I just saw a new Broadway musical called, ‘War Paint.’ It’s about the intense rivalry between beauty business mavericks Helen Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, played by Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. ‘War Paint’ sets their fierce enmity to music. This is not the first time I’ve seen this kind of show. A bunch of years back, I saw ‘Imaginary Friends.’ The premise of that musical, written by Nora Ephron with music by Marvin Hamlisch, was that Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy—two notorious literary rivals—meet in hell and sort of work things out.
I went to that one largely because it starred Swoosie Kurtz and Cherry Jones, and to this one because of the cast, too. Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole are among the best singer/actresses alive today and they were fabulous in their roles. Add a great supporting cast, good music, fabulous costumes, fun choreography, and intriguing sets, and you have a compelling musical. I can’t say that ‘Imaginary Friends’ was as good. It was a box office flop and, in this theater-fan’s opinion, it should have been produced on a small scale in an Off-Broadway theater.
The conceptual link between the two shows is the idea of creating a musical about two “arch enemy” women, based on two real life rivals. Using a real person, a historic character, in fiction is a popular gambit and when it’s done well, it works. Think about Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman and the other historic figures in ‘Ragtime’ by E. L. Doctorow. The real life characters interact with the fictional family as the world changes.
I just read Dominc Smith’s novel ‘The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.’ This novel riffs on the woman who was a real life Dutch Golden Age painter and notable because she was the first woman admitted to the painters’ guild. In real life, none of her paintings have survived—or none that have been credited to her still exist—while paintings by other women including Judith Leyster are now admired and displayed in museums. Smith’s novel bounces between an imagined version of Sara de Vos’ life, work, and death, and two other storylines: one about a forgery of a de Vos painting made in 1958 New York and an exhibit of de Vos’ work in 2000 in Sydney. The pure fiction melds seamlessly with the imagined life of the real artist.
Perhaps it works so well because the reader is unlikely to have any preconceived notions about de Vos? If you write a story with Theodore Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, or Miles Davis as a character you are going to bump up against what readers KNOW (or think they know) about the characters. During ‘War Paint’ I found myself trying to remember everything I could about the business rivals. It was an interesting part of the audience experience. Would I have liked the show more if I knew NOTHING about the real women? Or maybe less? There’s no way to know. But the mix of real life characters and fiction is a potent literary and theatrical cocktail.