Sunday, June 12, 2022

LEMPICKA Onstage: A Thrilling Experience of an Art Deco Artist's Life

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt 

 Self-Portrait: (Tamara in the Green Bugatti), 1929. Tamara de Lempicka Estate, ARS 2022.

Few women have had a life as theatrical as Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980), the art-deco artist whose name now graces a Broadway-bound musical at La Jolla Playhouse. 


Born in Warsaw to a wealthy Jewish lawyer and a Russian socialite, young Maria Gorska managed to get her grandmother to spring her from a dull Swiss boarding school and take her on a grand tour of Italy where she discovered a love of painters like Caravaggio and Veronese and had a chance to take some art lessons herself. 

When her parents divorced, she went to live with an aunt in St. Petersburg, and met her first husband, Tadeusz Lempicka, when she was only 15. A year after they married, the Russian Revolution broke out, and she had to use her wiles to spring him from prison. They wound up in Paris--a great place to be in the 1920s, but they were refugees, and he wasn't cut out to be a breadwinner. So she started painting in earnest, and within a few years was showing and selling seductive portraits of upscale patrons and female lovers, combining classical and cubist influences in her art while diving into a bold new world featuring Rafaela, the street girl who became her main model and muse. 

As Tamara de Lempicka, her adventures went on to include a wealthier second husband--a baron whose mistress she had painted--and a well-timed departure for the U. S. before the Nazi invasion of Europe. After years of mingling with the rich and famous in New York and Hollywood, many travels, and continuing to paint even when her style went out of style, she finally ran out of steam in Cuernavaca, Mexico, leaving her ashes to be scattered on the legendary volcano Mt. Popocatepetl. 


I was fortunate enough to be able to talk with Carson Kreitzer, the lyricist/playwright who originated the concept of Lempicka, and Matt Gould, the composer who also collaborated with her on the book. Their joyful spirits made the phone interview come alive.

"The show's actual beginnings are lost in the sands of time," Carson said. "I can only go back to when I met Matt in a workshop for composers and lyricists in 2010 and talked him into doing this really insane thing. I was used to writing about troublemaking women, and I'd been carrying the idea around for a few years, ever since a friend turned me on to Lempicka. Once I saw her paintings, I felt her story had to be a musical, but I don't write music… so I found Matt."

"In all fairness, it didn't take much to talk me into it," Matt said. "When I looked at the paintings and Carson showed me what she'd written so far, the words just sang off the page."

"I originally had in mind a Brecht/Weill cabaret kind of thing," said Carson.

"I saw it more as Les Miz--an enormous, sweeping musical," said Matt.

They've spent years developing various iterations of the show: first at Yale Repertory Theatre, then at the Williamstown Theatre in Massachusetts, always trying to get to the core of their mission: "to bring this incredible boundary-breaking woman into the current consciousness and give her the show that she deserves." Lempicka was heading for La Jolla when the pandemic intervened. Now, finally onstage at the Playhouse, this new version, helmed by Tony Award-winning director Rachel Chavkin, looks like a winner. 

"We're trying to do what Lempicka was trying to do: use her work as a springboard to create something new," Matt said. "Eden Espinosa, who plays her, will be a revelation, and Rachel is creating astounding stage pictures. We aspire to be as grand as a Lempicka and let the audience in on the wild ride of her life."

FOOTNOTE: Although in her last years, Lempicka fell out of fashion, her paintings have lately been selling for millions. Once again, her time has come…and you won't want to miss this chance to experience Lempicka for yourself. 

EXTRAS: Googling Lempicka can give you a look at many of her paintings, and you can watch a delightfully informative talk about her by Roxana Velasquez, Director/CEO of San Diego Museum of Art, on YouTube.

You can also listen to Woman Is, a single from the upcoming Lempicka cast album, online. The lyrics not only give a real sense of the artist's passionate nature, but also her feelings about art. 

"A painting is not a woman or a warhorse or a glittering sky," she sings.
"A painting is canvas, pigment, plan, and design, always design…Everything is design!"

Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse
2910 La Jolla Village Drive
June 14 - July 24

Info/Tickets:; (858) 550-1010

Lonnie Burstein Hewitt is an award-winning author/lyricist/playwright who has been writing about arts and lifestyles in San Diego County for over a dozen years. You can reach her at

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