What the Broadway Musical ‘Suffs’ Gets Right (and Wrong) About the History of Women’s Suffrage

The new show serves as an entertaining history lesson, but even that has its creative limits

Jenn Colella as Carrie Chapman Catt (center) in Suffs
Jenn Colella as Carrie Chapman Catt (center) in Suffs, a new Broadway musical about the women's suffrage movement Joan Marcus

In 1776, Abigail Adams famously implored her husband, John, who was formulating a “new code of laws” during the American Revolution, to “remember the ladies.” He did not.

Nearly 150 years later, the National American Woman Suffrage Association and its leader, Carrie Chapman Catt, asked for a specific law: suffrage. But the country was once again at war, the domain of men, and if women didn’t want their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers to die, they’d stop distracting the men in Washington, D.C. with such nonsense. No matter that Catt had been hearing iterations of that excuse for decades. She could wait.

Alice Paul, a young upstart, would not.

And so begins Suffs, a Broadway musical about the final act in American suffragists’ long campaign to win the vote for women. Shaina Taub, who also wrote the show, plays the leading role of Alice Paul. She’s a militant with a crew: ride-or-die college friend Lucy Burns (Ally Bonino); compelling legal renegade Inez Milholland (Hannah Cruz); writer-on-the-make Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi); revolutionary Ruza Wenclawska (Kim Blanck).

Now on Broadway | Suffs The Musical

Taub came to the subject matter when a producer friend gave her a copy of Stevens’ memoir Jailed for Freedom. In that book, Stevens writes of being arrested, militant protest, being forced-fed, and going on hunger strikes. She comes to Broadway with a background as a singer-songwriter who had garnered acclaim for a musical adaptation Twelfth Night put on by the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park series. Working on Suffs between other theater gigs, she faced numerous real-world challenges beyond the usual creative process ups-and-downs. Taub began writing the show in 2014 with an eye toward a world with President Hillary Clinton, and that, of course, did not happen. (Now, Clinton is a producer of the show along with Malala Yousafzai, the famed youth activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.)

Plans to open Off Broadway in 2020 were thwarted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the nationwide racial reckoning of that year in the wake of the murder of George Floyd pushed Taub once again to retool the show. Suffs first opened at the Public Theater in 2022 and faced mixed reviews; the New York Times wrote at the time that it was “bloated with information.”

Shaina Taub as Alice Paul
Shaina Taub, the creator of Suffs, plays Alice Paul in the Broadway musical. Joan Marcus
Hannah Cruz (center, on horse) as Inez Milholland in Suffs
Hannah Cruz (center, on horse) as Inez Milholland in Suffs Joan Marcus

With that, Taub once again reworked the book in advance of its Broadway debut last month, when it landed amid a dizzying final week of Tonys eligibility. In a short span of nine days, 12 new shows—seven of them musicals—opened, cramming the theater schedule.

The show, too, crams a lot in. There’s the entire history of the American women’s suffrage movement. Protests. Tension between Paul and Catt. The women’s march in Washington. Fleeting glimpses of the women’s lives: love, marriage, children, disease, death. More protests. Plotting, planning, producing. Another round of protests. Woodrow Wilson’s dismissive apathy. Yet more protests. A hunger strike. It’s exhausting and all-consuming—like the fight itself.

At first blush, Suffs has much in common with the blockbuster Hamilton, the musical about the $10 founding father without a father that will likely remain on Broadway for years to come. Both musicals got their start at the Public, feature a fast-paced soundtrack that doubles as a history lesson, are the work of an acclaimed songwriter who stars in a leading role, and challenge the ubiquity of the oppressor through unconventional casting.

But Suffs is not Hamilton. Women cast as men don’t play the role straight and, as such, appear to be caricatures that get cheap laughs but offer little reflection. Hamilton, for better or worse, ignited a national conversation about the founders, hagiography and how Americans think about their country’s beginning, and about themselves. Suffs is unlikely to spark such a discourse. Many babies start gnawing on this history in the Little Feminist board books within the first year of their lives, and wear shirts featuring bedazzled pioneering women, who also appear in their textbooks and, of course, are paraded out every March, when Women’s History Month recycles the same old stories. And maybe that’s OK.

Nikki M. James as Ida B. Wells in Suffs​​​​​​​
Nikki M. James (in blue) as Ida B. Wells in Suffs Joan Marcus

Even as a historian, I expect entertainment to entertain and inspire further learning, not to be a didactic tool itself. That said, Suffs is full of “good” history; the tension between Paul’s upstarts and Catt’s old guard is real and rife with drama. Jenn Colella, who plays Catt, is perfectly cast as Paul’s foil; she’s the platonic ideal of a Broadway star of today and a polite activist of yore. She spends much of the musical kindly asking for “Votes for Mother."

Other cast members shine as well. Ida B. Wells’ (Nikki M. James) important voice of dissent is given full volume, though one could not fault a theatergoer for thinking her only contribution to the movement was to RSVP “yes” to playing the role of “difficult Black woman” at pivotal moments. The audience similarly doesn’t have time to invest in Inez Milholland, who is reduced to a kind of fun suffragist party girl who gives good speeches before getting sick and dying. Present but comparatively minor and one-dimensional: Mary Church Terrell (Anastaćia McCleskey) is Catt’s Black counterpart—older, polite, though a bit less patient than she appears in Taub’s conception.

For all the good history in Suffs, some omissions that felt like minor tragedies: “Lifting as We Climb,” the official slogan of Black women’s groups, has always appealed to white women studying the movement, but Taub fails to properly cite it.

Taub does well to end the show on a somewhat somber—though in song and dance!—note: A hundred years later, the Equal Rights Amendment, Paul’s follow-up to the 19th Amendment of 1920, has yet to be codified.

Watch Four Songs from Suffs

Suffs may not have a decade-long run on Broadway, but it’s begging to be shown in classrooms, aired on PBS and cited as paving the way for other musicals on women’s history. And the paying customers appeared more than satisfied: Despite the disheartening reality of the Equal Rights Amendment’s failure, the audience left as happy to have seen a show of substance. For two-and-a-half hours, they laughed, they learned and then they left, spilling out onto the streets of Times Square, where clipboard-wielding volunteers asked them if they were registered to vote.

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