Suffs Arrives on Broadway More Timely Than Ever

Back in 2014, director Leigh Silverman went to the Public Theater music venue Joe’s Pub with producer Rachel Sussman to see the performer, writer, and composer Shaina Taub in concert. “I said to Rachel, ‘This woman is amazing. Someone should commission this woman to write a musical,’” Silverman recalls. “And Rachel said, ‘I just did. It’s about the women’s suffrage movement. Do you know much about it?’ And I sheepishly said, ‘No, not that much.’ And she said, ‘Maybe you should learn something about it.’”

Ten years later, that musical, Suffs — featuring a book, music, and lyrics by Taub, who also stars as early 20th century women’s rights activist Alice Paul — is set to arrive on Broadway, following an acclaimed run at the Public. Silverman is once again helming a company that includes other musical-theater luminaries, among them Jenn Colella, Nikki M. James, and Emily Skinner — respectively cast as Carrie Chapman Catt, Ida B. Wells, and Alva Belmont, leading figures in the movement that would earn American women the right to vote when the 19th amendment to the Constitution was passed and ratified. (Grace McLean is also on board, playing President Woodrow Wilson.)

Silverman, whose previous Broadway credits include Violet, Chinglish, and Grand Horizons, admits that she learned a lot about those illustrious women on the job. “I went to a really good school, but like many of us, I was not taught all of this history,” she admits. “I had always assumed that Susan B. Anthony was there when [the amendment] passed. There’s so much history that is ignored, forgotten, or glossed over. One of the themes of this show is how many people it takes to make a movement, and that you rarely get to see the thing you’re fighting for — and that’s a source not only of frustration and fuel, but of inspiration. There are shoulders we stand on, and hopefully our shoulders will be stood on as progress is made.”

This message clearly resonated with a pair of very famous and accomplished women who signed on to produce the Broadway staging of Suffs with lead producers Sussman and Jill Furman: the former senator and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.

“It’s just like the honor of a lifetime,” Silverman says when Clinton and Yousafzai are mentioned. “I mean, I can’t even believe it. I sat at our first rehearsal [for the Broadway staging] with the cast learning music, and Secretary Clinton was sitting next to me with the sheet music, looking on. Malala doesn’t live here, but it will be so exciting to welcome her in person — and they both have been so hands-on. They care about the show, they care about the subject matter. People are like, ‘How did you get them?’ Literally, Shaina wrote them a letter. They love the show; it aligns with what they believe in, and they’re entertained by it.”

Another new member to the Suffs team is Mayte Natalio, fresh from her Broadway debut as lead choreographer for How to Dance in Ohio. (She served as an associate for the 2022 revival of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enough.) “Not only is Mayte an amazing choreographer, but our partnership has been incredibly inspiring to me,” says Silverman. “She brings an energy and a joy to all of the movement, and that’s been really thrilling.”

Silverman also wanted the production to reflect progressive values as they exist a century after the period traced in the show. “It’s been a core value of our creative team, a mission for us, to have a cast that feels inclusive and diverse in many different directions.” That includes age, she notes, pointing out that her company combines actors with decades of experience with fledgling performers, a number of them appearing on Broadway for the first time.

Since its Off-Broadway premiere, the director observes, a number of developments have made Suffs feel freshly relevant. The show was in production at the Public in June 2022 when the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was announced. “We actually went down to City Hall,” Silverman remembers. “The actors participated in a rally that day, and sang a song from the show on the steps of City Hall.…There are still things worth fighting for — things that I think many of us took for granted, rights that we now realize are fragile.”

Taub has kept working on the show, Silverman notes; one new song, “Great American Bitch,” was introduced at a recent showcase. “Shaina is in many ways as relentless and determined as Alice Paul — it doesn’t escape any of us that she’s playing that part — and she’s been working around the clock.” One priority is to “bring forward elements of friendship between these women. Yes, the show is about a movement, but it’s about the people inside of that movement, and we want to make sure those relationships, both good and complicated, are foregrounded.”

The ultimate goal, Silverman says, is to leave audiences both “inspired and entertained” — eager, she muses, quoting a song from Suffs, to “keep marching.”

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