Singing about suffrage, and thinking about current struggles
NEW YORK (AP) — Phillipa Soo says she noticed a change in the audience immediately.
News had just dropped of the Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, and there was a different vibe coming from the audience at “Suffs,” in which the former “Hamilton” star plays an early 20th-century suffragist. Some audience members at the Public Theater seemed to be clearly feeling a link, she says, between two struggles 100 years apart — over a woman’s vote, and over women’s reproductive rights.
“There’s a difference in how people were hearing this play,” says Soo, who plays real-life labor lawyer and activist Inez Milholland in the musical. She describes “audience members literally reaching their hands up in solidarity with what we’re saying — in the same week that all of this stuff was happening in the news surrounding abortion and bodily autonomy.”
“Suffs” creator and star Shaina Taub had the same feeling that Tuesday in early May. That afternoon, Taub had led many of her cast members in song — “How Long,” a cry for liberty — at a lower Manhattan rally reacting to the Supreme Court leak. Taub told the crowd how the scene, with protesters and their giant banners, looked strikingly like a suffrage rally a century earlier. “I wanted to write a play that was there for us on days like that,” Taub says.
It was one of many impactful moments the cast recalls of an eventful, emotional run that began in April with huge buzz and advance sales, then was sorely challenged by COVID-19, forcing some 20 canceled shows including opening night itself. Extended three times, the run now closes May 29, and there are certainly hopes of a renewed life elsewhere.
“I think the show should live on and give as many people as possible the opportunity to see it,” says director Leigh Silverman, asked if there were hopes of a Broadway transfer. “That’s my hope for it.”
In interviews, the cast and creatives of “Suffs,” which covers the final years leading to passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, recalled an emotional visit from Gloria Steinem, two nights after the feminist icon’s 88th birthday (the cast serenaded her). And another emotional one from Hillary Clinton, who had pointedly worn the suffragists’ color of white to accept the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. (She also wore it to the inauguration of her rival, Donald Trump.)
“My only regret is she wasn’t there in her capacity as president,” Taub says of the woman who would have cracked the ultimate glass ceiling. But she adds: “At the end of the show we sing “Don’t forget our failure. Don’t forget our fight.’ Who will make it?... The next one will.”
Taub stars as Alice Paul, a fiercely determined leader who not only waged hunger strikes and endured brutal forced feedings in jail to achieve suffrage, but immediately afterward started work on a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing women equal rights under the law — what’s now called the Equal Rights Amendment (and still isn’t law).
But Taub, like most people, had never learned in school about Paul and her cohorts. In college at New York University, Taub studied earlier social movements but not the women who changed history in the early 20th century. When she read “Jailed for Freedom” by suffragist Doris Stevens, Taub thought: “These women could be a musical.” She dove down a research rabbit hole for several years, “poring over footnotes and bibliographies… searching for breadcrumbs.”
It was perhaps inevitable that the show, birthed on the same off-Broadway stage as the juggernaut “Hamilton,” would become known as sort of a female version — a “Hermilton,” as some dubbed it.
“Quite frankly, I’m thrilled,” Soo says of the comparison, “because it’s another example of how art can get people excited about history, about being a citizen, about being involved in democracy.”
But the task was different. “Hamilton,” about the nation’s founding fathers, “took a story that we knew or thought we knew, and flipped it,” director Silverman says. “(With) our show there was nothing to flip because nobody knows anything. And so we had a very different kind of responsibility — and also challenge.”
Telling the story isn’t easy. The suffrage movement was full of competing characters and clashing leadership styles. And it lasted roughly a century (“Suffs” comes in for the final decade or so.)
Jenn Colella, a Tony nominee from “Come From Away,” plays Carrie Chapman Catt, an old-guard suffragist who was challenged by the much younger Paul. She, too, says she came into the show “a complete blank slate.”
”I felt a little embarrassed, having not known any of these women’s names,” she says. A dinner with Silverman, who explained the goals of the musical, moved her to tears. She was sold: “This feels like exactly where I’m supposed to be in my life, in my career, the kinds of shows I want to align myself with.“
Tears were also Colella’s response when she first heard her costar, Nikki M. James, sing the powerful “Wait My Turn” as Ida B. Wells, the Black journalist and activist who fought for racial and gender justice. The song, an emotional highpoint of the show, is a biting response to how Black suffragists were sidelined by their white counterparts. Colella calls it “that moment where every piece of your flesh stands on end and you know something important is happening.”
James, a Tony winner for “The Book of Mormon,” notes that despite the density of the play, it still can only touch on five or six main characters: “There’s hundreds more where they came from.”
James recalls how throughout its development, “Suffs” was impacted by events in the outside world. The protests over George Floyd’s murder by police prompted Taub to add more of a racial dimension. And when the Supreme Court draft leaked that would overturn Roe, which guarantees abortion rights nationwide, James says it felt like some of Taub’s lyrics had been written for that very moment. That night, she says, “I walked on stage and I had an inability to be an actor. I felt tears streaming down my face, because the work is never over.”
As the run draws to a close, the cast of about 20 — and comprised solely of female and non-binary actors — has been enjoying the interplay with audience members who approach them after the show saying they want to learn more.
“You know, we’ve opened a lot of doors and left a lot of breadcrumbs,” Soo says, noting that younger women in particular express gratitude to cast members for telling a story they’d never heard.
“And so now everyone’s just like, ‘Wait a minute. I didn’t know that. Well, what now?’” Soo says. “‘How do I keep going?’”