How a Brave, Frightened, Flawed, Ambitious Woman Could Maybe Change the World

Issue Ten: A Requiem for 'Lempicka'
Katie Rose McLaughlin
July 1, 2024
Katie Rose McLaughlin

Katie Rose McLaughlin is a queer, neurodivergent NYC-based choreographer and director originally from Minneapolis, MN. Trained in ballet under the direction of Bonnie Mathis, she attended the Joffrey/New School BFA program on full scholarship prior to kicking off her love affair with theater by training at a renowned clown school in Switzerland. An Obie Award-winning choreographer and director for theater, opera, film, music videos and viral TikToks, Katie Rose has also had the great pleasure of being the Associate Director/Choreographer for the Tony Award-winning Broadway show Hadestown (Broadway, First National Tour, New York Theater Workshop, Edmonton, & South Korea). From 2020-2022 created work as the Co-Creative Director of Theater in Quarantine which, in her tenure, produced over 20 different evenings of work, received four NYT Critic’s Picks and was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered. In addition to her theatrical work Katie Rose enjoys volunteering with Reading Partners and West Side Campaign Against Hunger as well as leading the community dance event LINE DANCE CLUB (recently featured in choreographer Annie-B Parson’s book The Choreography of Everyday Life).

When I was first approached to write a piece about Lempicka, I asked dear friend and Tony Award-winning singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell to write it with me. We’ve both worked quite intimately with Rachel Chavkin, Director of Lempicka, on the Broadway musical Hadestown, which Anaïs wrote. I forget when Anaïs and Rachel first met, but I became the Associate Choreographer on Hadestown in 2016, and we’ve all worked together since.

Lempicka is a new musical with Book, Lyrics & Original Concept by Carson Kreitzer, Book & Music by Matt Gould and Directed by Rachel Chavkin. This beautiful and heart-breaking show delves into the tumultuous life of queer, Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka, chronicling her passionate relationships and artistic rise to fame against the backdrop of revolution and war in 1920s and 1930s Europe. The sleek and sculptural costumes by Paloma Young evoked the geometry of the art deco period as well the sharp, prickly emotions of fascism. Young also deserves a fucking Tony just for the fact the dancer’s strapless bustiers somehow both did and didn’t move with their bodies AND somehow they seemed as at ease in these costumes as if they were wearing mere tshirts. I’ve personally never met a bustier that I wasn’t one wrong gesture away from falling out of so I applaud Young and her magician-like skills. Wigs and Hair by Leah J. Loukas polished off Young’s looks, rendering them as glamorous as Tamara de Lempicka’s paintings. Underscoring the emotional intensity, the show was choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly, which blended contemporary sensibilities with classical ballet and early modern dance, bouncing between idiosyncrasy and historical accuracy, leaving this ballet-trained writer (and dance history nerd) gagging in her seat.

Anaïs and my schedules didn’t align, but we texted for a while about the show. She told me about the most powerful moment she had watching Lempicka

To admit to seeing myself as brave and frightened and flawed all at once made me feel scared and self-conscious. I’ve heard so much feedback on how her character was cold and unrelatable and I was like….what?  Maybe other people had a similar experience to mine - of being scared of the very fleshed out, multi-dimensional woman that the Lempicka team had put together. And to that end, is it possible that this “new woman” (to quote the show) poked at an emotion that was too new and too uncomfortable that most of the show’s reviewers simply dismissed the show?

It reminded me of an article I came across written by Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Eileen, and published in the Guardian in 2023. While talking about when her book first came out, she says, “It had been a rude awakening…I expected to be judged on the artistic merit of my work, not on its central character.” The Lempicka creative team, too, seemed to be judged on how “likable” the main character was.

Moshfegh continues, “In interviews, reviews and profiles, journalists focused so much on Eileen’s personality, her habits and hang-ups, her strange proclivities – far more than the craft of the book, its shocking conclusion, or troubling themes.” And why is that? In our case, why can’t we look at the Russian Revolution that forced families, including Lempicka’s to flee? Why can’t we look at the rise of fascism, or the terrifying death and destruction that seemed to be following Tamara de Lempicka and her family everywhere? That VERY CLEARLY shaped her views, her sense of safety, and her sense of who she is versus what she showed people. From the incredibly powerful, gorgeous, and sweeping number “Our Time” showing the rise of the Boshivicks and the scene where Lempicka is forced to sell her body to secure the safety (and very life) of her husband, to incredibly cheeky and fun song “Pari will always be Pari,” with its dark undertones and lines like “There's a fire in the Reichstag in Germany..but that won't affect us, here in Pari/Pari will always be Pari” that essentially drops Lempicka into a pressure cooker. Fully understanding what Hilter and his party is capable of, PTSD from the Russian Revolution let’s say, we watch her paint day in and day out and sing “Paintings can be turned to money/Money can be turned to jewelry/In case we have to leave in the middle of the night/In case, in case, in case, in case.”

In reflecting on the critical reception of Lempicka, I can't help but think about why strong, flawed women make people so uncomfortable. What Ruth Bader Ginsburg often referred to as "women of courage and conviction,” especially those who are unapologetically ambitious and flawed, force us to confront aspects of ourselves that we, apparently,  prefer to ignore. They hold up a mirror to our own insecurities and fears, reminding us that it’s okay to be imperfect, to struggle, and to strive. Seeing Lempicka's character torn apart by critics felt incredibly personal as someone who spent her whole life battling what people expected of me first as a young girl and then as a woman. It made me realize how far we still have to go in accepting and celebrating the full spectrum of female experience.

After diving deep into my own psyche, even interviewing my therapist to try and get at why people refuse to honor or even acknowledge that a woman can be many things at the same time, I reached out to Anaïs again.

So maybe in my desire to have this strong, queer woman accepted (and honored) by critics for her flaws as much as her ambition, I too, am looking for some kind of immortality. To tip the scales so significantly that when I’m remembered my flaws, my struggles and my failures are as praised as my successes. That the time I cried in the bathroom during rehearsal, or someone touched me inappropriately backstage, or when I was routinely bullied by a manager, those experiences wouldn’t be a shameful secret, but something that points to my perseverance, my heart and my humanity. To be valued just as much for the things that tore me down as the ways I built myself up. A new future. As Kreitzer and Gould’s Lempicka sings, “The new woman/Shows her profile/No longer looking down, demure/But to the horizon/She wants more.”


Lempicka closed on Broadway on May 19, 2024.

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