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Suffs- Blazing a Trail on Broadway



Image courtesy of Jenny Anderson.


CRISTINA MACAYA, HOST:


A new Broadway show called “Suffs” opens next week. The musical-  written by Shaina Taub and supported by producers Hillary Clinton and Malala Yousafzai-  tells the story of how American women got the vote. It was supposed to debut in 2020 for the 100th anniversary of American women’s suffrage. Like many productions… it got delayed due to the pandemic. As our reporter Marine Saint finds, that delay means the show’s focus on women’s rights is timelier than ever.


MARINE SAINT, BYLINE:


At the beginning of Suffs we are transported to a meeting of suffragists in 1913. They’re planning to march on Washington and disrupt President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration

[Intro music] We hear activist Ida B Wells, played by Tony award winning actress Nikki M James.


[Song lyrics: We demand to be seen, we demand to be heard]


SAINT: The musical itself has been in the works for some time. Since producer Rachel Sussman was in middle school working on a project on the women’s movement. She learned that it spanned three generations from the mid 19th century to 1920. But not much else.


RACHEL SUSSMAN:


There had been about two paragraphs in my textbook on the American women's suffrage movement. And I thought there's got to be more to it than that. I was so enamored and also frustrated because why were these stories of extraordinary women being kept from me and other young people, why aren't they taught to us? 


SAINT: 8 years ago, Sussman joined forces with the show’s creator Shaina Taub, who also stars as the leading lady and activist Alice Paul. Taub and Sussman decided to put the lessons of women’s rights on stage. Including one in the show’s title.


SAINT: So what does SUFFS mean?  

SUSSMAN: So SUFFS is the shorthand for suffragists. It's what they call themselves.


SAINT: Jill Furman is the show’s other principal producer. 


JILL FURMAN:


You are going to learn about history that you didn't know. And I went to an all girls school in New York, I never learned about these women.


SAINT: But this season on Broadway is crowded with 18 new shows. So how do you persuade people to buy tickets for a history lesson? Luckily Furman is a Broadway veteran with hits like Hamilton and In the Heights on her resume.


FURMAN: Everyone likes to keep reminding us that it's the most crowded season in 30 years


SAINT: Furman says because it takes so long to produce a show she has to be very selective. She hopes the powerful ballads will get audiences of all ages reacting. As a viewer it’s impossible not to notice another aspect of the production. The all female, diverse cast. And it’s dramatic. Fellow producer Sussman again.


SUSSMAN:  Trying to show it as a perfect movement led by these warrior women would not be accurate, right? It also wouldn't be human. They made mistakes and we, now, a hundred years later, can learn from them. 


SAINT: The real-life Suffs were far from inclusive and were made up mostly of white women. In some cases, they prevented Black women from joining their marches. 

That’s part of the conflict historian Elaine Weiss writes about. As well as other challenges that all women faced at the time. 


ELAINE WEISS:


You see these women who had no power, they had no representation.

 

SAINT: Thanks to the Suffragists, women finally got the vote in 1920, but their rights are still often challenged today. And that’s why the producers think their show is urgent.


WEISS: Today, we also face a very troubling erosion of women's rights and women's agency and women's bodily autonomy.


SAINT: Weiss is referring to the Supreme Court, which overturned Roe vs Wade nearly two years ago, and the lack of women in positions of political power. 


WEISS: We see that today. Even women who are entering politics are judged in a different way.


SAINT:  But this is Broadway. And creator Rachel Sussman says the show at least ends on a high, with a new finale “Keep Marching”. This song recounts when hundreds of thousands of women marched on Washington.


["Keep Marching" finale music]


SAINT: The creators hope their finale will march them all the way to a win in this year’s Tony awards. Marine Saint, Columbia Radio News



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