Review: ‘Suffs’ on Broadway explores the history of women’s suffrage in the United States

NEW YORK — With Hillary Rodham Clinton as a producer, an all-female cast of 23 playing historical figures, and a weighty, educational topic like the history of women’s suffrage in the United States leading up to the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Shaina Taub’s new Broadway musical “Suffs” certainly suggested more of a moralistic gathering of the politically like-minded than a complex evening suffused with surprise.

That’s not entirely inaccurate: the historical figures in the way of Alice Paul (Taub), Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella) and Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James) are buffoonish paper tigers, devoid of argument or veracity, and this scrupulously egalitarian musical sometimes feels like it was first cleared by a committee that made sure everyone was listed in strict alphabetical order and that the key pieces of the musical, narrative power and authorial sympathy were doled out in equal shares.

But, in the end, “Suffs” does what all of the best Broadway musicals do: it humanizes and empowers, and it entertains and moves an audience.

Taub’s enormous talent — she is arguably the first woman to compose, write and star in the same Broadway musical — is the biggest single reason. She’s a fresh, relatively youthful musical voice and an assertive, empathetic and vulnerable star who, with the gentle help of director Leigh Silverman, brings just enough of contemporary womanhood into the story to take the musical out of the realm of class project or Wikipedia trot and more toward the center of why people pay big bucks for Broadway shows.

The main conflict here is the issue argued over by activists and organizers since the beginning of organized political revolt: Do you lobby within the system, cajoling, persuading and flattering where necessary to get legislation passed without upsetting your foes, or do you subscribe to the view that well-behaved women never changed the world and unleash the mass demonstrations, the hunger strikes, the bodies in the way of cars on the metaphorical freeway?

That’s a worthy topic and Taub approaches it fair-mindedly, even if she tends to see it as an older versus younger campaigner dilemma, a tad reductive. But she also has to deal with another tricky issue: the white leadership of this movement and the painful reality that Black women did not get to vote for another 45 years after suffrage for white women. Here, Taub has to thread a careful needle, holding the suffrage movement at least somewhat accountable for this shame without denigrating them so much that they can’t also be heroes of her musical. And for the most part, thanks in no small part to the moral authority of the excellent James as the crusading Chicago journalist Wells, Taub pulls it off. No mean feat.

“Suffs” clearly was influenced by “Hamilton,” to the point where the show sometimes feels like an explicit response to that musical’s arguable inattention to gender. Taub’s score does not quite enter the realm of hip-hop (too risky for her, I suspect, given the current rules of appropriation) but it does build very deftly on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rhythms and liveliness of lyric. And the very presence of Taub at the center of the stage is, in itself, a Miranda-esque statement. Good for her.

“Hamilton,” of course, came out of the Obama White House, a bastion of relativistic liberal thinking, and it probed life-work balance above all other themes. (Should you talk less and smile more even though you always are running out of time?) “Suffs” has allied itself with the more progressively feminist of the two famous Clintons, a most fascinating subtext. Unsurprisingly for this moment, “Suffs” has a defined and determined moral position whereas Miranda presented complexity. So the world, and Broadway, has changed.

But for most of the folks in an audience, that likely will attract the most fiscally golden of Broadway combos, mothers and daughters, “Suffs” will be a chance to cheer some of America’s revolutionaries and get to know not just Alice Paul but defining suffragists such as Inez Milholland (Hannah Cruz) and Ruza Wenclawska (Kim Blanck), as played by an equally engaging and committed cast determined to ensure we better appreciate them.


At the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., New York;