Along with the rumbling rivalry between Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, as they grew their cosmetic empires, War Paint also hints that the pair—who apparently never met in person—had more in common than they could have imagined. In their own ways they both felt like outsiders, and left behind by the charge of modern times and modern makeup.
The animosity, as sketched in the musical, seems to have extended to years of frostiness, and insults and grievances mostly privately held and voiced to intimates. It also powered two empires.
Just as in Feud, where the larger issue is the treatment of women by Hollywood, a sexism that only fueled the women’s rivalry, so War Paint—as well as focusing on Arden and Rubinstein—has bigger questions to ask about the politics of makeup. Are the duo liberating women, one face cream at a time, or enslaving them?
After a shaky opening, War Paint heats up in the second act. The first zigzags a little fruitlessly in a search for plot and animus between its leads. It begins with a nice idea: An unseen voice baits a group of women about their beauty regimes and why they would benefit from makeup. This mini-circus of insecurities is awkwardly scored, and the orchestra—as happens occasionally elsewhere—is so loud it plays over some of the sung words.