We Are Trying to Break Your Heart

Issue Ten: A Requiem for 'Lempicka'
Winter Miller
July 1, 2024
Winter Miller

Raised by activist feminist parents and schooled by Quakers, Winter is surprisingly amusing. Works include: When Monica Met Hillary; the libretto for 3-D spatial audio opera No One Is Forgotten, adapted from her play; children’s book, Not A Cat; her play In Darfur premiered in a sold-out run at The Public Theater. Founding member 13Playwrights. A former journalist, Winter wrote many articles for The New York Times, and is profiled in The New Yorker, Bomb, New York Magazine, and NPR. Eartha Kitt once held her left hand for five minutes. Most of all, she's written a comedic, intriguing play about abortion that you must see. www.wintermiller.com

I had an affair with Tamara de Lempicka. It was both one-sided and long after her death. I met her onstage as the survivalist protagonist in a musicalized retelling of her life, aptly named Lempicka by Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould that was–blink-if-you-missed-it-because-Broadway-is-the-mean-streets–absolutely fucking fantastic.

You deserved to see it. I apologize on behalf of this unstable industry where Lempicka was a bold choice. For now, we must content ourselves with the impeccable cast album: you’ll hear these artists tearing their hearts out with every note.

Eden Espinosa and the cast of LEMPICKA. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

I like transparency, so I’ll reveal I am friendly with both Carson and director Rachel Chavkin for many years, and I have nothing but admiration for every person who created this production. I come to praise Lempicka, not to bury.

What is singular about Lempicka is it’s the first Broadway musical I’ve seen about a woman who becomes a famous painter who loves her husband and her muse simultaneously, who often forgets she’s a mother, is ambitious, and who unapologetically cherishes her work above all else. An entire story about a lady artist who behaves like a man artist–what a bold stroke.

I first encountered Lempicka at Williamstown Theater Festival and I found this social media post about it: “Say hello to a really big deal! Power ballad after power ballad. We never get to see lesbian stories so rich and powerful! Reader, I wept.” This show is putting a hat on hat on a Bechdel test.

The creators of Lempicka know their Broadway ancestors: the revolutionaries of Les Miserables (Now Bolsheviks! Nazis!), the ascension of Evita (Lempicka is riches to rags to Parisian It Girl), and the solipsism of Sunday in the Park with George (Seurat was kind of a dickhead, as was Tamara–though in her defense she was a Jewish bisexual trying not to die, which can really affect your priorities).

Eden Espinosa and Andrew Samonsky in LEMPICKA. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

When at last Lempicka arrived on Broadway, I hustled in during previews to find  the sheer magnificence of scale. And so much joy! I felt in the room 13-year-old Winter, who hadn’t known she needed the queerness of all of this as a kid. I told everyone I saw–friends, strangers, didn’t matter– to see it now before it was beyond our budget and there was a rush to the box office. Audiences were ready, the critics were not.

The economics of Broadway are such that a show flayed in The New York Times and New York Magazine cannot rebound without canyon-sized pockets. Closing notices posted. Carson invited me to join her at the show two nights before it closed. In the orchestra, I sat poised to offer tissues, a hand, a shoulder, a kidney–anything for my devastated friend. When Eden Espinosa sang “Woman Is…” across the rows, mouths were agape, eyes watered, and some wept openly. Dear Reader, we were Lempeople.

Backstage, Lin Manuel Miranda fan-boy’d Matt Gould, and Matt looked as you would when a legend truly sees you with the unparalleled seeing artists offer one another. We milled on the stage and watched a young, queer, bohemian German who had last-minute flown in with a ring to propose. She said yes.

Now that the Longacre has shuttered and the marquee has been disassembled, I wanted to check in with these two artists to see how heartbreak is living in them. We spoke separately.

Carson Kreitzer: I am still in “freeze” stress response. I feel like I’m doing surprisingly well and then realize I’m not.

Rachel Chavkin: I could say simply that it’s sad. I said at one point to Matt, “They’ll either love us or they’ll pick it apart and miss the whole as ‘greater than’ but I think either way they’ll respect the ambition.” I never saw the total disregard for ambition coming.

CK: I thought I was the Tamara who stays up all night painting tiny tiny strokes to get things perfect. The madness of being unable to step away from the work, the working like a demon. When the show closed, it hit me like a punch in the gut as I realized, “Oh– I’m Rafaela” (Lempicka’s loved then abandoned muse), “I know better than to trust, to protect my heart, not to fall–and then I did. I never thought we’d get to Broadway, yet we were there and it felt right. And fuck me, I believed. My heart is broken.”

Eden Espinosa in LEMPICKA. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

RC: I remember Chuck Mee saying in a workshop I did with him as a young artist something to the effect of, “If you like it, and you’re a human, someone else will too.” I have lived by that, essentially trusting my own taste, because what else can I do? It’s just an extremely strange feeling to have a work that I found as moving as Lempicka be so dismissed. Like, part out-of-body, part embarrassment, huge parts grief, very VERY confusing.

CK: The most painful thing is the cast. Eden and Amber and Andrew and George and Natalie… Zoe and Nate and Beth… the insanely, outrageously talented ensemble. We spent ten years assembling that cast. Ten years finding that  group of people who could do this show–who could sing, act, and dance it. Everybody on that stage was prepared to cover one of those roles. That’s the thing I cannot accept, cannot handle.

RC: My personal experience gets layered with the knowledge of how many jaw-dropping artists are out of a job. I feel angry at the disrespect. I feel deep anxiety about the collapsing/collapsed state of our field, including what so many nonprofits are facing. I’m worried about good leadership getting exhausted, and unimaginative leadership getting away with it.

The days and weeks after our opening, grief felt like water running through me. I just had this constant sense of doom and a deep yawning sorrow, which I just needed to repress in order to function, as I was rehearsing Gatsby (which thankfully gave/gives me genuine delight). I also had a desire to be with my fellow mourners.

CK: Everyone says it will come back, it will have a life (like in 40 years, and Matt and I will be dead). On some level I do believe that will happen. But this cast, that moment, is gone. We had it living and breathing. Every night I would watch Eden Espinosa sing “Woman is,” every time I was transported by her performance. She was in there, living…

Natalie Joy Jonson and the cast of LEMPICKA. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

RC: I also think Lempicka will find the people who need her. She is deep. And she is a diva. And she will make a fabulous resurrection. I just wish everyone got to see that original Broadway company. They were iconic, truly. Each and every one.

To be an artist is to face heartbreak, there’s no way around it. Sooner or later it comes for you, leaving you face down on the rug in your dirty pajamas howling salty tears and raging expletives. I have been there. I wouldn’t wish it on most of my enemies. When it happened to me, it’s what I imagined a stillbirth felt like, but instead of growing a baby for nine months, it had been nine years. I never spoke about it publicly.  

It takes a lot of trust to return. We do return.


Lempicka closed on Broadway on May 19, 2024.

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