The best-known piece by Tamara de Lempicka is a self-portrait. The acclaimed artist, wearing a silver helmet and matching scarf, sits in the driver’s seat of an emerald green Bugatti, her gloved hand resting nonchalantly on the sports car’s steering wheel.
She is glamorous, confident and imperious; She is clearly comfortable being the center of attention. In fact, she appears to be staring straight at the viewer, observing others and being seen at the same time.
Created for the cover of a fashion magazine in 1928, the piece has since been hailed as the definitive image of the modern woman, the car age and art deco style. Is it the important that Lempicka didn’t actually drive a glamorous green Bugatti, but a small yellow Renault?
As she told Houston City Magazine in 1978, “I painted the car green because I prefer it that way.”
The audacity to legitimize her own gaze—within her work, among her lovers, about herself—was groundbreaking for an artist in 1920s Paris. A hundred years later, that singular audacity pulses through “Lempicka,” a Broadway musical as ambitious and complex as the painter it frames on stage.
“Her story was undertold for how utterly dynamic she was,” director Rachel Chavkin tells The Times. “Tamara was a living intersection of so many movements and events of her time: she was queer, she was the breadwinner of her family, and she came of age between the two world wars, just as women were finally stepping out of a whole series of historical bottlenecks . She was really in that relentless search for herself, her voice, and her desire to have everything that caught my eye and still resonates with women today.”
Running through July 24 at the La Jolla Playhouse, the stage show begins with Lempicka and her aristocratic husband seeking refuge from the Russian Revolution in Paris, where she rose to fame as a sought-after portraitist among high society. Throughout the tumultuous decade, she became known for her flawless techniques and her mix of influences: cubism and neoclassicism, stillness and speed, past and future.
The score “Lempicka” also combines contemporary music theatre, power ballads and electro-pop bangers. A song, performed by George Abud like Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, sounds like it could be from Lady Gaga or Robyn’s set list.
“Tamara drew on many, many styles from all eras, but never with the intention of emulating any one,” says the book’s composer and co-author Matt Gould. “She was always trying to create something new. It just felt right to do the same thing musically.”
In recent years, Lempicka’s paintings have become incredibly sought after; At an auction in 2020, one of her pieces sold for $21.1 million. . Her pieces have inspired high-end fashion collections, fronted advertising campaigns and appeared in Madonna music videos. The appeal of her work persists because her models, clothed or not, were always strategically positioned as if claiming both screen real estate and each viewer’s attention.
“The way she took inspiration from the body with those sharp angles and long lines is so elegant and beautiful,” says choreographer Raja Feather Kelly. “It’s similar to a gestural technique called épaulment, a French term for when ballet dancers move their shoulders to play with light and create depth. Our dancers use it with real precision to recreate Tamara’s painting on stage.”
Lempicka remains radical in subverting the conventions of the female nude—a category long dominated by male artists—and framing her subjects as empowered, desirable beings. Take Rafaela, the sex worker who repeatedly modeled for Lempicka: According to Artsy’s Alexxa Gotthardt, “Lempicka celebrates female sexuality and attraction in her portrayals of Rafaela, presenting her as masculine, voluptuous, and in full control of her own pleasure; in ‘La Belle Rafaela’ subject squirms with delight as her hand grasps her own breast.”
The musical first reenacts when Lempicka paints Rafaela. Portrayed by Eden Espinosa and Amber Iman respectively, this first creative collaboration leads to a romantic relationship – and a outstanding act 1 closer in which an enthusiastic Lempicka acknowledges her changing sexual orientation. The production also recreates Le Monocle, the historic nightclub that was a haven for queer Parisians, and features openly gay singer and club owner Suzy Solidor (Natalie Joy Johnson) as a supporting character.
Still, Lempicka remains married to Tadeusz (Andrew Samonsky), not just because coming out would ruin her career or worse; Rather, her desire for her muse does not detract from her attraction to her husband. That framework is key, as a great musical rarely revolves around a bisexual protagonist, especially one making this sort of adult self-discovery.
“It was very important that we didn’t tell a story about a woman who was a closed lesbian because she was afraid or didn’t want to leave the father of her child — no, she’s had many affairs with both men and women throughout her life,” says Copywriter and co-writer Carson Kreitzer, who is also bisexual.
Gould, who is gay, adds: “This is not a musical about a love triangle and which person is going to choose it. But instead it’s like, I love them both, so why can’t I have them both?”
Just as the real-life character painted her models with obvious dimensions, “Lempicka” aims to faithfully portray her multi-faceted subject matter – an ambitious claim given that the artist “was such a creature of accomplished reinvention and conscious myth-making,” says Kreitzer. She was known to be vague about her age, often referring to her daughter as her sister and asking her relatives to call her “Cherie” instead of “Mama” or “Grandma”.
Lempicka has previously been portrayed on stage. An immersive, multi-level theatrical experience was named after her and ran in Los Angeles for a whopping nine years. But it wasn’t really about her, as it was based on a book written by the Italian poet’s housekeeper about her visit to Gabriele d’Annunzio’s notoriously lavish estate. “This is not my work, my art,” Lempicka said of the book in 1978. “All people remember or know about me is this servant’s lies.”
Kreitzer and Gould worked with the artist’s estate, now directed by great-granddaughter Marisa de Lempicka, to portray her with as much nuance and intimacy as possible, but acknowledge that it is only an introduction to her life and legacy. Still, it’s a promising start.
“I’ve had conversations with people who didn’t know who she is, seen the show, and then immersed myself deeply in her beautiful work,” says Espinosa. “My biggest hope for this show is that Tamara will be honored and known and revered – not just as the artist she was, but as the woman she was – because she deserved it for so long. It’s great to hear that people now want to know more about her.”
Where: Mandell Weiss Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 24th
Tickets: From $25 (subject to change)
Contact: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (a 15-minute break)
COVID Protocol: Masks are required for all indoor performances (check website for changes)
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-07-01/tamara-de-lempicka-musical-la-jolla-broadway How a Tamara de Lempicka musical portrays the bisexual artist