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.

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