In a time when men ruled the business world and only prostitutes and performers wore makeup, two female immigrants, born to poverty, raised themselves up to become iconoclastic powerhouses who defined 20th-century beauty and revolutionized how the world saw women. War Paint, written by Doug Wright with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, enters the world of cosmetic industry icons Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, played by Tony Award-winning theatrical titans Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. Director Michael Greif assembled a star-studded creative team to help these industry giants shatter glass ceilings on stage first at Goodman Theatre in Chicago and now the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway: set designer David Korins, lighting designer Kenneth Posner, sound designer Brian Ronan, and costume designer Catherine Zuber.
“When someone calls up and says, ‘Do you want to work on a Michael Greif-directed, David Stone- and Marc Platt-produced musical, with these writers and Patti and Christine?’ you do it,” states Korins, whose design has been nominated for a 2017 Tony Award. He dove into the creative process, brainstorming how best to shape the worlds of these two powerful women. “Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden really represent high style and class,” he says. “They were juggernauts in a league of their own. They were the only two female CEOs at the time and some of the richest women in the world. We tried to find a way to conjure both women’s worlds and be very specific about what each individual world looked like, while still serving a beautiful, overarching theatrical envelope so that these women’s worlds could permeate the whole theatrical stage.”
A master of packaging and marketing, Arden was defined by her use of the color pink, including ribbons, boxes, and bows. Her world was all decadence and detail, from porcelain vases to Venetian glass to elaborate floral arrangements. In contrast, Rubinstein was a scientist and an art collector, so Korins says he shaped her world with, “clean lines, utilitarian looks, stainless steel, and beautiful, simple-lined wood shelving, not to mention lots of sculpture and artwork.” Set in New York City, the musical progresses from 1935 to 1964, and as such, the scenic dressings change in small, but detailed ways. “You’d be surprised how specific the time period is for a phone from 1935 as opposed to a phone from 1950, or similarly a lamp,” he quips.
Korins has several favorite set pieces in the musical. One is a series of walls, built by the Goodman Theatre, that are lined with different three-dimensional bottles, some frosted, others transparent or translucent, all with specially designed profiles and label shapes. “They’re on these blacked-out shelves that have multiple rounds of LED lighting in the bottom and in the top, so we can create every permutation of color,” explains the set designer, “and they’re pretty exquisitely lit by Ken Posner throughout the show.” Another favorite is the show curtain, which had been present at the Goodman, but it was not painted until Broadway. “It is so rare to actually get hand-painted scenery these days in a large scale for a drop,” says Korins. “It’s gorgeous, beautifully done by Scenic Art Studios, and I think it sets the right tone for the show.”
When the show moved to Broadway, the team had to determine the best way to store all the set pieces. “The Nederlander Theatre, which is a beautifully renovated space, has almost no storage,” states Korins, “so tech rehearsals and previews were less about the show on stage and more about figuring out the choreography and the storage plot backstage.” Almost every piece of furniture or scenery—most of which was built by PRG, and other pieces by Daedalus—flies offstage only to be hung somewhere else.
For a musical honoring two women of great renown, and in turn, played by a pair of leading ladies, only a team as equally masterful at their craft could have sufficed. “This team is really and truly a group of people who are really masterful, creative minds, all working at the top of their game,” says Korins. “Between Brian Ronan, Cathy Zuber, Ken Posner, Michael Greif, the entire writing team, and the like, this is the blue chip of all blue chip teams. When you see War Paint, it’s just completely obvious that this is a group of masters at work. I feel humble to be on this team.”