Renowned 1920s Art Deco female artist forges a new path in a new musical at Williamstown Theatre Festival
WILLIAMSTOWN — In a studio at night, two women are holding each other. The room smells of paint and turpentine and smoke and sweat.
An artist trying to build a career and raise a daughter comes to a bar after her first big opening and meets a woman who has always lived on the edge, on the streets, on a high without a net.
They have both survived violence. They have survived white men frightened by poverty or the collapse of wealth and power. It sounds like a summer night in Cobble Hill — but this is Paris in the 1920s, and it is alive with music on the Main Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival in "Lempicka," a world premiere based on the life of the artist Tamara Lempicka, with book and lyrics by Carson Kreitzer and music by Matt Gould.
Now in previews, "Lempicka" officially opens Thursday evening.
"I love the stories of difficult women," Kreitzer said. "They forge new paths, and they are often written out of history intentionally, to keep women smaller and less trouble."
It has become a mission of hers to find them — heroic, messy, forceful women she wishes she had known about growing up.
"A friend introduced me to Lempicka," she said, "and I realized I knew her paintings, but I didn't know who she was. And that's a wrong in the universe."
Lempicka showed her work in the Paris Salons and internationally alongside Georgia O'keeffe and Willem de Koonig. She painted royalty. She became a global name in the Art Deco movement. And more than that. She intersected with the great upheavals of the 20th century.
"Her story felt like a musical," Kreitzer said — "so big, so stark, so pure."
Lempicka was born a Polish Jew, and she faced the Russian Revolution as a young bride. She came to Paris at the end of World War I and lived there through the rise of Fascism and the opening salvos of World War II.
On her own, she would rescue her husband from prison, escape as a refugee, fall in love with a woman, keep her family together and make her name as an artist at a time and place when women could not own property or earn commissions to buy paints.
"I wanted to crack open her paintings the way they crack the world open," Kreitzer said. "Something about them makes me stop. Often the women in them. The way — "
"She cuts a swath across the landscape," Gould suggested.
She holds a moment in time, the jazz era, the dramatic and decadent years between the world wars.
"You see her paintings and you have to get back there," Kreitzer said, "to see and feel and taste it."
As Impressionism veered into Modernism, hard lines and abstractions and slashing, visible brushstrokes, empicka felt the influence of the Renaissance. She painted light on cloth or skin — men in great coats, women in flapper cloche hats (and sometimes not much else). They lean against Cubist shadows or abstract cityscapes, half Edward Hopper and half El Greco or Zub ran. Her people glow like machines.
"In art history you will find her described as `a soft Cubist' or `a soft futurist,'" said Williamstown Theatre Festival artistic director Mandy Greenfield. "A movement associated with male artists with a diminutive adjective in front. She isn't `soft' anything. She doesn't fit into any of these categories. She has her own voice as a painter — muscular and scary, bold and unafraid, sensual, sexual, powerful."
Kreitzer carried the idea for a musical for some time, but she did not know how it should sound — until she met Gould in the Composer-Librettist Studio at New Dramatists and showed him empicka's paintings.
"The music leapt off the canvasses," Gould said.
He heard a beat in them, metallic, hard, loud.
"And I didn't know who she is, and that pissed me off. I could name you off the top of my head 10 male painters of that time."
As a new father, he said, he has become newly aware of this kind of gap and bias in the way he was taught, and aware when he hears women speak today. On Facebook, on social media, he hears women talking openly and strongly, as he has not often heard them speak on stage. And he wants to bring them there.
He wants to tell a story that is vivid and feminine — "and by feminine I mean powerful," he said, "and to lay forth a world for my son that will include women in it."
Writing this musical in the last two years, looking at an artist's life during the rise of Fascism, has felt eerily present to him.
As she paints at all hours, pushing and transforming her world and fighting for her work, and falling in love, she is watching political movements rise that can lead to laws against her way of living, and to police raids, violence against her friends in a night club — wholesale destruction.
The conflict between machine and human in her paintings echoes the conflicts of the industrial age, battlefield artillery and radical politics.
"Will she be caught in this machinery," he said, "or succumb to her heart? That's the natural world. It's intangible. We don't have control over it. Machines can get fixed if they break, but the heart has a life of its own."
That conflict is woven through the music, he said — "mechanized and electronic sounds against string tones and woodwinds, breath and air living in concert with each other."
And it wove through her life.
"She was 20 in the Russian Revolution," Kreitzer said. "She was almost 40 at the dawn of World War II, and her life exploded again. And she was just one person walking through the world."
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