There is an early number in “Suffs” that was as exciting to me in its way as any gathering-in of Superheroes from the Marvel or DC universe.
I guess DC is more apt, since the song is about the preparations for the first-ever march on Washington for women’s rights, in 1913.
“Find A Way” introduces us one by one to the extraordinary women, portrayed by first-rate actresses, who figure most prominently in this inspiring, instructive and entertaining sung-through musical that tells the sweeping story of the final seven-year push to win American women the right to vote, culminating in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
There’s Phillipa Soo (Tony nominated for Hamilton), portraying the glamorous bohemian and radical lawyer Inez Milholland, equal parts Gloria Steinem and Bianca Jagger, an activist lawyer with champagne glass in one hand and a cigarette holder in the other, who leads the march down Pennsylvania Avenue riding on a white steed
There’s Nikki James (Tony winner for The Book of Mormon) as Ida B. Wells, born into slavery, orphaned at 16, who became a crusading journalist against injustice, who refuses to be consigned to the back of the parade (a concession to the Southern donors.)
There are immigrant socialist trade union organizer Ruza Wenclawska (Hannah Cruz), Yale and Oxford educated Lucy Burns (Ally Bonino), and Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi), a student from Ohio who shows up in Washington DC and is assigned to become the chronicler of these suffragette’s efforts.
And there’s Alice Paul, who’s the central character and the prime mover behind the march, and all the subsequent actions detailed in “Suffs”: the forming of the National Women’s Party, the silent vigils outside the White House, the hunger strike during their imprisonment after they refuse to suspend their protests once Wilson declares war on Germany.
She is normally portrayed by Shaina Taub, who also wrote the show’s book, music and lyrics. Taub was out for the performance I saw, replaced by the standby Holly Gould. I could have tried for a later performance, but COVID-caused cancellations and delays, and my own overbooked schedule, had already pushed my attendance to late in the run. I’m glad I didn’t wait any further: Holly Gould was terrific.
My timing also meant I saw “Suffs” after the leak of the draft of the ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade, which occurred nearly a month after the show’s opening. Did the new context affect my reaction? Perhaps it felt more urgent and relevant now. Even Mimi Lien’s set design hits harder: The steps and Corinthian columns look like the exterior of the Supreme Court, except it’s (appropriately?) painted black. It would feel too beside-the-point now for me to debate whether the score has enough memorable melodies, or drill down into specific choices of the creative team. What feels important is the history, and especially some startling parallels. I was struck by one of the two central conflicts in the show, between Alice Paul and the older suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt (the convincingly stately and golden voiced Jenn Colella, another Tony nominee.) Among their arguments over strategy: Catt had been slowly and laboriously going state by state to get each legislature to pass suffrage for its state; Paul believed there needed direct and quicker federal action. (Isn’t this similar to an argument in the abortion debate?)
The other central conflict is with President Woodrow Wilson (Grace McLean), who repeatedly puts off the suffragette’s entreaties. In the song-and-dance number “Ladies,” the president professes to love the ladies and respect them, but the lyrics also express a patronizing attitude:
Men run the country
Ladies run the sink
Men run for office
So ladies needn’t think
McLean is not the only performer dressed as a man and performing a satirical vaudeville routine. The entire cast, all women or nonbinary, dress up as cartoon men with abusive views in two satirical group numbers, one of which, “Watch out for the Suffragette” begins the show.
Did we need three of these numbers making the same point? Or did we need more? Director Leigh Silverman and choregrapher Raja Feather Kelly keep things moving, but it’s easy to feel overwhelmed at “Suffs,” with its 38 songs and its running time of two hours and 50 minutes (including intermission.)
I understand why some have thought the show too long and too jam-packed with characters and incidents. I do think the show could benefit from a dramaturg’s edit, eliminating some repetition and trimming some songs. But I fear a merciless dramaturg would cut one of my favorite subplots.
It begins as a confrontation between Doris Stevens and Dudley Malone (Tsilala Brock), a member of the Wilson Administration. When they find out both are unmarried, they engage in a duet “If We Were Married,” that pairs his flirtation with her advocacy for reform of the law:
Dudley: If we were married, we’d buy our own acre of land for our own little house
Doris: If we were married, our possessions and property would solely belong to the masculine spouse
What’s delightful here is not just that he winds up being persuaded to her cause, but that it’s a true story. Malone resigned from the Wilson Administration in protest of its attitude towards women’s rights, and wound up marrying Doris Stevens (although it was not quite as awww-inspiring in real life as it is in the musical; they divorced after eight years)
Near the end of “Suffs,” after the Nineteenth Amendment is ratified,Alice Paul is focusing on the Equal Rights Amendment – that’s right, the ERA goes back to the 1920s, as those of us who saw Clubbed Thumbs’ “The Woman’s Party” last year learned. But Ruza Wenclawska says “As long as we’re on the subject of next steps, I have news: I want to act on Broadway.” This is true of the original historical figure: Wenclawska went on to perform in the original production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” and several other plays on Broadway. But I suspect it’s also true of the actress portraying the character. I hope it happens. “Suffs” could use some rethinking, but it deserves an audience past its current run.
At the Public Theater through May 29
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission.
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Shaina Taub
Music Direction and Music Supervision by Andrea Grody
Choreography and creative consulting by Raja Feather Kelly
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Scenic design by Mimi Lien; costume design by Toni-Leslie James; lighting design by Natasha Katz; sound design by Sun Hee Kil; sound effects design by Daniel Kluger; hair, wigs, and makeup design by Matthew Armentrout; orchestrations by Mike Brun; and prop management by Corinne Gologursky
Cast: Jenna Bainbridge (Harry T. Burn/Ensemble), Ally Bonino (Lucy Burns), Tsilala Brock (Dudley Malone), Jenn Colella (Carrie Catt), Hannah Cruz (Ruza Wenclawska), Nadia Dandashi (Doris Stevens), Aisha de Haas (Alva Belmont/Phoebe Burn), Stephanie Everett (Understudy), Amina Faye (Robin/Ensemble), Holly Gould (Alice Paul Standby), Cassondra James (Mary Church Terrell), Nikki M. James (Ida B. Wells), Jaygee Macapugay (Mollie Hay/Ensemble), Grace McLean (Woodrow Wilson), Susan Oliveras (Nina Otero-Warren/Ensemble), Mia Pak (Mrs. Wu/Ensemble), Liz Pearce (Warden Whittaker/Ensemble), Monica Tulia Ramirez (Understudy), J. Riley Jr. (Phyllis Terrell/Ensemble), Phillipa Soo (Inez Milholland), Shaina Taub (Alice Paul), Angela Travino (Understudy), Ada Westfall (Mrs. Herndon/Ensemble), and Aurelia Williams (Understudy).