Arts, Culture & Media

Designing makeup for Broadway's 'War Paint' was no easy task

The new Broadway musical, "War Paint," is about the rivalry between two of the 20th century's biggest cosmetics moguls, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein. It posed a special challenge for the show’s makeup designer.

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

The woman who signed on to the daunting task of designing the theatrical makeup for two makeup legends is Angelina Avallone. She has designed makeup for the Broadway productions of "Cabaret," "The Little Mermaid," "The Color Purple," "Julius Caesar" and about a hundred other shows.

How the actors (Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole) are made up for the show is critical, because cosmetics were at the core of their characters’ beings — not just something they wore, but something they practically invented. But theatrical makeup is not the same as what ordinary people use.

“It is a different thing because it has to serve a different purpose,” Avallone explains. “The makeup has to last because the only opportunity an actor has for touch-ups is at intermission. Once the makeup is applied, it has to stay on. You have to make sure that it doesn't sweat off [and] oftentimes, we use waterproof eyeliners or waterproof lipsticks, depending if the actor has kissing scenes onstage.”

In some special cases, like the monster in "Young Frankenstein," an actor will have a designated makeup artist for every performance, but in most cases, actors have to learn their own makeup plot and apply it themselves.

“What's tricky is that the actor applies the makeup in the dressing room. The actor is 3 feet away from the mirror,” Avallone says. “What may look fantastic in the dressing room may not ‘read’ at all onstage, or it may read from the first five rows, but not from the back of the house. You have to also find the balance, so it’s not grotesque-looking from the third row.”

“What I normally do is look from the orchestra, walk to the back of the orchestra, left and right of the house, and then I'll go up in the mezzanine and sit in different places in the balcony, just to see how everything reads and what the lighting does,” she explains.

Lighting paints the face, as well, Avallone points out, as it casts shadows. Theatrical makeup artists must “study what lighting designers are doing, and how they paint the faces and what those shadows do to the face.”

Lighting designers also use color, which can change everything about an actor’s face in a given scene. “Sometimes you've picked out the perfect shade of red lipstick, after a month of searching, and everybody's in love with the lipstick, and you get the actor on stage and the lipstick looks brown or just like nothing,” Avallone says. “You try to make friends with the lighting designer.”

Once a design is complete, Avallone creates a makeup chart that will be part of the production for as long as it is running. “I sit down, and I draw a makeup chart for each character for their entire show,” she explains. “If that character appears in five different scenes, I track every single change. If they have to change lipstick, I track where they change that lipstick. Is it downstairs in the basement? Is it in the wings? Who hands them the lipstick? How much time do they have? Everything is perfectly timed.”

She also makes a large face chart for each character, which she paints with a brush. “Sometimes I'll draw the face of the actor, with the colors ... I’ll paint the lip shape, I'll paint the eye shape. I’ll use the actual colors. I'll make a little pallet on the side of the sheet, and I'll number and write down what these products are. If the actor is having trouble remembering, I'll do ‘step one is this, step two is this and step three and four,’ until we have a complete chart. Then we practice and practice and practice until we perfect it.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.