I don’t remember my elementary school history books dedicating more than a few sentences to the women’s suffrage movement. The nearly 100-year history of women fighting for the right to vote is often narrowed down to two main topics of conversation—Susan B. Anthony and the 19th Amendment—and some have dismissed the suffragists as selfish agitators.
In an effort to counter these notions of these revolutionary women and their struggles, the new musical “Suffs” begins with the satirical, vaudeville-inspired “Watch Out for the Suffragette!” sung by the ensemble, composed of female and non-female binary actors. (The show was set to open at the Public Theater on Wednesday, but canceled due to positive coronavirus tests.) They are dressed in drag – even mustaches – and caricature their male opponents. We’re in for a nasty history lesson, these hypothetical skeptics predict in songs; a dreaded feminist “is planning to berate you for three hours”.
My first thought: Dear God, I hope not.
After all, “Suffs” has a hefty running time of two hours and 45 minutes, and while the musical isn’t guilty of scolding, it’s guilty of smothering an impressive — if exhausting — breadth of American history through its contemporary lens.
Shaina Taub, the Public Theater playwright and creator of the musical, stars as Alice Paul, the headstrong young suffragist who brings together a group of women who lead protests, are mistreated and incarcerated, and march to Washington for their right to vote. box.
Taub gives a rock-solid performance as Paul, although her standby (Holly Gould) has stepped in as Taub tested positive for the coronavirus just before production’s scheduled opening.
Paul is joined in the metaphorical barracks by Lucy Burns (played by a demure Ally Bonino), her friend and fellow suffragist who helped Paul form the National Woman’s Party. There’s also Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi, teeming with seriousness), an eager young Ohio student and writer, and Ruza Wenclawska (a droll Hannah Cruz), the hard-hitting Polish-American factory worker and union organizer. Inez Milholland (Phillipa Soo), a labor lawyer and chic socialite, is their public face; as Inez, Soo, the beloved “Hamilton” alum, brings sugar, sass and style to the group, marching with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
In the seven years covered in the musical—1913 to 1920, when the 19th Amendment was finally ratified—Paul clashes with her sisters in battle. She has a longstanding dispute with Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella), who, as head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, finds Paul’s moves too radical. Then there’s journalist and suffragist Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James), who tries in vain to bring race into the movement, challenging Paul’s short-sighted vision of change.
But her real adversary is the president, Woodrow Wilson (Grace McLean), who wanders the stage, kicking stairs with a top hat and cane while chanting gleefully misogynistic lyrics like “Men make the money/Ladies make the bread/Men make the bread.” the rules/ladies make the bed.” McLean’s upbeat performance introduces some of the musical’s few moments of levity; otherwise, an overall stiffness permeates the production.
Perhaps that’s because the entire production feels so attuned to today’s gender politics and protests, so aware of potential criticism that it approaches the subject with an abundance of caution. So just 20 minutes into the show, “Suffs” makes it clear it doesn’t frame Paul as the movement’s perfect warrior saint. When Paul Wells declines, she responds with the song “Wait My Turn” (“Don’t you realize you ain’t free until I’m free./Or refuse to see you?”), reinforcing her role as the racial conscience of the musical, which occasionally pops up as a reminder of the pitfalls of white feminism. And all these women and stories of their activism are uncomfortably crammed into a show that’s too afraid to miss something that it fills up with information.
In many ways, “Suffs” lands as a clumsy heir to the audience’s other great historical musical, “Hamilton,” borrowing some of his approaches to structure, while trying to avoid the critique of his politics around women and slavery. But that’s the risk involved in rearranging history with today’s sensitivities in mind. Even this feminist story occasionally serves as a response to those funky founding fathers who met in “the room where it happens”; our suffragists sing of how no woman herself could witness the signing of the 19th amendment because “a man somewhere in a room behind a closed door signed the paper.”
But the musical doesn’t have to try so hard to defend itself or prove its relevance, for example by showing the threats and taunts from men who are inserted into songs like ‘The March’. It doesn’t have to fall back on preciousness, either, like when the mother of a Tennessee senator, an “old farm widow,” sings a banjo-heavy song and begs her son to vote for suffrage with a promise of his favorite meatloaf in return. . Or the pat-pairing of some pairs at the end, and the heavy-handed finale, “Never Over”, about the continuous march to progress.
The direction, by Leigh Silverman, feels just as methodical as the lyrics; the tempo is fast and the songs are full of exposition like that of “Hamilton”. But “Suffs” turns out to be all work and mostly no play, and when it comes to the music itself, nothing really pops. There are a few dry touches of vaudeville and pop and some sweet tracks like “If We Were Married,” a song that feels like a contemporary stitch in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ 1937 rendition of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” It’s a parody of such cute courtship numbers, but it delivers just that.
The music is most interesting when it throws off the exposition and gives the characters space to express their hopes, frustrations and desires. Colella beats her performance in one such song, the spiky ‘This Girl’. Colella cuts out her words and sharpens her gestures, taking her notes with a boxer’s punch in the ring. Also the harmonies, such as those in the ensemble song “How Long”, which shifts from a tone of despair to a tone of resilience, also give the music some much-needed dimension.
Choreographer Raja Feather Kelly’s typically transgressive style (displayed in shows like ‘A Strange Loop’ and ‘Fairview’) feels offended, chained to the very literal interpretation of the material; there is a lot of marching and posing, syncopated steps. Mimi Lien brings a similar austerity to her set design—the stately stairs and columns of Congress perhaps, or an institutional building—but the simplicity here works, allowing ‘Suffs’ to focus on its diverse cast of history-makers. In the costume design, Toni-Leslie James strikes a satisfying balance between high-waisted formal skirts and black lace-up boots, and the splashy wide-brimmed hats have enough ribbons and feathers to make any Southern churchgoer swoon.
“Suffs” ends with passing the torch from one generation of changemakers to the next, rethinking the latest clash of new politics versus old politics: what was once revolutionary is becoming obsolete. For all the work this show does to highlight the successes – and failures – of the women’s rights movement and the constantly evolving nature of our politics, so much effort is put into it to appear as current as possible. But, as the sufferers learn, movements change; our heads of government are changing, as are the demands of the people on the picket line. It’s a lesson the musical should take to heart: you can’t live in the past, present, and future of our nation’s politics all at once—at least not without getting lost.
Through May 15 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; publictheater.org. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.