This show had some of the most enviable casting in modern Broadway history…a dual star turn by two living legends of the theater, Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole. And yet, despite that luminous level of star power, it barely lasted out the season. Granted, it was probably always destined to close the moment one of its stars left, and Lupone did leave earlier than originally scheduled due to a health problem, but even apart from its short run, the show seems to have gotten an oddly lukewarm reaction for something that sounded so special on paper. Part of this might have had to do with the sheer level of artistic competition that season, where even the flops were generally wonderful, but the show also seems to have let down its stars in terms of composition.
The show’s main problem is not that it’s a show about make-up, as its opening announcement joked during the Broadway run, but that it’s a show about corporate competition. A story about how Helena Rubinstein and Eve Arden got to the top of their respective corporate pyramids might have made for a fascinating stage drama, but when the show begins, both are already firmly entrenched in their positions of power. The show largely focuses on advertising and product development, and regardless of the product in question, that isn’t really a very interesting subject for a play, much less a musical.
The score, written by Scott Frankel and Doug Wright, the same team that provided the score to Ebersole’s earlier vehicle Grey Gardens, is also something of a disappointment. It’s consistently competent, but it rarely rises to anything beyond that, consisting mostly of overly earnest character numbers for the leads. Admittedly, Grey Gardens had its share of numbers like that as well, but it also featured several deeply haunting ballads and dazzling character showpieces that outshone anything on display here.
More damningly, the score never really gives the show’s two big stars much to do. Lupone and Ebersole do get one showstopper each at the eleven-o’clock spot, and their final duet, “Beauty in the World”, is suitably lovely and sad, but apart from that, the material is too tame and staid to ever give the two a chance to really stun the audience like we’ve seen them do in their previous shows. As a result, the audience was ultimately paying less for a blow-you-out-of-your-seat theatrical experience and more for just the privilege of seeing Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole on stage at the same time, even though neither of them was actually allowed to do anything very interesting.
This show was by no means a disgrace…it remained very polished and capable throughout…but given its concept of a double star vehicle for two such gigantic and talented stars, it should have been much, much better. Frankly, the end result on stage was rather dull, which is the last thing this combination should have turned out to be. Even the original cast album is a relatively minor acquisition…I’d even prioritize the cast album of Bandstand over this.
Grey Gardens had its share of problems too, but it had genuine flashes of pure magic that make it a memorable show to have seen and well worth hearing on recording if you didn’t. No such flashes are on display here…even the two eleven-o’clock showstoppers are less interesting than the best numbers in Grey Gardens…making this a show that is likely to amount in the long run to little more than a footnote in the careers of two great stars who were capable of better if the writers had only thought to ask it of them.