By Tulis McCall

War Paint; PATTI LUPONE and CHRISTINE EBERSOLE; Photo by Joan Marcus

This is one of those times when a person straps on her writing gear and gets to the task at hand because, as Charles Mee says, “writing is not about saying something, it is about discovering something.”

As I was searching through the available photos to add to this review I was going round and round because I was looking for a photo where these two giants Helena Rubinstein  (Patti LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) were together – not just on the same stage but in the same “room” looking at each other.

But of course, they were not.  While they were on each other’s radar, the story goes that Rubenstein and Arden were never in each other’s company. The book of this musical does not address this fact until the very final scene that “never happened.”

Elizabeth Arden was born Florence Nightingale Graham on a farm in Ontario. She came to New York in 1907.  Helena Rubinstein was born Chaya Rubinstein in Krakow, Poland and came to New York in 1914.  Together they took the concept of ‘make-up” which had been relegated to women in the theatre and the brothel, and transformed it into a commodity that was pristine.

Arden and Rubenstein were charlatans of the first order.   “Every woman deserves to be beautiful,” Arden announced after giving away free lipstick to the Suffragists (NB suffragette is a derogatory term that reduced the women fighting for civil rights to more or less capricious children).  They figured out how to sell youth to young women, and conveyed the promise of same to their older sisters.  Beauty was not only a right, it was a choice, and there was not a woman on the planet who would not benefit from carrying a hairbrush an lipstick with her at all times.  The idea of beauty carried with it weight and equality.  A woman seen is a woman heard.

Or so they promised.  In their own lives they smashed through the glass ceiling and were the among the first women at the head of their respective companies.  But this was a hollow victory when they were not allowed to be part of the class that they served.  The private club of choice, the Mayfair Club, would not admit Arden as a member.  Rubenstein was denied the right to purchase an apartment on Park Avenue because she was Jewish.  PS She bought the building.  Private lives were no less butty.  Their men (one husband and one aide de camp) deserted them and went to work for the “other woman.”

Other fun facts:  Arden used the same formula for her horses as she did for her human clients.  Day creme and night were the same thing in different packages.  Both women embraced World War II and the women who served it here and on the front.  In the 1950’s when Charles Revson grabbed the spotlight by advertising on television (how common!) with his new Revlon line of products, these two women refuse to stoop that low.  A ten-minute beauty regimen is an oxymoron. Upstarts like Estée Lauder and Helen Curtis were not who you thought they were – but then neither were Arden and Rubenstein.   According to this story they clung to their empires like dowagers until their deaths – only a year apart.

And not for nuthin’ – we also witness the extraordinary talents of Ebersole and Lupone.  To hear them sing is to listen to the heavens break open and put down pure gold.  Never mind that the music itself is not up to the grace of the voices that deliver it.  These two women, like the giants they portray, keep their eye on the target every second they are onstage.  And probably off stage as well.

What we don’t get, and why the writers did not take this risk is a mystery, is the two women squaring off face-to-face, war paint to war paint.  So what if they never met?  The book already takes liberties with facts and dates.  Why not go all the way and swing from the rafters with story-telling daring?  These women altered the course of society.  Get it?  They lived in rarified air.  But this book in many ways dismisses them as anecdotal figures, as people who merely invented ways for silly women to pass the time.

This musical takes as it’s title from the biography by Lindy Woodhead.  Additional source material came from a documentary film aptly titled “The Powder & the Glory.”  Get it?  The Powder.  Even a PBS documentary slights these two women.

My conclusion: Where is Hilary when we need her?

WAR PAINT- Book by Doug Wright; music by Scott Frankel; lyrics by Michael Korie; inspired by the book “War Paint” by Lindy Woodhead and the documentary “The Powder & the Glory” by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman; directed by Michael Greif

Choreography by Christopher Gattelli; music direction by Lawrence Yurman; sets by David Korins; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Kenneth Posner; sound by Brian Ronan; hair design by David Brian Brown; makeup design by Angelina Avallone; orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin; voice and dance arrangements by Mr. Frankel; production stage manager, Tripp Phillips; dramaturge, Jonathan L. Green; associate director, Johanna McKeon; associate choreographer, Mark Myars; voice and dialect coach, Deborah Hecht. Presented by the Goodman Theater, Robert Falls, artistic director; Roche Schulfer, executive director. Through Aug. 14 at the Goodman Theater’s Albert Theater, 170 North Dearborn Street, Chicago; 312-443-3800, Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes.

WITH: Patti LuPone (Helena Rubinstein), Christine Ebersole (Elizabeth Arden), Mary Ernster (Society Doyenne/Rubinstein Beauty Technician/Mrs. Trowbridge-Phelps/Others), Barbara Marineau (Grand Dame/ Rubinstein Beauty Technician/Others), Joanna Glushak (Countess/Beatrice Good/ Rubinstein Beauty Technician/Magda/Others), Angel Reda (Heiress/Arden Girl/ Rubinstein Beauty Technician/Eleanor Roosevelt/Miss Smythe/Others), Leslie Donna Flesner (Arden Girl/Miss Teale/Tulip/Others), Mary Claire King (Arden Girl/Miss Beam/Others), Steffanie Leigh (Arden Girl/Dorian Leigh/Others), Stephanie Jae Park (Arden Girl/Rubinstein Beauty Technician/Others), John Dossett (Tommy Lewis), Douglas Sills (Harry Fleming), David Girolmo (Freddy/Raoul Dufy/Senator Royal Copeland/William S. Paley/Mr. Levin/Others), Erik Liberman (Charles Revson/Auctioneer/Others) and Chris Hoch (Court Officer/Mr. Simms/Hal March/Mr. Baruch/Others).