Friendship, betrayal and the fight: 'Suffs' tells the suffragist tale in song

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Friendship, betrayal and the fight: 'Suffs' tells the suffragist tale in song
From left: Ally Bonino, Phillipa Soo, Shaina Taub, Hannah Cruz and Nadia Dandashi in the musical “Suffs” at the Public Theater in Manhattan, on March 16, 2022. The highly anticipated musical explores women’s suffrage through a movement often divided along generational, class and racial lines. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Jennifer Schuessler

NEW YORK, NY.- On a recent afternoon, Shaina Taub was standing in a rehearsal room at the Public Theater with a group of 18 women in corsets and long skirts, paired with T-shirts and sports bras, planning a grand parade.

Taub was suited up — halfway at least — as Alice Paul, a founder of the National Woman’s Party, and a main character of “Suffs,” her new musical about the women’s suffrage movement in the years leading up the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

“How will we do it when it’s never been done?” Taub sang as the performers bustled up and down the risers. “How will we find a way where there isn’t one?”

The song, “Find a Way,” was about the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Procession, the first large-scale political demonstration ever held in Washington. But Taub might have been singing about “Suffs” itself, and its winding, eight-year road to the stage after multiple pandemic delays, three set redesigns and script revisions prompted by the tumultuous politics of the country — and American theater — since the racial justice protests of 2020.

“It’s amazing how much the experience of making the show mirrors what they were doing,” Taub said during a break. She slipped off her period-correct high-heeled Oxfords and put on cloth slippers. Would the corsets be staying for the real show?

“It’s a hot topic,” Taub said. “But — yes.”

In an age of riot grrrl playlists and “The Future Is Female” tattoos, it can be hard to see past the petticoats and big hats and recognize the “ladies” of the suffrage movement as the hard-nosed political strategists they were — and to fully appreciate the radical nature of their demands. “Suffs,” in previews now and scheduled to open April 6 at the Public, aims to release the movement from its starchy image, drawing on the sounds of Tin Pan Alley, early jazz, pop-gospel and what Taub calls “the sounds of the future the suffs were trying to create.”

The highly anticipated production — whose extended run, through May 1, is already sold out — may wear its idealism on its sleeve. But it also digs into the complexities of a movement that was often sharply divided along generational, class and racial lines. That last was an aspect of the show, Taub said, that she worked to deepen after the murder of George Floyd.

“I’m not trying to glorify or vilify,” Taub said. “I’m trying to humanize, and dramatize.”

“SUFFS” BEGAN sprouting in 2014 when producer Rachel Sussman (“What the Constitution Means to Me”) gave Taub a copy of “Jailed for Freedom,” Doris Stevens’ account of the militant suffragists who, in addition to organizing the parade, assembled the first picket of the White House, which led to dozens being arrested, beaten and force-fed in prison.

She tore through it in a single night. “I couldn’t believe how dramatic it was,” she recalled.

As an activist-minded theater kid growing up in Vermont, Taub, 33, had been fascinated by the history of the civil rights movement, ACT-UP and other social change movements. Why, she wondered after reading Stevens’ book, had she been taught virtually nothing about this one?

“There’s just been this hidden treasure trove in my own backyard this whole time,” she said. “I emailed Rachel at 3 a.m. and said, ‘We have to do it!’”

Making a musical just about women battling men didn’t seem very dramatic. “I thought the audience might be a bit ahead of it,” she said. But she saw potential in the internal conflicts.

“How do various characters who do want the same things go about it differently?” she said. “That could help me focus on the women most of all.”

Today, Taub, whose album “Songs of the Great Hill” will be released April 1, is an in-demand musical theater talent whose (many) other projects include a collaboration with Elton John on songs for a musical adaptation of “The Devil Wears Prada,” set to open in Chicago this summer.

But back in 2014, she was a singer-songwriter with regular gigs at Joe’s Pub and other venues. At the recommendation of Sussman (who also teamed up with producer Jill Furman, of “Hamilton”), director Leigh Silverman went to see her and instantly became, in Silverman’s words, “a crazed Shaina Taub superfan.”

“I was just dazzled,” said Silverman, who at the time was directing her first musical, the Broadway production of “Violet.” “I just thought, how can I get attached to Shaina Taub forever?”

Over the next two years, Taub worked on the musical between projects, including “Old Hats,” with clowns Bill Irwin and David Shiner, and her original musical adaptation of “Twelfth Night,” for the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park. In late 2017, Taub played the first 20 minutes of music for Silverman.

“It was thrilling,” Silverman said, before taking a long pause. “Those first 20 minutes did a thing I think the show does incredibly well, which is, it tells a story and gives you an emotional arc of character.”

Jenn Colella (“Come From Away”), who plays Carrie Chapman Catt, the leader of the old-guard National American Woman Suffrage Association (who was often at odds with the more radical Paul), participated in the first workshop. She recalled an immediate “crackling of energy.”

“We found ourselves sitting straight up, standing when we didn’t need to — crying,” she said. “From go, this was a moving piece.”

Taub, who did historical research at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library and read what more than one collaborator described as seemingly every book on the subject, has laced the piece with quotes and detailed references. (She even found a juicy love story in a footnote. “Every musical needs a love story!” Taub said.) But “Suffs,” Silverman emphasized, is not an “eat-your-spinach history musical.”

“We’ve done a lot of work around deepening all the characters, the friendships, the betrayals,” she said. “In a way, the movement is the protagonist.”

ALICE PAUL WAS a notoriously opaque figure, with a monomaniacal focus and, as the historian Susan Ware (one of many scholars Taub consulted with) has written, no personal life. “She never married, never had a partner, we don’t know about her sexuality,” Taub said.

What helped unlock the character, Taub said, was Paul’s “deep, fraught, crazy-making friendships” with other suffragists, which Taub said were not so different from hers with her collaborators.

“It was that stew of ‘We love each other, we’re hanging out but you’re driving me crazy, we have to do this thing, I don’t want to mess around, I want to work,’” she said, doubling the tempo on her normal mile-a-minute speech.

Initially, Taub, whose acting credits also include the off-Broadway productions of “Hadestown” and “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” imagined she might play Doris, whom she described as “the writer-downer, like Mark in ‘Rent.’” But she eventually connected with what she called Paul’s “fear of failure” — and also, as anyone who has watched the 5-foot-3 Taub in action for five minutes might notice, with her intense focus and make-it-happen energy.

Taub said she even briefly entertained having suffragist and labor lawyer Inez Milholland (played by Phillipa Soo, from “Hamilton”), who led the 1913 parade, appear onstage on a real horse. “For a minute, I was like, ‘How much would it cost to shut down Lafayette Street for four hours?’” she said.

By late 2019, the plan was to open at the Public in September 2020, shortly after the centennial of the 19th Amendment — and a few months before the presidential election. Then the pandemic hit. “It took a minute for it to really drop that it wouldn’t be happening,” Taub said.

Then, in June 2020, came the George Floyd protests, and intense discussions about structural racism in the theater world, including at the Public, which in May 2021 announced a broad “anti-racism and cultural transformation plan.”

From the beginning, the show had addressed the uglier sides of a movement that reflected — and sometimes actively bolstered — the racism of American society. It was a time when Jim Crow had solidified and Woodrow Wilson (played in “Suffs” by Grace McLean) had presided over the segregation of the federal workforce.

One of the first songs Taub wrote was “Wait My Turn,” sung by suffragist and journalist Ida B. Wells (played by Nikki M. James) in response to Paul’s decree that Black women would march in a separate section at the back of the 1913 parade, to appease Southern white marchers. (Wells refused, and marched with her state delegation.)

But amid the 2020 protests, Taub and Silverman realized they needed to revisit not just the show itself, but also their approach to making it. “I realized I had more to do, and deeper to go,” Taub said.

They brought in two additional collaborators to the core creative team, assembling an expanded dramaturgical brain trust, nicknamed the Coven, which started meeting weekly. It included Taub and Silverman, along with choreographer Raja Feather Kelly (who is also credited as a creative consultant) and, as dramaturg, Ayanna Thompson, a prominent Shakespeare scholar at Arizona State University.

Thompson, who became a scholar-in-residence at the Public in 2020, was initially puzzled by the invitation. (“The first thing she said to me was ‘I hate musicals,’” Silverman recalled.) In a video interview, Thompson said the idea of a musical about the suffrage movement initially sounded “like a ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch.”

“I just thought ‘Oh my God, that’s the worst idea ever,” she said, imagining “the earnestness, the whiteness, the tweeness.”

“Obviously, that was all my bad preconceived ideas,” she said. “There’s a really rich story here — not just about women battling men, but a really interesting intergenerational battle” that’s “almost Shakespearean in its complexity.”

Thompson, who has written extensively on race and performance, also spearheaded a rethinking of the approach to casting. Most of the prominent characters — Paul, Catt, Wells, the Black suffragist Mary Church Terrell — are played by actors of the same race. But the other, mostly white characters, including male historical figures, were cast very deliberately with women and nonbinary actors of a range of races and ethnicities — not just for the sake of a diverse company, but to challenge assumptions about who gets to be (to use a favorite Thompson word) “virtuosic.”

“We wanted to give women, and particularly women of color, the same kind of mutability usually granted to white men,” she said.

A downtown choreographer and director, Kelly (“Fairview,” “A Strange Loop”), whose work has often examined issues of appropriation, said that when Silverman approached him last summer, he was initially hesitant. “I was like, ‘I’m not a woman,’” he said. “Was that going to be a thing for some people?”

One of the challenges, he said, was creating a movement language that would help the audience figure out how to read the bodies onstage. The opening three songs, he said, set up some of the registers.

The vaudeville-style romp of “Watch Out for the Suffragette,” sung by ensemble members costumed as jeering men (and inspired by real anti-suffrage songs of the period), is followed by the stylized proper-lady tableau of “Suffrage School” and then the naturalism of “Alice and Carrie,” which establishes the dynamic between Catt and the upstart Paul.

As for the diverse casting, Kelly said, “something that was important to me was, how does the musical hold space for all these characters, and allow the perspective to shift, without feeling like it’s checking boxes?”

Actors also helped push beyond the boxes. James, a Tony winner for “The Book of Mormon” who has been close with Taub since they both appeared in “Twelfth Night,” had been singing Wells’ number “Wait My Turn” for years at workshops and benefits. But after the summer of 2020, she said, “I started feeling pretty conflicted, and I think Shaina did, too.”

In Taub’s initial script, Wells (who actually intersected very little with Paul or the National Woman’s Party after 1913) sang the song, then largely disappeared. “I really encouraged Shaina to find ways to give Ida more of a voice,” James said.

Taub added a second-act song for Wells, in which she reflects on the personal costs of her battles. She also reworked a scene between Wells and the genteel Terrell, a founder of the National Association of Colored Women, in which they debate the merits of the inside game (“dignified agitation,” as Terrell, played by Cassondra James, puts it) versus confrontation.

It’s a mirror of the conflict between Paul and Catt, with its interplay of sharp disagreement and mutual respect. “Two people can have the same goal, but totally different ideas about how to get there,” James said.

“Suffs” is opening in the same theater where “Hamilton” — and America’s runaway romance with the roguish “ten dollar founding father” — was born. Are audiences open to seeing Taub’s feminist founding mothers as similarly three-dimensional heroes, shaded by their flaws rather than simply damned by them?

“Suffs” may be about women. But their long fight for the vote, Taub said, can stand in for any of the great social movements in American history, all of which were also messy, fractious, imperfect — and unfinished.

She cited a line from the last song: “Don’t forget our failure. Don’t forget our fight.”

“You can hold both truths in your hand,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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