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Artist Tamara de Lempicka inspires new musical

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Tamara de Lempicka Estate ARS 2022
Tamara de Lempicka's iconic "Self-Portrait (Tamara in Green Bugatti)" is one of the Polish artist's most famous paintings. 1929.

You may not know the name Tamara De Lempicka, but you have probably seen her boldly iconic Art Deco paintings, which have been featured in more than one Madonna music video. La Jolla Playhouse presents the West Coast premiere of the new musical "Lempicka," about the remarkable Polish painter.

Playwright Carson Kreitzer is always looking for stories about women she wished she had known growing up, women who were troublemakers or just liked to buck the system. Then someone mentioned Tamara de Lempicka.

"I got a Taschen art book with a bunch of her stuff and I recognized so many of the paintings. I just didn't know who she was," Kreitzer recalled. "Then I started looking into her life story, which is just insane and phenomenal. She is a powerhouse of a woman who was living at a time of great upheaval and had to reinvent herself over and over. And I knew it should be a musical, but I didn't know how it should sound until I met Matt (Gould)."

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Composer Matt Gould, playwright Carson Kreitzer and director Rachel Chavkin at the La Jolla Playhouse. May, 2022.

Kreitzer shared the art book with composer Gould.

"When Carson showed me those paintings, I just immediately heard music in my head. (Her paintings) are larger than life. They're at once totally real and totally stylized," Gould said. "They capture something about the very real nature of humanity, but also the ways that we sort of make ourselves. And I just thought there is poetry in this work, and there's something about it that wants to sing. And here we are, twelve years later."

Lempicka was a Polish painter who lost her luxurious lifestyle after the Russian Revolution and had to reinvent her life in France and, later, the U.S.

Both Kreitzer and Gould wanted to ensure that even though Lempicka lived through two World Wars, the play feels contemporary.

For Gould, that meant the music he heard for the play was "loud."

"It was metallic. It was the sound of metal clinging against metal. I knew pretty early on that, for me, I did not want to be a period piece musically. We can't set it back then," he said. "It has to feel like the kind of thing that we're hearing today. It has to feel like Lady Gaga. It has to feel like Beyoncé. It has to feel like those women who have created their image in the image of people like Tamara de Lempicka," Gould said.

Woman Is (from Lempicka - Original Cast Recording)

Kreitzer wanted to convey Lempicka's spark and the fact that after a century, her work still feels vital. She also wanted the audience to discover who this person was.

"This is a woman who wanted to be allowed to move through the world as a person rather than as a woman," Kreitzer said. "And she's very dedicated to her art. She's not necessarily the best mother, which is one of the things I adore about her. She has this brilliant, wonderful greed that women are not allowed to tap into. She is hungry. She wants the beautiful things that were taken from her. She wants everything back. And she falls in love with one of her models, a prostitute in Paris, while remaining deeply in love with her husband."

Lempicka's life and art prompted questions that Kreitzer can identify with.

"I think the deepest thing that I tap into with Tamara is kind of the existential question at the center of this whole show, which is, 'What will I leave behind? Does my life mean anything? Does the work that I pour my heart and soul into, does it mean anything? Will it shift anything? Will it change anything? Will we be further forward in a time I cannot see?'" Kreitzer said.

"Lempicka" opens June 14 at La Jolla Playhouse and runs through July 24.