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SUFFS - KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON

This review was written for “Blickpunkt Musical” the German magazine on international musical theater for which Mr. Dwyer is U.S. reviewer.


“Suffs”, a musical based on the suffragist movement in the United States that led to the 19th Constitutional Amendment in 1920 guaranteeing women the right to vote, arrives on Broadway after a limited run at The Public Theatre in 2022. The esteemed Off-Broadway venue, founded by impresario Joe Papp, was also the home of the international musical hit, “Hamilton''. As “Hamilton” was the creation of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Suffs” is the brainchild of Shaina Taub, singer, composer and musician, who wrote book, lyrics and music for ‘Suffs’, and who took a lead role as suffrage activist Alice Paui, as she does now in its Broadway production. Hilary Clinton is among the team of producers who financed the Broadway transfer.


By most reports, “Suffs” has been substantially improved since its Off-Broadway run (which I did not see) with some cast changes, substantial rewrites, different narrative emphases, and more songs (about half the score is new). The 17 actors in the cast are all women (as is the orchestra) all playing real life figures, including male politicians of the time. The period covered is the final push for the right to vote from 1913-1920. Although united in common goal, “Suffs” dramatizes the infighting that occurred among different factions of the movement. Alice, a young, fiery activist was often at odds about tactics with the older, conservative suffragists like Carrie Chapman Catt (elegantly plated by Jenn Colella of the original cast of “Come From Away”); she also needed to gain support of Black feminists like Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James) and Mary Church Terrell (Anastacia McClesky) and more “radical” suffragists like labor activist Ruza Wenclawska (KIm Blanik).


With 33 musical numbers, including 5 reprises, there’s more song in “Suffs” than book. The opening number performed by old guard suffragists led by Catt, “Let Mother Vote” is an upbeat call to arms that affirms the traditional family role for women. Enter Alice Paul who forges alliances with the different wings of the movement in the rousing “The March. We Demand Equality” which channels Miranda’s score for “Hamilton".


In less skilled hands “Suffs” might devolve into a civics lesson, but director Leigh Silverman, who received good notices for her work on the 2014 revival of the musical “Violet”, keeps the narrative energized. And, without being didactic, ”Suffs’ incisively tracts contemporary American politics. In a nice ditty called “If We Were Married” suffragist Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi) flirts with President Wilson’s chief of staff, Dudley Malone (Tsilala Brock). Later reprised, it's a quartet with them plus Catt and her partner, suffragist Mollie Hay (Jaygee Macapugay). The irony is inescapable.


Trenchant, though, is a scene near the show’s end when, after the 19th Amendment finally passes,a Black suffragist reminds an exultant Alice Paul that the right to vote will be good for White women, but most Black women will remain practically disenfranchised. In America, even after Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, voting rights violations still continue, mostly targeted to African Americans and other minorities. It’s fitting that the final number of “Suffs” is “Keep Marching”, which we Americans still need to do.



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