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Producers Rachel Sussman and Jill Furman Discuss Suffs‘ March to Broadway

In honor of Women’s History Month, we are spotlighting women who are working on one of the musicals opening on Broadway this spring season. Women have long been a part of the fabric of Broadway, yet the push for gender equity and parity continues. Meet the women who are adding their own threads as they keep Broadway running behind the scenes.

Ten years ago, producer Rachel Sussman slid a book across the table as she was having dinner with composer-lyricist Shaina Taub. The title? Jailed for Freedom, Doris Stevens’s memoir recounting the turn-of-the-20th-century suffragist movement. Over their steaming dishes of Thai food, Sussman encouraged Taub to read it, positing that the subject matter could make a compelling musical.

“I stayed up all night reading it,” said Taub at a Suffs press event in February. “It read like a thriller to me.”

A decade later, that dinner has metamorphosed into a musical that’s about to premiere on Broadway.

Suffs — with the book, music, and lyrics written by Taub — is set to open April 18 at the Music Box Theatre, following its sold-out world-premiere run at the Public Theater in spring 2022. Directed by Leigh Silverman, the musical follows the stories of American suffragists Alice Paul (played by Taub), Ida B. Wells, Inez Milholland, Stevens, and others in 1913 as they entered political battle for the women’s right to vote with the 19th amendment.

Sussman has intuitively known the women’s suffragist movement had the makings of a musical since she studied it for a seventh grade American history class project. An aspiring actor at the time, she didn’t realize that she’d be the one shepherding it to Broadway as a lead producer. She was simply inspired to discover women like her.

“Beyond the small paragraph in my textbook, I couldn’t find any information on the movement,” said Sussman. “I became very curious about why this info was being kept from me and why I couldn’t find it easily. I had to go to the county library to uncover this history. I learned about Alice Paul and Inez Milholland and all of these women who were like me. They were ambitious young people who thought they could change the world.”

Suffs expands on the small paragraph usually found in textbooks like Sussman’s, diving deep into the complexities of the women-led crusade. The musical not only provides a nuanced look at the courageous suffragists who marched on the frontlines, exploring their brilliance and their flaws, but also holds up a mirror to the entire movement, examining its victories and its failures, set against the backdrop of New York City.

As for Sussman, she held these heroines close as she continued her own artistic journey in New York City. During her time as an acting student at New York University, she interned with Christopher Burney at Second Stage Theater, and that piqued her interest in becoming a producer.

“I got to be a fly on the wall for new play development, and I had the epiphany of ‘Oh, I want to do this,’” said Sussman. “I want to make the thing, throw paint on the wall, and ask the big questions of ‘Why are we doing it now?’”

Though the story’s action took place over a century ago, it’s clear why Suffs feels relevant now. With women still actively fighting for autonomy of their bodies and livelihoods, there are lyrics and dialogue within Suffs that eerily echo political discourse today.

Just like its central characters, Suffs makes history as the first Broadway musical with an all-female and nonbinary cast, lead creative, and producing team. Plus, two producers are certainly familiar with what it’s like to be a woman in the political landscape: former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Pakistani female-education activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai. Onstage and beyond the wings, trailblazing women are the foundation of Suffs, a fact embraced by all the women involved.

Rachel Sussman, Jill Furman, and Secretary Hillary Clinton. Photo by Jenny Anderson.
Rachel Sussman, Jill Furman, and Secretary Hillary Clinton. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

Does adding woman in front of a job title in a male-dominated space celebrate a glass ceiling broken or does the qualifier strip the woman of fair and equitable treatment? Depending on the person, adding any marginalized identity as a prefix to a professional title can make the moniker feel limiting or liberating. As for Sussman and Suffs’s other lead producer Jill Furman, they wholeheartedly cherish their title of “woman producer.”

“I can’t wait until we get to the moment where we can actually just call someone a producer, but it feels, especially given the show and the story we are trying to tell, that I feel very proud of the fact that I’m a woman producer,” said Furman.

Sussman agrees. “Until it becomes normalized and we don’t have to say it anymore, I think it’s important [to say ‘I’m a woman producer’]. I feel empowered by calling myself that and I want to own it the same way the women in our show own calling themselves ‘Great American Bitches.’”

During the beginnings of Suffs, Sussman and Taub sought out a seasoned producer who had experience with producing commercial Broadway musicals. Enter Furman, whose producing credits include Tony Award–winning musicals Hamilton and In the Heights. At their first meeting, Furman was blown away with the pair’s passion. She was very impressed with Taub’s songwriting abilities and infectious energy, and loved Sussman’s vision — “She’s a kickass producer in her own right” — and so she enthusiastically joined as producing partner.

As lead producers, Sussman and Furman are responsible for, well, everything. Producers are akin to the CEOs of a company, coordinating all of the pieces needed to mount the production. From organizing the creative team to securing a Broadway theatre to raising money, producers must be able to see the big picture from a bird’s-eye view as well as the granular details from inside the weeds.

“The most important thing [to be a producer] is passion,” said Furman. “You have to believe in it, because you have to sell your passion to theatre owners, to investors, and so many others. It’s such a labor of love, and it takes a long time.”

Both Furman and Sussman prioritize sharing their knowledge of producing with others. Furman regularly meets with aspiring producers to offer them advice. Sussman is a cofounder of The Business of Broadway with fellow producers Sammy Lopez, Erica Rotstein, and Heather Shields. The group offers courses that pull back the curtain on the process of producing Broadway shows, “democratiz[ing] the business knowledge … [to] build a more equitable, inclusive industry model that serves everyone.”

“With The Business of Broadway, we try to teach and demystify what producing really is, and I think the biggest misconception is that producers have all the answers and are sitting in some tower intentionally withholding information,” said Sussman. “I guess historically there has been some of that in this business, but this is a collaborative industry, and we work best when we are collaborating with the creative team, management, and the rest of our team.”

While producing comes with plenty of stress and challenges — “You have 7,000 balls in the air at all times,” said Furman — both Sussman and Furman acknowledge there are plenty of rewards that make the hard work worth it. As they wrapped up their press event where Taub and the company performed four songs in The Great Hall at The Cooper Union, a location where both Paul and Wells spoke more than a century ago, the lead producers looked on with fulfillment and gratitude.

“Being in the room today was just incredible and what it’s all about,” said Furman. “This is a show that deserves to be told and heard, and I’m really excited to surprise so many more people on Broadway with this.”

Sussman added, “It’s been a very challenging landscape since the pandemic. There are folks saying that this business is riskier than ever, and Broadway audiences are still deciding if they want to see as many shows as they used to. It’s our job to convince them that this is a worthwhile industry and the work we are doing here, especially this show, can have a meaningful impact and resonance beyond what’s onstage.”

Photo by Jenny Anderson.

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