POWDER & PAINT
A Musical with a History
It's all about Helena Rubinstein. Out of nowhere she became a household name. Beauty was her business and as the first woman ever to build a global industry, she really did have a tale to tell.
The idea of dramatising her story came to James Bulmer when he inherited a box full of correspondence between this amazing woman and the manager of her Mayfair salon, Rosa Bird. The letters and telegrams – over 2000 of them – span the years from just before the 1st World War through to the time of the Great Depression. They provide a remarkable insight into the complex person who was Helena Rubinstein. But then those turbulent times and the frantic, colourful, emotional life she lived persuaded James that his original treatment really ought to be set to music. Ant Stevens wrote the book and lyrics to music composed mainly by Mike Heath.
'Powder & Paint' is definitely not a biography. Perhaps it can best be described as a character study wrapped up in romance and mystery. Some liberties have been taken to emphasise the drama and to highlight the challenges which, even today, confront a go-getting woman in a male dominated world. Without doubt 'Madame' Rubinstein met her fair share of fear, loneliness and heartbreak on her rocky road to success.
In the play, the protagonist is of course Helena herself. Born in Poland, we are introduced to her as a headstrong teenager.
Refusing to wed the man chosen by her father, she is packed off to a sheep station in the Australian Outback to stay with her Uncle Louis. After an alleged incident occurs whilst staying with her Uncle, Helena flees to Melbourne; and that's where her story really begins.
Rosa Bird - the one who collected all the letters – assumes the role of narrator in the first act, but then becomes very much part of the action in the second.
Edward William Titus, a Polish American journalist, provides the romantic interest and much of the comedy. Good looking, intelligent, utterly charming but wickedly flirtatious, he and Helena meet, fight and fall in love. The trouble is that a match made in heaven is not what you get when two egos collide.
On her roller-coaster ride from Melbourne to London, Paris and New York, the play brings on her arch rival Elizabeth Arden, her son Roy and, later on, the Lehman Brothers. And then there is the girl Claire. Who is she? Where did she come from? What is it about her that affects Helena in such contradictory ways? I wonder…
On 20th March 2002 Ann Treneman of The Times wrote a fascinating feature on the discovery of the cache of letters entitled The Real Face of Rubinstein. Previously the V & A Museum of London in November 2001 had declared that the letters were a very considerable find.