When Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman, who wrote, produced, and co-directed the PBS documentary “The Powder & the Glory,” attended a performance last summer of the Broadway-bound “War Paint” at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, Grossman surprised herself by bursting into tears at the end of the show.
But it’s not every day that a labor-of-love documentary gets reimagined as a great big Broadway show. “War Paint,” starring Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole as cosmetics titans Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, respectively, begins previews on March 7 at Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre and is slated to open April 6. Based in part on “The Powder & the Glory,” the musical traces the rise of immigrants Rubinstein (from Poland) and Arden (from Canada) to their dominance of the modern beauty industry. Although rivals for decades in New York City, they never met or spoke to one another.
As a documentary filmmaker, “if you’re lucky, you get a little bit of visibility on PBS,” says Grossman, a Malden native who’s lived in Brookline since 1980. “I’ve worked on about 90 films; most are used in classrooms, or they were commissioned by nonprofits, so they’ve had limited visibility.”
“When you least expect it, there’s another act,” adds Reisman, best known these days as a regular panelist (along with his wife, former TV consumer reporter Paula Lyons) on “Says You!,” the weekly public radio comedy quiz show.
Although he now lives on Martha’s Vineyard, Reisman, like Grossman, has deep roots in Boston. His long tenure as a local journalist includes stints at the Patriot Ledger, the Globe, and as the editor from 1968-1972 of Boston After Dark, a predecessor of the Boston Phoenix. He also worked at WGBH “in the good old days when [vice president and general manager] Michael Rice was running the place and you could walk off the street with an idea and they’d give you a desk,” he says.
Together and separately, Grossman’s and Reisman’s films often found a home at WGBH, which has aired “The Powder & the Glory” several times since its 2009 premiere (an earlier cut debuted at the Boston Jewish Film Festival in 2007). It airs again March 15 and 16 on the World Channel.
Reisman says it was Robert
Brustein, founder of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, who first saw the potential of “The Powder & the Glory” beyond the documentary world. After the film premiered, he got an e-mail from Brustein saying how much he enjoyed it and suggesting that it be adapted into a musical.
“He’s the first person I remember who said, ‘What you’ve got here is dueling divas.’ I said, ‘So what do we do?’” recalls Reisman.
Brustein sent the film to James Lapine, who alerted David Stone, producer of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which Lapine had directed.
Reisman and Grossman met Stone in New York in 2010. “He said it would take years to [mount the show] and he said he wouldn’t do it unless Patti LuPone agreed to play Helena Rubinstein,” says Reisman. “I thought, ‘Well then, that’s that.’ But then they started paying us an option every year, and they hired the creative team.”
That team — composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie, book writer Doug Wright, and director Michael Greif — had successfully turned another documentary, “Grey Gardens,” into a Broadway hit. Two-time Tony winner LuPone signed on early to play Rubinstein; Ebersole, who won her second Tony for “Grey Gardens,” joined the cast in 2015 as Arden.
It was Reisman who originally came up with the idea for “The Powder & the Glory” after he and Lyons stumbled across a museum exhibit about women in business while visiting New York in 2003. He brought the idea to Grossman, his producing partner ever since the pair had collaborated in 1998 on a 50th-anniversary video for their alma mater, Brandeis University.
“My first thought was, ‘Makeup?’” says Grossman. “But the more I looked into how they launched their businesses, I knew. We were off to the races.”
The pair discovered the book “War Paint: Miss Elizabeth Arden and Madame Helena Rubinstein — Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry” by British author Lindy Woodhead, who appears in their film. But they also did extensive research of their own, with Boston cinematographer Boyd Estus shooting interviews with historians, industry experts, and social commentators. When they wanted someone who’d known both women, they thought of actress and socialite Kitty Carlisle Hart. Reisman hunted down her phone number and called her.
‘The more I looked into how they launched their businesses, I knew. We were off to the races.’
“She answered her own phone. I told her what we were doing and she said, ‘Can you come over around 3?’ I said, ‘I’m calling from Boston!’ ” laughs Reisman. Hart’s appearance in “The Powder & the Glory” was one of her last. She died in 2007 at age 96.
Reisman and Grossman are seasoned enough to know that this is a moment to savor. They know another “War Paint” isn’t likely to come along in their careers.
“Documentary filmmaking is a tough game. It’s a young person’s game,” Reisman says. “You have to run around with your hat in your hand trying to raise money for documentaries. That’s not in the cards for me anymore. Now I try to condense my thoughts into a poem.”
“The Powder & the Glory” has “been a presence in our lives a long time,” adds Grossman. “This is a wonderful way to cap off a career.”Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.