The last time Christine Ebersole was singing nightly on Broadway, it was an experience akin to an occult phenomenon — a possession.
Ebersole seemed to vanish whenever Edie Beale was required to emerge. The bizarre, reclusive East Hampton socialite of the musical “Grey Gardens,” Edie was at once hypnotizing and pitiable, such an outrageous character that Ebersole had to make extra room in her psyche eight times a week for a role she thought of as bringing out the “Edie spacesuit.”
“Something took over,” she says, as she sits in her ultra-feminine pink dressing room in the Nederlander Theatre, soft piano music wafting out of a speaker. “It was like a total inhabiting. I was driving the bus, but I wasn’t the only one. There was another presence performing the driving, too. So it really enters the spiritual realm in that sense, I suppose. I mean, the emotional, spiritual kind of connection that’s not up in the mind.”
For that astonishing act of transformation (she also played Edie’s mother in the first half of the 2006 show), Ebersole collected her second Tony Award as best actress in a musical. The accolade not only recognized one of the remarkable stage performances of that decade — she previously won for a 2001 revival of “42nd Street” — but it also affirmed Ebersole’s spot on Broadway’s mantelpiece of first-rank leading ladies, alongside powerhouses such as Bernadette Peters, Betty Buckley, Elaine Paige and her current co-star, Patti LuPone. In “War Paint,” the new Broadway musical about warring cosmetics tycoons that had its official opening April 6, she plays Elizabeth Arden to LuPone’s Helena Rubinstein, the dueling pair who ruled the beauty industry for much of the 20th century.
Ebersole’s stage successes also gave the producers the capital to market “War Paint,” one of the most eagerly anticipated entries in an exceptionally crowded season for new musicals, as a bona fide double-barreled female star vehicle. This category of production doesn’t come along as often as one imagines, especially for women of a certain age: Ebersole herself has to think back to Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli in 1984’s “The Rink” for a comparable teaming. (And they were considerably younger at the time.) So she is keenly aware that the chance to share top billing with another actress of her caliber, in an $11 million musical, no less, materializes in the firmament about as frequently as a major comet.
“It’s very rarefied air to still be in the game at my age,” avers Ebersole, 64, who has three children, all in their 20s. “I’m going into my fifth decade in show business, and making a living at it! But it’s 11 years since I’ve done a musical on Broadway, and I’m not getting younger. So, well, we feel it, you know what I’m saying?”
The hope is that potential audiences feel it, in the positive way that drives up word of mouth: what lover of musical theater wouldn’t open a wallet to hear LuPone’s anguished belt at play with Ebersole’s lyrical coloratura? The well-defined division of temperament between the actresses is as vital to “War Paint’s” success as are the subjects themselves of the musical, by the “Grey Gardens” songwriting team of Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, book writer Doug Wright and director Michael Greif. And sitting down for a spell with the elegant, upbeat Ebersole — whose effect on the backstage atmosphere LuPone compares to “champagne bubbles” — one gets the intimation of a contrast in personality and style tailor-made for a musical clash-of-wills.
“Both women are so supple, and both have such different stylistic sweet spots, and more than just one of them,” says “War Paint’s” composer, Frankel. Whereas he describes LuPone’s voice as having “all the power she used to have, but with more range and more ability to produce sound with shadings,” Ebersole can generate “effortless soprano notes, but she has also a very strong, smoky-hued chest production. And she can negotiate back and forth in a way that’s seamless,” Frankel adds. “In ‘Grey Gardens,’ I tried to throw everything I could at her, comic stuff, soprano stuff, some burnished, elegiac ballads, and I found there wasn’t anything she couldn’t do.”
Even for an actress who’s always felt at one with her musicality — she has recordings of herself at 3 in Winnetka, Ill, singing “Jingle Bells” “completely on pitch” — keeping up with 67-year-old LuPone has been daunting. Or as Ebersole puts it: “inspiring.” “I can’t rest on my laurels,” she says with a cackle. “Onstage with Patti LuPone! That’s why I say to her, ‘Honey, you put me to work! No slouching with you around!’ ”
Ebersole is not a natural slouch. She’s been the main breadwinner in her long marriage to Bill Moloney, who took care of the kids in California and later in New Jersey, where the couple now live, while she worked in TV and onstage. Some of the extended absences from the family she has regrets about, “because, you know, I missed out on a lot. And so I know that they understand that, and they really appreciate what I do, and it allowed them to go to college and all that kind of stuff.”
What she gave up, though, helped her understand Arden, who grew up on a dirt farm in rural Ontario, Canada, and became an entrepreneur and businesswoman single-mindedly consumed by the makeup empire she built. The musical, based on the exhaustive book of that title by British biographer Lindy Woodhead, traces the business genius of both Arden and Rubinstein, but also the emotional emptiness both suffered in their later lives.
“That’s why I totally relate to Elizabeth Arden,” the actress says of the show’s exploration of women and work. “It is an absolute myth to say you can have it all. Complete, utter myth. Because something will be sacrificed.”
Ebersole has, in fact, always worked; she was waiting tables in New York after finishing at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when her agent called and said: “Darling, you’re on Broadway!” (This sentence Ebersole declaims as if the agent were a society dame in a 1940s B movie.) The play was a 1976 revival of “Angel Street,” which closed after just six weeks, but it wouldn’t be long before she was being cast in major musical revivals, as Ado Annie in a 1979 remounting of “Oklahoma!” and, even more momentously, as Guenevere in a 1980 revival of “Camelot” opposite . . . Richard Burton.
The audition was on a bare New York stage. “All of a sudden, I hear this mellifluous voice from the house and, like in slow motion, here comes Richard Burton walking down the aisle with a light blue V-neck sweater to illuminate the gorgeous blue eyes,” she recalls of that first encounter. “He came up on stage, he gives me a kiss on the cheek and starts reading with me. I’m, like, 25 or something, and part of me is going, ‘This is normal’ but the internal voice is like, ‘Oh, my God, Richard Burton!’ And the producer comes up and says, ‘Hey, kid, can you learn the part by Friday?’ ”
She adored Burton and, after he fell ill, sang the role for a spell with Richard Harris as King Arthur. In the following years, she would find herself in assignments she considers “kaleidoscopic” for their range, appearing in Milos Forman’s Oscar-winning film version of “Amadeus” and spending the 1981-1982 season in the cast of “Saturday Night Live.” The show’s producer, Dick Ebersol — no relation — hired her, she says, because he wanted to expand the cast to include singers. She remembers the year as “very difficult.” “I wasn’t from the world of stand-up or the world of improv,” she says. “I was Guenevere!”
The queen in “Camelot” she was, and royalty on Broadway she was to be. That destiny has led her to this moment and her pink dressing room, just above LuPone’s, decorated in that color because it was Arden’s signature. The show is all about selling an illusion, one created by a mask of mascara, lipstick and rouge. But it is also about the illusion of how much satisfaction great wealth can buy you.
“I remember getting on an airplane one time and being kind of afraid that the plane was going to crash,” Ebersole says. “And then I saw Ted Turner come on the plane and I said, ‘Oh, it’s not going to crash now.’ It was this really weird thing, that money was somehow going to protect us or save us, you know what I mean? It’s a complete, utter illusion.
“So Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, they put all their eggs in this basket, they died, like, the richest women in the world, and they were bereft. So what do we put our value on? Is it how much money we have in the bank?” Ebersole looks around her cozy dressing room, and laughs in her infectious cackle. “Nope! Not the case!” she adds, sounding now as though her voice were indeed made of pink champagne bubbles.