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How 'Suffs' Continues Musical Theatre's Tradition of Illuminating History

By: Raven Snook
Date: Apr 19, 2024

Leigh Silverman talks about directing this new Broadway musical that entertains and educates


Director Leigh Silverman vividly remembers when she heard about political activist Emma Goldman for the first time—it was when she saw Ragtime. "Musicals are the way many theatre kids learn about history," she says. That's one of the many reasons why she's thrilled to be directing Suffs, the new Broadway musical chronicling the seven years leading up to the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote in 1920. The show centers on key figures in the American suffrage movement, including Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt, Ida B. Wells, Inez Milholland, Ruza Wenclawska, Doris Stevens and Mary Church Terrell, names that may be unfamiliar to many theatregoers. Prior to joining Suffs, Silverman hadn't heard of them, either. "All these incredible, inspiring women and I had no idea about any of them!" she admits. In school, "I only learned about Susan B. Anthony. I was shocked when I learned that she was long dead when the amendment passed."

Written by and starring singer-songwriter-actor Shaina Taub as Alice Paul, Suffs has been a decade in the making. The project was sparked by producer Rachel Sussman giving Taub a copy of Doris Stephens' Jailed for Freedom: American Women Win the Vote, the only firsthand account of the movement. Silverman signed on in 2016 and the musical had its world premiere at The Public Theater in 2022. The buzzy run sold out and audiences were enthralled, though some critics less so. Over the past two years, Taub and Silverman have made significant and savvy changes to the show, both in the writing (there are many fresh songs, including new opening and closing numbers) and direction (the pacing is quicker, the tone less didactic), and they're collaborating with a new choreographer and design team. In this incarnation, the story of these suffragists—who not only battled a sexist society but also each other across generational and racial divides—is clearer and more stirring.

Hamilton comparisons are rife since they're both history-based musicals created by and starring a visionary artist that transferred from The Public to Broadway. However, audiences walk into Hamilton knowing who the Founding Fathers were. These suffragists are unsung. With Suffs, Taub and Silverman—along with their all-women and nonbinary cast, creative and lead producing team, which includes Hillary Clinton and Malala Yousafzai—hope to turn them into household names.

Grace McLean, who plays President Woodrow Wilson, the suffragists' main foe, also knew next to nothing about the movement before being cast in the show. "I remember Mrs. Winifred Banks singing 'Sister Suffragette' in the Mary Poppins movie," she says. "I only found out doing Suffs that British women got the vote before American women did!"

Like Taub, McLean is a singer-songwriter-actor who created and starred in a musical about a historical figure: In the Green told the origin story of real-life saint Hildegard von Bingen, one of the Middle Ages' most influential women. "I wanted to take a literal saint and situate her in history in a way that speaks to the present moment," McLean says. "And that's very much what's happening with Suffs as well. It's so important for us to be able to see and experience our collective history in a way that makes it feel close to us."

Silverman knows firsthand the power of theatre to educate and enlighten, especially for young audiences: From 2015 to 2019, she was a TDF Wendy Wasserstein Project mentor, taking students from Millennium High School to see shows on Broadway and beyond, followed by post-performance chats over pizza. "I took over for David Henry Hwang, who said it was one of his favorite things he had ever done," she recalls. "It was a great joy to be able to bring the students to see shows. They talked about the productions in complex and interesting ways. I think that's something that people don't understand. There's this sense of, oh, they're kids, they're not going to get it. But our conversations were so deep. Because they're young, they haven't been to much theatre, so they're able to look at it without the cynicism of people who go more frequently. The students' willingness to speak their minds, to not all agree or disagree with each other, that was an incredible learning experience for me."

While Silverman hopes audiences of all generations, genders and backgrounds appreciate Suffs, she is particularly enthusiastic about younger theatregoers attending the show. "Suffs will hopefully do the thing that musicals can do for total theatre nerds, which is teach you something about life and history," she says. "I think about the generation of kids who grew up listening to Hamilton before they'd ever taken an American history class. That's the way we get information. I'm excited that for many people, the first time they hear these women's names will be in our theatre looking at these incredible actors."

For those eager to learn more, the show's website has an education page with a timeline of the 70-year struggle to win the vote, plus book and documentary recommendations.

And, of course, given the state of the world, Silverman and her collaborators hope Suffs inspires an interest in activism, too. "In our current day, we hear all the time about women's rights being rolled back, that we are facing all of these obstacles," she says. "And yet, we have the story of the suffragists, who, during harder times with less available to them, were able to make change." Now it's time for a new generation to, as Alice Paul sings in Suffs, "finish the fight."


Suffs is frequently available at our TKTS Booths.

Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her on Facebook at @Raven.Snook. Follow TDF on Facebook at @TDFNYC.