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The Woman Question: 'SUFFS' arrives on Broadway

Updated: May 3

Peggy Hepburn's 3-Word Review: Behold! Feminine! Power!

It is a rare treat to see such a balanced combination of history, rhythm, & camp, but somehow SUFFS, which just hit Broadway at The Music Box theatre, manages to do just that. From the perky opening number, ‘Let Mother Vote’, sung with just the right amount of cheek by Jenn Colella, & onward throughout the musical, the jaunty combination of humor & history adds a little Broadway-style theatrical sparkle & verve to what could easily be an otherwise dry middle school Social Studies lesson. Listen up, kids!

I was struck by the sheer forward propulsion of the plot — the year is 1913, & a young, fiery women’s rights activist, Alice Paul (played by the short-in-stature but big-in-spirit Shaina Taub, making her Broadway debut) is determined to challenge Ms. Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella), the old-guard of the women’s movement, which is made obvious by her late 1800s-style dress (the costumes were fabulous, I must say); the two women immediately butt heads, setting off a dynamic that will define the rest of the musical, & which defines many political movements throughout history: the slow & patient approach that comes with years of experience VS. the burning, revolutionary spirit of the young, eager, & frustrated. It is hard not to admire Ms. Alice Paul (as well as Shaina Taub herself, who wrote the book, music, & lyrics of the show, for arranging such succinct numbers that move the story along at a brisk pace) as she takes a ragtag group of righteous young women (with a standout performance by Kim Blanck as the hot-blooded Polish revolutionary Ruza Wenclawska) as they organize a historical march on Washington without the oversight of the official Suffragist movement, & which features the fabulous socialite Inez Milholland (played by the equally fabulous Hannah Cruz) on a white horse in an Amazonian-style gold armor costume that I was ever so grateful had a reprise later in the show (the costume was a masterpiece!), giving the Women’s movement, & this show, a central, triumphant image. 

It is admittedly rather remarkable that the Suffragist movement had existed for a whopping sixty years by 1913, & still women were not granted that most basic of rights: the ability to vote. One of the great lessons of the show is that progress is slow, perceptions difficult to change, & that nothing is guaranteed. Given our current political moment, never has this point been more salient, & many of the struggles that are outlined in song are those that many women face to this day; an especially resonant moment was a song called ‘Worth It’, sung by the exhausted activists as they weigh whether the sacrifices they are making in terms of daily comforts (giving up their best years, delaying marriage & family to pursue their political goals) are worth it in the end. This is left as an open question, one not to be taken lightly by anyone entering the dicey battlefield of the political arena, & is driven home with particular piquancy by the black characters, Ms. Ida B. Wells & Ms. Mary Church Terrell (played with posh poise by Nikki M. James & Anastaćia McCleskey, respectively) — their political infighting is a cogent mirror to the skirmishes of their white counterparts, & their asides are some of the best moments in the show, their struggle obviously much deeper & longer. Such depth of experience could easily overwhelm a show such as this, but the breezy pace keeps us clipping through history — the clownish Woodrow Wilson (played with vaudevillian panache by Grace McLean — all the male characters are played by women, of course) continuously delays his promises of the woman’s vote until his hand is forced when the main gang of activists is held in prison & force fed after a hunger strike. Golly!

There are actually pretty few words spoken (as opposed to sung) in this show, & the whole woven score felt like one unfolding anthem to its characters’ purpose — while the lyrics were strong throughout, some of the tunes became repetitive, though this only reinforces my thesis of the whole show being one unfolding anthem. By the end, the endurance of an ongoing political movement is palpable. The Enlightenment-informed American determination towards universal fairness & a certain naive utopianism can’t seem to solve the question of a woman’s place in the modern world, which still looms large in our culture: is she a wife & mother by definition, or is she free to have a career? Can she have both? If The Feminine Mystique had an upbeat, Hamilton-inspired soundtrack, this would be it — & Betty Friedan would be marching right along with 'em! & so would ol' Peggy, for that matter! & so would Hilary Clinton, who is counted among the producers of the show (really!)! Long live girlie power, says I.

—Peggy Hepburn

Photos by Joan Marcus; courtesy of SUFFS production, 2024. Lead illustration by @madamestarlite.


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