Look Again

Issue Ten: A Requiem for 'Lempicka'
Timothy Huang
July 1, 2024
Timothy Huang

Timothy Huang is a New York based composer/lyricist/librettist. He is the creator of the multi-award-winning musical American Morning (2015 New American Musical Award, and 2016 Richard Rodgers Award, Jerry Harrington Award, BMI Master Class with Stephen Sondheim; Prospect Theater, The Village Theater, Playwrights Horizons and B-Side Theatricals.)  Other works include Peter and the Wave (Frank Young Fund Grant), And the Earth Moved (CAP21), The View From Here (Nautilus MT, Umbrella Theater), LINES: A Song Cycle (NYMF), A Relative Relationship (SoundBites, Best Musical), Missing Karma (City Theater of Miami, Theater Elision) Gates of Remembering (Artistic Stamp) and Koi Story (Sam French OOB SPF).  Timothy is a three-time Larson Grant finalist, and a two-time Fred Ebb Award finalist. He is also a teaching artist for Lincoln Center Education, and the National Alliance for Musical Theater and has served on the Dramatists Guild National Council.  Currently serving on the Creative Council for the AAPI Caucus of the DNC and the board of Music with a Mission.  Proud husband to Laura and father to Haven. www.timothyhuang.net

“A painting is not a woman” criticizes Fillipo Marinetti (George Abud) in Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould’s Broadway musical Lempicka, a telling of the life and times of the artist Tamara de Lempicka (Eden Espinosa), whose signature Art Deco paintings you have no doubt seen graced on a wall in a friend’s living room, or on a mug or bedsheet. And though the titular character protests “But I’m painting a woman,” Marinetti mansplains to her nonetheless: “A painting is a flat surface covered with paint. Colors ground to dust suspended in oil, smeared across cloth. That’s all. Everything within your control.” She scoffs, “Wouldn’t that be nice?”

It’s a seemingly easy straw man tactic with a far more subtle agenda. Sure, it elicits empathy for the protagonist, galvanizing our collective rage against mansplaining, but from a certain point of view it’s also the authors giving us a clue how to meet this show where she’s at: Lempicka the musical (pronouns notwithstanding) isn’t a woman either. And even if she were, she would not be the male-gaze projection some would have her be. We can digest her any way we like, but standing on the opposite side of the bar giving her the up-down, reducing her to her component parts only gets us so far.

The Cast of LEMPICKA. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

I saw Lempicka on Broadway several days before it closed, and I adored it. I wasn’t expecting to, considering the unfavorable criticism it received, but it won me over almost immediately. With music by Gould, lyrics by Kreitzer a libretto by both, and direction by Rachel Chavkin, Lempicka is simultaneously a show about an under-taught historical figure and a cautionary tale about living in America in 2025 if we continue to live as we do in 2024. And though she doesn’t beat this over our heads, she also suggests that addressing the former might relieve the latter: Not to paint with too broad a brush (pun intended), if we don’t remember our past we are doomed to repeat it. The signposts are there in every level of craft, pointing us to our own moment in history.

From the moment Lempicka’s minute-short overture begins, machine ostinatos give way to techno rhythms and thumping bass. Music you’d sooner hear in a club than in a Broadway theater. The ensemble moves frenetically, elegantly, through Raja Feather Kelly’s choreography, purposefully breaking visual lines established by Riccardo Hernández wrought-iron-like set of platforms and steps. That is until it all goes away sixty seconds later and we’re left with an older Lempicka alone on stage (in Los Angeles c. 1955) looking back on her life and asking almost wistfully “how did I wind up here?” This front bookend might feel like familiar territory for a moment, but when the hook becomes “how did I wind up here, unseen?” all is revealed: This isn’t going to be a Wikipedia show retelling an artist’s life and times. It’s going to be a show about how one of the most prolific, visionary influencers of her time could be nearly erased from history.  

It might be too subtle for some, but for me it was the equivalent of Babe Ruth pointing at the stands before his at-bat. What a flex! In hindsight, the entire book and score was a layer cake of “look-agains” which over time, rewarded me with increasing satisfaction. One example that immediately comes to mind is visual. There’s a hanging set piece of a giant monocle which serves as the “mirror behind the bar” during the club scenes. It’s home to shelved bottles and a reflective surface and for the most part just hangs there, flying in from above as needed. Until the club gets destroyed in Act Two and it flips itself top-over-tail in full view of the audience. The bottles, of course, do not fall out of their shelving which is a great surprise, but when we get to see the other side of it we realize a) that the bottles we have been staring at for most of the show are now suspended upside down and hidden upstage and b) the ransacked bottles we’re now looking at had been suspended upside down and hidden this entire time. It’s beautiful and rewarding and there was an audible gasp in the theater when it happened.  

Amber Iman and Eden Espinoza in LEMPICKA. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Another, far more subtle look-again came in a light cue at the end of the Act One closer “Woman Is”, when Lempicka joins her muse  Rafaela (Amber Iman) in bed. I’ll let you stream the number yourself but tell you that immediately after, she goes to the bed, they make love and as she climaxes, the stage is suddenly saturated in cobalt blue. But it isn’t just that everything becomes blue. It’s that nothing beyond the blue is visible. A blue almost-fog. The stage equivalent of a fade-out in films, except it’s happening in real time, in the space and abandoning the laws of physics and light. I am amazed more people aren’t talking about it. The sheer WTF-ness of it reminded me of the first time I saw projection mapping used for the time turner in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. This sense of “did I just see what I think I saw? What even was that?” It literally made me look again.  

Gould’s score, likewise dares you to think you know what it is. This is a well-calculated choice, from a composer’s point of view. When your subject matter is already a little obscure, the most fruitful path to welcoming them in is to couch it in a score that does not alienate. As such, it iterates off of the traditional “I-V-vi-IV” chord progression in fresh and satisfying ways. The uninitiated need look no further than “Let it Be,” “No Woman No Cry,” or “Don’t Stop Believin’” for an example of this famous progression. What’s super satisfying about Lempicka’s overture is it changes it up, starting with the “vi” instead of the “I”. So instead of I-V-vi-IV, it’s vi-IV-I-V.  We think we know what it is when we hear it, but maybe we haven’t quite heard it like that. Then in the song “Paris,” Gould changes the sequence up again, but sets it in an uncommon 7/4 meter. At every turn, staying ahead of our ears, as if to also say, listen again while you look. Again. Again.

Beth Leavel in LEMPICKA. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

One final look-again, and perhaps my favorite, lies in the sheer audacity of giving the 11 o’clock number (a brilliant torch song called “Just This Way”) to an adjunct character, the Baroness (played masterfully by Beth Level) rather than Lempicka herself. The Baroness’ wanting to be remembered before disease takes her body mirrors our desire for Lempicka to herself be remembered, but also decenters Lempicka in favor of the somewhat melancholy truth that at the end of the day, all she had control over was a flat surface covered with paint. Colors ground to dust suspended in oil, smeared across cloth.  

If I had any real criticism about the piece as a whole, it would be that the show seems to want us to believe her heart was pulled in two directions by two different people when to me, her love above all was in painting. But it seems to me the high-water mark for shows about historical figures is how quickly it gets the viewer to take to Google. If certain histories aren’t being taught in school, they can at least be talked about in the court of public opinion. So, mission accomplished, Lempicka. We don’t have the Broadway production anymore, but its score lives on in cast album form. It’s a worthy listen and available on all streaming platforms and for digital sale. It’s a great way to get to know a show that can’t be seen at this moment and not unlike its subject’s work, continues to welcome new discoveries for those interested in looking again.  


Lempicka closed on Broadway on May 19, 2024.

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