The Tony winners square off as cosmetics-industry titans in the new Broadway musical, opening April 6

By Clark Collis
March 31, 2017 at 11:00 AM EDT
Joan Marcus
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A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly #1459, available here — and subscribe now for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Fortunate is the musical that can claim one multiple-Tony-winning legend in a lead role. War Paint has two: Patti LuPone (Gypsy, Evita) and Christine Ebersole (42nd Street), playing rival cosmetics entrepreneurs Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, both immigrants who effectively changed the face of American womanhood. War Paint opens April 6, and boasts songs by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, who previously helped Ebersole score her second Tony for Grey Gardens. While their real-life characters may have been in competition, LuPone and Ebersole sound totally in tune as they chat about the show at Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel. “There was apprehension because we’d never worked together before,” says LuPone. “But we found a working relationship and a friendship, because of who we are and what we’ve been through in the business.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In the War Paint song “If I’d Been a Man,” you both sing, “What man has the balls that I have?” Which is not a lyric I was expecting.

CHRISTINE EBERSOLE: [Laughs] Neither were we!

PATTI LuPONE: It’s a shock when you hear it. But it’s a very elegant, beautiful production. The thrust is [all things] beauty. We go from the 1930s to the ’60s, and that’s well represented in the costumes.

Rubinstein and Arden never actually met, correct?

LuPONE: That’s the myth.

EBERSOLE: They were definitely rivals, but I think their rivalry was inspirational, really — that one would better what the other was doing.

LuPONE: Neither one of us want to think that these two women spent a lot of energy on hatred. Why do people want to see women catfight? I guess because guys fighting isn’t as sexy? It is demeaning to the accomplishment of these two women to reduce that relationship to a catfight, to a bitter rivalry.

How well did you two know each other before this production?

LuPONE: We’ve known each other through the business, but not as close as this.

EBERSOLE: She’s done all the parts I want to play.

LuPONE: Really? Which ones?

EBERSOLE: Um, Gypsy.

LuPONE: It isn’t too late for Gypsy.

EBERSOLE: Oh yeah, it is too late. And Sweeney Todd.

LuPONE: Oh, you could still do that. That was a shock for me, when I got a call for that [Broadway production in 2005]. I was like, “Really?” Because I’d never done a piece by Sondheim. I said, “Does Steve know?” They went, “Yes, he knows.” I went, “Well, okay.”

Did you think he had it in for you?

LuPONE: That’s another story! [Laughs] No, I don’t think he had it in for me, to clarify. But he’s very particular about his casting.

How do you take care of your voices during a long run?

LuPONE: [To Ebersole] How do you take care of your voice? Because I’m so envious of her voice. I am in awe of her instrument!

EBERSOLE: How about yours? I could never do what you do.

LuPONE: I don’t know what I do. You know what you do. [Laughs] I’m flying by the seat of my pants. She’s glorious. What do you do?

EBERSOLE: Honestly, I think the way I can sing the way I sing is because of the way I talk to my animals. I hit some really high notes. [Singing extremely high] “You’re my favorite bird!” That’s what I sing to my bird. I have a bird and two dogs and two cats, and that’s the register I speak to them in.

What kind of bird is it?

EBERSOLE: It’s a cockatiel.

LuPONE: Does it fly in the house?

EBERSOLE: Well, we try to let him out of the cage every morning. But it’s very tricky because you can’t put your feet on the ottoman if you’re wearing shoes. He’ll start courting them and singing to them.

LuPONE: Who is its mate?

EBERSOLE: Well, that’s interesting. We got a plastic bird that is on a little perch, and it’s like a blow-up doll [to him]. That’s his thing.

Final question. Do you do karaoke, and what’s your favorite song to sing?

EBERSOLE: Mine would be any Barbra Streisand song. I haven’t done karaoke in 10 years, but it’s so fun.

LuPONE: I’ve never done it. They have a karaoke night at the bar at the beach in South Carolina [where LuPone has a summer home]. Of course they have no idea who I am. I’m a Yankee from the North, that’s all they know.

So you go to karaoke nights but you don’t sing?

LuPONE: You can’t get up there! Doesn’t matter who you are, there’s a line. And there’s one woman who gets up there who does not get off the stage.

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