some do.
And then you look at opera. At the Met, even Dialogues of the Carmelites is too much for some of those subscribers.
BK: That’s right. In my time, they haven’t even been able to sell Peter Grimes at the Met.
MK: One of the shows I liked this year was Dear Evan Hansen. I felt that score went very well with the story and it went to some dark ambiguous places, which was interesting, but it’s not a score that I would want to write. I would want to hear it.
The other thing that I’m noticing is that a lot of people are writing navel-gazing songs. It’s as if they heard that song in Nine that Guido sings about himself, and they decided that’s all they should write. And people sing about themselves in very self-aware ways, but I find it’s more interesting for characters to be unaware of what makes them tick and run into a brick wall and say, why the hell is this happening? I think that’s more interesting than having characters analyze themselves.
BK: Do you think, as is suggested in War Paint, that it was a mistake for both Arden and Rubinstein not to advertise on television in the 1950s?
MK: I think it probably was a mistake. But they might have been able to pass on it if they had compensated for it in other ways. I think what got under their skin was that they both felt they had raised make-up from the gutter, from the dance hall girls and the prostitutes, and they legitimized it. And they did that basically by de-sexualizing it. They made it about beauty and regimen and health care and diet and the whole package. The wrote diet books to go with it. They basically built the whole industry by saying that you couldn’t just buy a lipstick. But then the 1950s came along, and Charles Revson advertised lipstick by itself and made it about sex, and that offended them. They thought it was vulgar. That was not keeping up with the times. But they were pretty set in their ways by then.
But that idea of the failure to adapt is something that a lot of people don’t want to deal with in musicals. They want love to conquer everything, still. We’ve got a lot of that this year. We don’t do that. It seems that still a lot of people, when they want a musical, they want to be uplifted and they don’t have the imagination anymore to put themselves in situations that are not unambiguously happy.
BK: But that’s what I love about the shows the two of you have done. They present us with thorny situations, featuring characters who are struggling through, trying to make them work—as you say, with varying degree of awareness. War Paint has that quality, too.
MK: But War Paint is comedic. The audience enjoys it every night, but I don’t know that they think of it as comic. It’s funny and it’s pointed. I used to get criticized, particularly about Far from Heaven, for a writing a character—the gay husband, Frank—who was not a role model. People said, “Oh, this is terrible—this alcoholic, nasty man who can’t share the joy of it with his wife when he finally comes out.” I said, “I’ve earned my right not to write role models anymore!” I wrote Harvey Milk [Korie’s 1995 opera, with music by Stewart Wallace] before anybody else, and I’m done with role models.
BK: Given that you were writing War Paint for two such formidable Broadway stars, was it a problem that you introduce Elizabeth Arden in the show some time before Helena Rubinstein first appears?
MK: Yes, it was a problem. (Laughs) It wasn’t a problem for our stars. Our stars were concerned that it would be my turn, her turn, my turn, her turn—two evenly distributed back-and-forth roles. They wanted it more mixed up than that. Patti has an extra solo in Act Two and Christine has an extra one in Act One. But the entrance of who comes first was dictated by the story. Because we start when we do [in 1935], Elizabeth had to think she’s on top and unthreatened—and then Helena comes back.
But when we did readings of it, that awful question came up from people in the audience. “Whose show is it?” When I hear things like that, I want to run screaming from the room. “Whose show is it—Henry’s or Eliza’s?” Well, it’s both.
BK: I hate questions like that myself.
MK: “What is this show about?” People in the audience ask these questions because they think it’s incumbent upon them to do so. They go off happy as clams because they’ve stuck a safety pin into the thing, and we’re left to wrestle with these questions.
The challenge was always, structurally, how do you do a musical when the two main characters don’t interact in the same scenes? We thought we were doing interesting, structural things and pushing the envelope—as we did in Grey Gardens.
BK: People, of course, were predicting that the two stars would fight like crazy and make it impossible for all concerned. But they missed that these are two very smart women who are probably too assured to do that.
MK: These two actresses respect each other greatly, and also respect the fact that they have long periods of time where they don’t’ have to be onstage and carry the show. They both love that, because it’s quite a lot to carry!