“Suffs” is a powerful musical story of the early — and ongoing — struggle for equal rights

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Jenn Colella as Carrie Chapman Catt and Suffs Company on stage
Jenn Colella as Carrie Chapman Catt and Suffs Company (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Kim Blanck as Ruza Wenclawska and the Suffs Company are all on stage
Kim Blanck as Ruza Wenclawska and the Suffs Company (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The struggle for civil rights in the United States — for women, for non-whites, for LGBTQ+ people — has gone on from the nation’s beginnings. The new musical Suffs, with book, music, and lyrics written by Shaina Taub, highlights the battle for women’s rights, one riven by internal dissensions over strategies and tactics. It is a history lesson, yes, but it is also a stirring, uplifting story of the ongoing struggle to make this country the “more perfect Union” promised by the Constitution.

Suffs’ story begins in 1913 at the annual meeting of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), where Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella) leads the members in the vaudeville-style song “Let Mother Vote”. Catt, who believes in a slow, genteel approach to gaining acceptance for suffrage, is confronted by the young firebrand Alice Paul (Shaina Taub), who favors more confrontational methods. After rejection by the older woman, Paul gathers around her a small core group of activists: longtime friend and comrade Lucy Burns (Ally Bonino); glamorous socialite and lawyer Inez Milholland (Hannah Cruz); radical Polish-born socialist Ruza Wenckawska (Kim Blanck); and young Nebraska college grad Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi). 

Paul’s team, working within NAWSA, pull off a first-of-its-kind political protest march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington the day before Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration. They coordinate delegations of women from around the country, but run into trouble when delegations from Southern states declare they will not march in a racially integrated parade. Paul’s compromise — to put black women at the rear of the parade as a separate contingent — is opposed (“Wait My Turn”) by the fiery black journalist Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James) and quickly withdrawn. The marchers, with Inez mounted on a white horse leading them, overcome resistance from an anti-suffrage mob in their call for women’s suffrage (“The March (We Demand Equality)”), brilliantly choreographed by Mayte Natalio.

Harder to convince is President Wilson (Grace McLean), who always has some more pressing issue to handle before he will even consider working on suffrage but always promises to take up the issue “later” (“Ladies”). When NAWSA trades their support to Wilson’s re-election bid in exchange for yet another promise of action on suffrage, Paul and her group split from NAWSA, forming the National Woman’s Party (NWP). NWP speakers travel cross-country, seeking grassroots support for passage of a Constitutional amendment to enfranchise women. An unexpected tragedy coincides with Wilson’s re-election, spurring Alice and her party to more direct means of protest (“How Long?”, “The Young Are at the Gates”).

Playwright Taub reacquaints us with history we might not have been taught. Her score for Suffs is the clarion call that drives home the story and links it to the present. Alice Paul’s “Finish the Fight” serves as her call to action throughout the battle for suffrage. The hilarious “G.A.B.” is sung by Alice, Lucy, Ruza, and Inez to Doris, encouraging the youngster to ignore slurs and epithets (you’ll have to see the show to find out what “G.A.B.” stands for). The talented Emily Skinner gets two fine songs: “Alva Belmont”, introducing the wealthy widow who bankrolls the NWP’s campaign; and, as the mother of a Tennessee legislator voting on the 19th Amendment, “A Letter from Harry’s Mother”. Tsilala Brock offers comic support as Dudley Malone, Wilson’s secretary, who gets a lesson in women’s financial inequality from Doris in “If We Were Married”; the same song reprised serves both as Dudley’s proposal to Doris and as an expression of the feelings between Carrie Chapman Catt and her longtime companion, Mollie Hay (Jaygee Macapugay). Ida B. Wells, her strategy opponent Mary Church Terrell (Anastaćia McCleskey), and Terrell’s daughter Phyllis (Laila Erica Drew) celebrate their moment in the history of women’s suffrage in “I Was Here”. The show ends with a rousing anthemic call to the future, “Keep Marching”.

Andrea Grody leads a fine 12-piece all-woman orchestra, blending the sweetness and toughness at the core of Taub’s score. The design team — scenic designer Riccardo Hernández, costumer Paul Tazewell, lighting designer Lap Chi Chu, and sound designer Jason Crystal — do excellent work imagining the world of Suffs, from the cramped offices of the NWP to the corridors of power in Wilson’s White House, from the gates outside the President’s home to the broad open spaces of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Suffs has gotten some criticism for crowding too much history into its book and songs. That criticism is misguided. Suffs is presenting a part of our nation’s story, a story that is not yet ended and whose repercussions we feel today. A quote from the Talmud, printed in the Playbill, says, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” We cannot begin to continue the work unless we understand, and learn from, what came before. Suffs is an important and powerful work, quite possibly the best musical of this season. It is a show that demands to be seen, and I strongly urge you to see it.

Suffs is presented at the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, in New York. For more information, or to get tickets, go to suffsmusical.com.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.