WILLIAMSTOWN — Carson Kreitzer loves “difficult” women. She loves women who put themselves at the center of their lives and “knock things over and upset people.” If they were men, she says, they’d be called “complicated.”
“I love women who do not cave, who do not do what is expected of them, who refuse to take what is the prescribed path for women in their time,” Kreitzer says. “They push open the doors that let us be where we are today.”
Throughout her two-decade career as a playwright, Kreitzer has been telling stories of women who, she says, have been overlooked by history, “who I wish I had known about growing up.” Her latest deep-dive into a complex female character has resulted in a new musical, “Lempicka,” receiving its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, beginning Thursday, starring Eden Espinosa (“Merrily We Roll Along,” “Wicked”) and Carmen Cusack (a Tony nominee for “Bright Star”).
The show traces the dramatic life story of Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka (Espinosa), best known for her Art Deco portraits of wealthy aristocrats and her dramatically stylized paintings of nudes, who transformed herself from a refugee who had lost everything in the Russian Revolution into one of the leading lights of the art world in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s.
Kreitzer, who wrote the book and lyrics, teamed up with composer Matt Gould (“Witness Uganda”) to create “Lempicka.” The musical is directed by Rachel Chavkin, who earned rave reviews and a Tony nomination for her immersive staging of Dave Malloy’s electro-pop opera “Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812.”
After fleeing the brutal upheavals of the Bolshevik takeover, Lempicka and her husband Tadeusz (Andrew Samonsky) head to Paris, where she forges a new identity, reinvents her life, and becomes a renowned painter. The ultimate survivor, she becomes deeply enmeshed in the flourishing artistic and social life of Paris and finds her creative voice, while also understanding how to sell herself and her work. Gould calls the master showwoman “the Lady Gaga of her time.”
Williamstown artistic director Mandy Greenfield says it feels very timely for her theater to be producing a musical centered on “the interior experience of a female artist who has an insatiable appetite for complete success” in all facets of life. She loves that the show burrows into questions about “the complexities, trade-offs, and sacrifices that she has to make in order to achieve that level of success.”
Lempicka had affairs with both men and women, and she wasn’t afraid to portray female sexuality in her work. In the musical, she eventually meets a free-spirited Bohemian prostitute, Rafaela (Cusack), who becomes her muse. She finds herself torn between the life she’s created with her husband and the passion she has for Rafaela — a character invented by the authors though inspired by a series of seven portraits Lempicka painted of a woman with that name.
Kreitzer’s head started spinning as soon as a friend handed her a book of Lempicka’s work and said, “She’s one of your women.” “I love her greed and her hunger for life. It’s so sexy to see a woman up there saying, ‘I want . . . And I want . . . ’ She takes up room in this glorious way, and she asks for things that women are not supposed to have. Why can’t I have my husband and my family and my lover? And P.S., all the great male painters had that.”
The songwriting team met eight years ago in a workshop that paired seven writers with seven composers, in a rotating arrangement, over the course of two weeks. She and Gould immediately clicked.
On the final day of the workshop, Kreitzer asked him to meet her at a coffee shop that morning. She brought along a book of Lempicka’s work, including the sleek, sexy self-portrait of her behind the wheel of a green Bugatti (“Autoportrait”), and slid it across the table. “I looked at that book with the pictures of her artwork, and music just leapt off the page,” Gould recalls. “I was like: This woman painted music.”
Gould describes the score as pop-inspired and contemporary, but with touches of jazz and other music from Lempicka’s era. It’s “a Hans Zimmer-‘Dark Knight’ score meets Lady Gaga/Beyoncé,” he says.
As the story progresses, the rising forces of fascism in Europe threaten to break Lempicka’s world apart. “The curtain is descending,” Chavkin says. “There’s so much fear in the air and so much homophobia and anti-Semitism. And we’re telling the story against the backdrop of all that’s happening right now politically, so it’s a heavy-hitter.”
Chavkin’s appreciation of the show’s sweep is one of the reasons the songwriters wanted to work with her. Other directors and producers had suggested they drop all the history, but Gould and Kreitzer disagreed. “This is about a woman who lived at a very specific time, with very specific events that were encroaching in on her life — and on her love,” Gould says.
Still, the center of the show remains the love triangle between Tamara, Tadeusz, and Rafaela. “The moment that Rafaela hits the stage, she knocks the breath out of the play,” Chavkin says. “She’s Bohemian. She’s tough and independent as hell and has been on her own for most of her life. Tamara looks at Rafaela across the room and is like, ‘Oh my God, she’s my kindred spirit,’ but she’s also so far beyond any freedom that Tamara has ever tasted.”
As the team developed “Lempicka” over the past few years, Chavkin says they’ve “radically deepened” the character of Tadeusz “to make sure that the love triangle was vibrant. There’s a lyric that goes, ‘She makes me dizzy/She makes me see/He is my home/All I’ve ever known of family.’ So you can really feel how she’s deeply torn between them. If he was just a straw man, the musical wouldn’t be nearly as complex.”
After rehearsal wraps for the day, Chavkin admits that she couldn’t stop crying in the scenes they were just working on. “I’m not necessarily known for wearing my emotions on my sleeves. But every time I hear the underscoring and then the lines begin, I burst into tears, because this show resonates so strongly and so personally for me on so many different levels,” she says. “Almost every single character in this show, at times, I can feel inside my heart.”
Presented by the Williamstown Theatre Festival. At ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Main Stage, Williamstown, July 19-Aug. 1. Tickets $75, 413-458-3253, www.wtfestival.orgChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.