Suffs, the new musical at the Public Theater, may be the first clear descendant of Hamilton. Like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit, the show is a lesson in American history, dense with exposition, mostly sung-through, and the product of a single creative mind. Like Miranda, singer-composer Shaina Taub has written the book, music, and lyrics — and also stars as Alice Paul, a key activist in the women’s suffrage movement that won passage of the 19thAmendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote.
The show stirred up a lot of advance buzz, and its two-month off-Broadway run was reportedly sold out even before it opened. But most of the critics were disappointed, and I made my way downtown without high expectations.
Yet I found much to like in Suffs. For one thing, we learn a lot. Alice Paul, a firebrand who joined the suffragist cause in 1913, challenges the more cautious, incremental approach of the movement’s leader, Carrie Chapman Catt — forming a breakaway women’s organization, planning protest marches, and recruiting other activists, like the radical socialite Inez Milholland (Hamilton’s Phillipa Soo), who leads a march in Washington riding a white horse. The show is illuminating on the internal divisions over strategy and tactics — like how prominently to feature Black women in the protests, at the risk of antagonizing Southern supporters of the cause.
On a minimalist set of what looks like the Capitol steps, the show springs to life immediately, with its all-female cast dressed as men, doing a tongue-in-cheek vaudeville-style opening number, “Watch Out for the Suffragettes.” The rest of the score settles into a more sober, inspirational register, with anthem-like refrains (“find a way,” “never been done.” “how long?”) that become a little repetitive. But there’s enough variety to keep things lively — like the clever, satirical “When We Are Married,” a biting love song about all the rights a woman loses after wedded not-so-bliss. Even at a lengthy 2 hours and 45 minutes, the show’s energy never flags.
Still, Suffs doesn’t quite make it as a fully engaging show. But not, as many of the critics have suggested, because it’s an overcrowded history lesson. The problem, in my view, is not too much history, but too little.
By focusing so much on the movement’s internal squabbles (especially the racial tensions), the show neglects the larger picture: namely, how did Paul’s tactics succeed in convincing a stubborn nation to grant women the vote? Suffs never really engages or helps us understand the opposition. The show’s one villain (its George III) is President Woodrow Wilson — but he’s too much of a cartoonish dandy to take seriously. What were the political calculations behind opposition to the suffrage movement? And what overcame those objections and turned the tide? Even the final campaign to get three-fourths of the states to ratify the 19thAmendment sails by without much explanation or drama — just one hokey scene in which a Tennessee legislator casts the deciding yes vote after getting a letter from his mother.
Indeed, Suffs (hate that title) could learn something from another Broadway historical show — the more stylized, presentational approach of The Lehman Trilogy. I usually don’t like actors talking directly to the audience, but this is one show that cries out for a little narrative help. Paul herself would be a natural to break the fourth wall and frame the story — both to introduce herself (she was a suffrage activist in Britain before joining the U.S. cause, a detail the show oddly leaves out) and to tell us what happened afterwards (she lived another 50 years!), instead of the clumsy 15-minute coda that now ends the show.
I don’t mean to cast myself as a show doctor. But I’m actually rooting for Suffs, and I think a little activism on the dramaturgical front could help give it a second chance — on Broadway.