Review: In ‘Suffs,’ the Thrill of the Vote and How She Got It

Depicting extremes of human emotion, the oldest extant Western plays invited the citizens of ancient Greece to confront vital issues of contemporary justice.

Only the men could act on them, though, because the women couldn’t vote.

Perhaps Aeschylus and Euripides and the other big winners of fifth century B.C. Tony Awards will not be front-of-mind for you at “Suffs,” the musical about women’s suffrage that opened on Thursday at the Music Box on Broadway. But subwaying home, feeling jubilant yet dissatisfied, I couldn’t help mulling what the show says about the uses of theater 2,500 years later.

Or even 100 years later. “Suffs” traces the heroic, single-minded and sometimes dangerous campaign in its final push, from 1913 through ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. I can’t imagine anyone who would not be thrilled to hear again, or for the first time, about the twisting path — the strategizing, lobbying, finagling, money-raising and course-correcting — that led to the joyful if incomplete victory.

Much the same could be said of the show itself. Shaina Taub, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, started work on the project 10 years ago, creating a meaty role for herself in Alice Paul, a leader of the effort. Taub’s approach was as much about infighting as outfighting, pitting Paul against older suffragists like Carrie Chapman Catt, Black feminists like Ida B. Wells and workers’ rights firebrands like Ruza Wenclawska, each demanding a slice of the movement’s agenda.

It seemed propitious that “Suffs” would start out, like that other historical fantasia “Hamilton,” at the Public Theater. But the 2022 Off Broadway premiere was a jumble of earnestness and sarcasm, its impact compromised by overreach. In her review for The New York Times, my colleague Maya Phillips wrote that it was so “scared to miss anything” that it became “bloated with information.”

“Suffs” on Broadway is vastly improved. It has been beneficially recast and heavily rewritten. Half the score is new, including, crucially, the opening number. Formerly a tongue-in-cheek warning called “Watch Out for the Suffragette,” it is now a catchy welcome called “Let Mother Vote,” introducing Catt (Jenn Colella) and her nonconfrontational strategy. Men, she believes, and especially President Woodrow Wilson (Grace McLean), will only respond to a feminine touch.

“We reared you, cheered you, helped you when you fell,” goes one verse. “With your blessing, we could help America as well.” This is accompanied, in Mayte Natalio’s clever choreography, by a checkmark gesture that becomes the movement’s meme.

Taub and the director Leigh Silverman have also made smart decisions about which stories to forefront, which to background and which to drop. Because Taub is native to musical theater — her Public Works shows for Shakespeare in the Park have been summer highlights — she uplifts enjoyable melody with structural craftiness, using song form to achieve narrative compression.

In this way a whole subplot can be encompassed in a reprise. The flirtation between the suffragist Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi) and Wilson’s chief of staff, Dudley Malone (Tsilala Brock), is set to a charming first-act bounce called “If We Were Married.” In the second act, the meaning of the song expands, as the duet becomes a quartet when joined by Catt and her longtime companion, Mollie Hay (Jaygee Macapugay). For them, “if” holds no hope.

That Malone is played by a woman — there are no men in the cast or the orchestra — is perhaps no more problematic than the fact that, for plot purposes, the character has been promoted from Third Assistant Secretary of State, Malone’s actual position. But as the historical and stylistic liberties mount, something strange starts to happen to the tone. I noticed it first in the satirical treatment of the men, especially Wilson, presented here as a cartoon fop, too silly to take seriously. Diminishing him as an adversary, though, diminishes the achievement of the suffragists.

“Suffs” compensates by revving its boosters, soaring well past drama into pageantry and beyond. By the end, it feels like a rally, complete with mottos and banners — which, depending on what you want from a musical, isn’t necessarily a criticism. Certainly it explains why the show has attracted the support of notable feminists like Malala Yousafzai and Hillary Clinton, who rightly see it as an opportunity to buoy the politically discouraged. “Progress is possible, not guaranteed,” sings Paul, in a pithy, Obama-esque formulation.

I’m on board for that. And there are some fine performances: Colella as Catt, Nikki M. James as Wells, Ally Bonino as the resourceful Lucy Burns, and the ever-enjoyable Emily Skinner blowing in as a moneybags. Silverman’s staging, except for the anemic protest scenes, is exemplary.

But considered narrowly as drama, “Suffs” feels insufficient. Its scenes often come off as educational skits — an effect accentuated, at times, by their resemblance to handsome dioramas, with the women lined up in silhouette. (The sets are by Riccardo Hernández; the sharply profiled costumes by Paul Tazewell.) And Taub, especially in writing her own role, has prioritized intelligence over expressiveness, making Paul seem not just driven but robotic. She frequently says canned things like “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” a paraphrase of the Declaration of Independence.

Well, sure. We want intelligence in our leaders. Whatever was or wasn’t happening in Paul’s inner life, our world is better for her commitment to the outer one. It’s “Suffs” that suffers. Stiff polemics just aren’t as compelling as a rollicking number like “G.A.B.,” in which four of the women (including Hannah Cruz as the lawyer Inez Milholland) define themselves as varieties of that glorious change-maker, the “Great American Bitch.”

The Greeks are useful here, having made sure to embody injustice in emotion, and even song, not just instruction. Their theater depicted the way policy and character were inseparably bonded. As such, “Suffs” is already good, in both senses — a good show and good for the world. I even shed a few political tears. But to be great, a musical (like a great movement) must grab you by the throat. “Suffs” too often settles for holding up signs.

At the Music Box Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

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