‘Suffs’ Broadway Review: The Right, if Not Perfect, Show for Where We Are Now

Shaina Taub’s new musical about early feminists grabs the political zeitgeist and runs with it at full speed

Shaina Taub in "Suffs" (Credit: Joan Marcus)
Shaina Taub in "Suffs" (Credit: Joan Marcus)

Back at the Public Theater, when Shaina Taub’s stirring new musical had its world premiere two years ago, “Suffs” began with a big disclaimer and an even bigger wink. Decked out in male drag, the all-female chorus sang, “She’s planning to scold you for three hours straight/Get out now before it’s too late/Watch out for the suffragette!”

“Suffs” opened Thursday at the Music Box on Broadway, and some jiggering has been done with the show since its world premiere. Now, decked out in sumptuous early 20th Century dresses (by Paul Tazewell), the chorus sings, “Let mother vote/We raised you after all/Won’t you thank the lady you have loved since you were small?”

Has this musical been emasculated in its transfer uptown?

A little. The former disclaimer at the top warned us that we’re in for a lecture on women’s rights, starting with the very first women’s march on Washington, D.C., in the year 1913.

It’s a history lesson that can read pretty dry, but even with its new and friendlier opening, “Suffs” is anything but — and much of the delight comes from seeing how Taub, who wrote the book and the songs, manipulates the material to make it fun.

The major problem with turning civil-rights stories into movies or plays is their black-and-white nature. It’s always the good guys versus the bad guys. Or in the case of “Suffs,” the good women versus the male jerks.

Taub neatly solves this problem by leaving the men out of the story, with two notable exceptions: Woodrow Wilson (Grace McLean) and his assistant Dudley Malone (Tsilala Brock).

“Suffs” entertains because Taub makes her show all about the women, and she makes those women committed but very flawed individuals. Let’s not call them cat fights, but “Suffs” is filled with rivalries between the radical Alice Paul (Taub) of the National Woman’s Party and the more establishment-minded Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella) of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. An early controversy emerges regarding whether suffragists of color should be included in the march. Black icons like Mary Church Terrell (Anastaćia McCleskey) and Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James, shedding her ingénue image to emerge as the show’s real matriarch) have no interest in being pushed aside or told yet again to wait. Intriguingly, the conflict between Terrell and Wells reflects the same conservative-progressive pull going on among the white leaders of the suffragist movement (“Suffragette” is considered derogatory).

Suffs on Broadway
Suffs on Broadway

And then there’s the Gloria Steinem of the early 20th century. At that first women’s march, the glamorous Inez Milholland (Hannah Cruz) gets to lead the parade riding a big white horse. Like many contemporary leaders, the main characters of “Suffs” manage to find ways to get their pictures taken and promote themselves – and sometimes their cause. When Milhholland disrupts her feminist duties to go on a honeymoon, the unmarried Paul becomes more than a little jealous. Other same-sex longings keep bubbling up from under the political surface. Paul’s hardworking comrade Lucy Burns (Ally Bonino) tires of being treated like a secretary in the poignant “Lucy’s Song.”

Even in a musical about suffragists, the Devil gets all the best lyrics. McLean pulls off a real Kate McKinnon with her inspired take on President Wilson. She’s devastatingly funny in her send-up of toxic masculinity without ever getting low-down nasty. McLean neatly floats above Taub’s lyrics that put men on one platform and women in another box that’s out of the spotlight. Also wickedly subtle is Brock as the president’s right-hand man, who spectacularly jumps ship to side with the ladies.

As a performer, Taub resembles a young Fran Lebowitz without the snark. Her greatest achievement here is a terrific book that takes a sprawling subject and not only gives it real dramatic cohesion, but uses recitative for startling economic effect. Too often there’s not enough contrast between the recitative and the songs. It’s what Stephen Sondheim referred to as pouring “molasses over a score,” his reason for eschewing recitative. Great opera composers made it work. Sondheim, for all his talent, did not possess the gift of melody that came so easily to Bellini, Verdi (whom Sondheim trashed), Puccini and a bunch of other Italians.

Speaking of Puccini, he also wrote an all-female opera. “Suor Angelica,” set in a convent, is as much about female repression as “Suffs” is about female liberation. There’s a reason why the great verismo composer made his big confrontation in “Suor Angelica” a showdown between a soprano and a contralto: The contrast in voices ignites vocal fireworks. In “Suffs,” all the 17 women on stage seem to be singing in the same octave, the choral writing being monochromatic to the extreme. Fortunately, Taub delivers as a composer when she must, especially in the second act when the light tone turns very dark as Paul and others are thrown in jail, go on a hunger strike and are threatened by psychiatrists to be put away for good. It’s the stuff of grand opera.

Leigh Silverman, the show’s director, emerges as a master general marshaling all the disparate and competing forces of this multifaceted story. Building on the strong material given her, Silverman manages with her talented actors to present at least half a dozen fully developed characters on stage. How many other musicals have ever achieved such a feat?

I much preferred the male-drag opening of “Suffs” at the Public Theater. One other not so small and unfortunate edit has been made in the transfer to Broadway. When the young descendent (Laila Erica Drew) of a suffragist barges into the National Woman’s Party headquarters decades after that first march, she no longer affectionately delivers a slur about Paul’s sexual orientation. The rude remark gave the scene some punch that it now lacks.

A few other things have also changed since “Suffs” opened Off Broadway in April 2022. The Dobbs Decision was only a few weeks away. And on the eve of the musical’s Broadway premiere, court decisions in Alabama and Arizona have been even more draconian. The perfect moment for a show like “Suffs” is now, the timing could not be better, and the preview I attended had all the red-hot fire of a raucous political rally. And that was just the audience!


3 responses to “‘Suffs’ Broadway Review: The Right, if Not Perfect, Show for Where We Are Now”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.