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Story of the Week: Lempicka Is Dead. Long Live Lempicka.

The Kreitzer-Gould musical will take its final bow on Broadway this weekend.

Eden Espinosa stars in Lempicka on Broadway.
(© Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

On Sunday, the new musical Lempicka will end its run, having played just 27 previews and 41 post-opening performances at the Longacre Theatre. That makes it the first of the April crush of new Broadway shows to close — a disappointing fate for a musical that really has a lot to offer.

Story of the Week will examine why it is closing so early and speculate about what comes next. This is not the end for Lempicka — just the beginning of a long exile.

What is Lempicka?

Playwright Carson Kreitzer had the idea for a musical about the interwar artist Tamara de Lempicka 16 years ago, when she was in grad school. She teamed up with composer Matt Gould to create a musical biography that begins with her marriage in St. Petersburg to the Polish aristocrat Tadeusz Łempicki just before the Bolshevik Revolution. They flee to Paris where she claws her way to the top of the art scene and falls in love with a charming prostitute named Rafaela. The rise of fascism and looming war prompts her second exile, to the United States, which provides the frame to this story as an aging Tamara looks back on the context she managed to outlive.

Amber Iman and Eden Espinosa star in Lempicka on Broadway.
(© Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Out-of-town productions under the direction of Rachel Chavkin (Hadestown) at Williamstown Theater Festival (2018) and La Jolla Playhouse (2022) paved the road to Broadway, where the cast is led by Eden Espinosa (who also starred in the earlier iterations). Both she and Amber Iman (who plays Rafaela) have been nominated for Tony Awards for their performances, both of which require vocal acrobatics and more than a little attitude.

Kreitzer and Gould’s score is unlike anything else on Broadway right now, with numbers that hark back to ’80s mega-musicals like Les Misérables (“Our Time” is a song showcasing big flags and even bigger emotions) but also songs that evoke the vibrancy of the Jazz Age (Iman’s intro number “Don’t Bet Your Heart” does this particularly well). Thrillingly, Gould doesn’t limit himself to pastiche, resulting in a score full of unexpected gems.

No song exemplifies that more than “Perfection,” which captures the amphetamine-fueled frenzy of interwar fascism with an anachronistic dance beat. It’s the musical’s greatest earworm (there’s a reason Chavkin opens the show with a few bars), and I’ll give $20 to the DJ who manages to wedge it between “Illusion” and “Padam Padam” at a gay dance party this summer. The brilliant George Abud performs the number as the Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti (the Che to Tamara’s Evita) simultaneously conveying humor and menace as he invites us into his darkly intoxicating vision. It’s the performance I wish Eddie Redmayne was giving in Cabaret.

All that makes Lempicka more interesting than a lot of what passes through Broadway these days. Yes, it’s sprawling. Yes, it’s campy. Yes, it makes grand claims about the legacy of its subject. But did I have a great time? Yes Yes Yes. If you are free this weekend, you should absolutely snag a ticket, because it will be gone by Monday.

Why is it closing?

In the brutal capitalist democracy that is Broadway, the people vote with their feet and more importantly, with their dollars. During its brief run, Lempicka never grossed more than $450,000 a week, which is certainly not enough to meet the operating expenses of a Broadway musical. Eventually, the initial money raised by investors (the capitalization) runs out and the producers can see a date fast approaching when they will no longer be able to pay the bills. The show must close before then, and this seems to be what happened to Lempicka.

Our readers often kvetch about the lack of new musicals on Broadway that are not based on preexisting intellectual property — a book, movie, or song catalog by a well-known pop artist. Lempicka shows us why that is such a risk for producers. While Tamara de Lempicka is a name in the art world, she doesn’t have the widespread brand recognition of Back to the Future or The Outsiders. And when you’re asking theatergoers to plunk down over $100 a ticket (with premium seats going for considerably more), they want some assurance that their money will be well-spent on something they already know they love. The fear-based decisions of audiences and producers constitute a vicious circle — one I don’t see Broadway escaping as production costs continue to rise.

This is also the reason why producers are eager to cast A-list actors. Even if you don’t know anything about the show, you know you will be sharing the same space as a star you idolize, which might be worth the price of admission. As we recently pointed out, next year’s Tony for Leading Actor in a Play might very well be a contest between George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal, and Denzel Washington. Eden Espinosa is a legend in Broadway circles, but she’s not a ticket draw in the way Hugh Jackman and Daniel Radcliffe are.

TheaterMania editor-in-chief David Gordon was correct when he described Lempicka as “a big swing.” It has unfortunately resulted in a miss — through no fault of the cast or creatives. Eight weeks is just not enough time to build the word-of-mouth that a show like this needs to thrive.

Amber Iman stars in Lempicka on Broadway.
(© Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Will it ever come back?

I hope so. I attended a performance last week and the atmosphere in the house was electric. Eden Espinosa and Amber Iman were greeted like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, while Beth Leavel’s exit applause went on for almost a minute. The people who have found this musical really love it — but there just aren’t enough of them to sustain a Broadway run.

This is one of those shows that needs to live in the wilderness with its cast recording (which comes out May 29) for a couple of decades while it builds an audience. Young directors will dream up ways to make it work even better, while young actors will practice their performances in the bathroom mirror. I suspect that Lempicka’s tale of decadence and extremist politics (and the need to hustle to survive tough times) at the beginning of the 20th century will prove more prescient than we would like here in the 21st century. With any luck, the good people at Encores! will bring it back for a second look with a big, fat orchestra. And perhaps, just maybe, it will one day return to Broadway.

It’s worth remembering that Merrily We Roll Along flopped on Broadway almost 43 years ago after even fewer performances than Lempicka. It has now emerged as the big hit of the Broadway season and a lock to win the Tony for Best Revival. Just because art isn’t immediately embraced by the public isn’t a reason not to make it. It often takes time for the rest of the world to catch up.

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Closed: May 19, 2024