Broadway's 'Lempicka' showcases a queer artist's dazzling life Once the toast of 1920s Paris, Tamara de Lempicka's story is now on Broadway. She was a modernist art deco artist who's better known in Europe than in the U.S.

'Lempicka' showcases a little-known queer artist's dazzling life

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SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In a spring Broadway season filled with adaptations of books and films, among them "Water For Elephants," "The Notebook" and "The Outsiders," a new musical, "Lempicka," stands out as an original. It's based on the life of an artist, Tamara de Lempicka, an openly bisexual Polish Jewish aristocrat whose story takes her on through some of the major events of the early 20th century. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: In conjunction with the Broadway opening of "Lempicka," Sotheby's has a small exhibition of Tamara de Lempicka's modernist Art Deco paintings. Some of them are portraits. Some of them are nudes. Some of them are Renaissance inspired. The show's authors, Matt Gould and Carson Kreitzer, stand in front of a striking portrait of a woman with red hair and sad eyes.

CARSON KRIETZER: The way the bare tree, the curves, echo the curve of her arm in the black coat...

LUNDEN: It was paintings like these that inspired librettist Carson Kreitzer to write a musical about de Lempicka, an artist better known in Europe than the United States.

KREITZER: I found this art book, and I just thought, oh, this isn't a play. Like, words are not going to be enough. There is this elevation. There is this crispness, this larger-than-life quality, and I knew it should be a musical.

MATT GOULD: And I'm usually going, that's a terrible idea for a musical.

LUNDEN: Composer Matt Gould.

GOULD: But I looked at these paintings, and I was like, this is amazing. Who's the guy who did these? And she was like, her name is Tamara de Lempicka.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Our time, the grain growing ripe (ph)...

GOULD: That was 14 years ago between readings and productions in regional theaters, not to mention a pandemic. It's taken a while for "Lempicka" to come to Broadway.

KREITZER: I was recently reminded of the Tamara de Lempicka quote, "there are no miracles. There is only what we make."

GOULD: Yeah.

KREITZER: And if it takes 14 years, it takes 14 years.

GOULD: Yeah.

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GOULD: (As characters, singing) Our time.

LUNDEN: Rachel Chavkin, the Tony Award-winning director of "Hadestown," fell in love with the show about 10 years ago and has directed it through various incarnations. She says the real Tamara de Lempicka was glamorous and self-mythologizing.

RACHEL CHAVKIN: She really did, like, encapsulate the vast sweep of, like, the entire first half of the 20th century and its politics, and really embraced it with this appetite to just, like, rebirth herself and forge herself anew again and again.

LUNDEN: She fled the Russian Revolution with her husband. She made a name for herself as a painter in Paris of the 1920s, and she finally emigrated to the United States with the Nazis on the doorstep. And Rachel Chavkin adds...

CHAVKIN: Her sexual appetite was infamous and inspiring, I would say.

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EDEN ESPINOSA: (As Tamara de Lempicka) Please let me blow the smoke into your...

LUNDEN: Many of her paintings, especially the nudes, were of her lovers. Eden Espinosa plays Tamara, and in this song, she's looking at a woman sleeping in her bed. It's both her muse and her lover, Rafaela.

ESPINOSA: Those gender norms and the way that you're supposed to behave with one person and the other person, how that shifts.

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ESPINOSA: (As Tamara de Lempicka, singing) Rafaela - black night holding its breath. Are we alive?

LUNDEN: Little is known about the actual Rafaela, but she was most likely a prostitute. Tamara's great-granddaughter, Marisa de Lempicka, who runs the estate, points out that the artist lovingly painted Rafaela in the nude many times.

MARISA DE LEMPICKA: We see "Belle Rafaela," the painting they used in the play, and it's based around that story. You know, she's sexually in charge of what she wants. She's no little demure muse.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Rafaela, singing) When I wake up...

LUNDEN: Historians don't actually know if Tamara and Rafaela were lovers, but the show's creators say while the musical may take liberties with some of the facts of Tamara's life, it's true to the painter's spirit. Director Rachel Chavkin says...

CHAVKIN: We really do allow Tamara to be as flawed and complicated as any male protagonist has ever been allowed to be and women very rarely are because for so many reasons, we're worried about is the woman likable? And so you end up flattening out character after character, when, of course, what makes for good drama often is a thorniness.

LUNDEN: "Lempicka," in all its beauty and thorniness, is now on Broadway. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Rafaela, singing) Been on my own since I was 10. Show any weakness and you're dead. Now look at me - emeralds on my wrist. My heart beats trying to get out of my chest. Is this what it feels like to lie down and rest? When I wake up, you're painting. When I wake up, you're here. Maybe I'll stay.

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