On Broadway, 'Suffs' has a new tune (and 6 Tony nominations)
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On Broadway, 'Suffs' has a new tune (and 6 Tony nominations)
From left: Ally Bonino, Nadia Dandashi, Kim Blanck and Shaina Taub (the show’s creator) perform a scene in the musical “Suffs” at Broadway’s Music Box Theater in New York, March 25, 2024. When the show staggered to its Public Theater premiere in 2022, few people would have bet on its ending up with generally positive reviews and six Tony Awards nominations. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Elisabeth Vincentelli

NEW YORK, NY.- Two ambitious overhauls are on Broadway right now: the Palace Theater and the musical “Suffs.”

When “Suffs,” a show about the suffragists’ crusade for the right to vote, staggered to its Public Theater premiere in April 2022, few people would have bet that it had much of a future. Yet here we are with “Suffs” on Broadway, where it received generally positive reviews and six Tony Awards nominations, two for Shaina Taub’s score and book.

What happened? Director Leigh Silverman (who also received a Tony nomination) recalls struggling with supply-chain issues and having to cancel 18 performances, including opening night. “No theater maker, no artist of any kind I think anywhere was able to do their best work in any circumstance coming out of COVID,” she said.

Silverman and Taub (who also portrays suffragist Alice Paul) said they immediately began tinkering. “We were working on it before it was even closed,” Silverman said in a joint interview in Taub’s dressing room at the Music Box Theater. Taub, laughing, added: “Sometimes people are like, ‘Oh, you went back to the drawing board.’ But we never left the drawing board.”

The original score has been whittled down from 38 songs to 34. But numbers are a poor indicator of the extensive renovation that took place in the past two years (some songs have the same title but different lyrics, for example). Here are five ways “Suffs” changed on its journey to Broadway.

More Book

“The biggest substantive formal change has been book,” Taub said. While the show’s earlier version was essentially sung-through, the story was so dense with historical material that she realized she needed spoken scenes to “tee up” the songs, as she put it. Taub revisited some of her favorite book musicals, like “Ragtime” and “Into the Woods,” to study how they handled those passages. One of the most apparent changes in “Suffs” is the number “The Young Are at the Gates.” Taub described the first version, which previously closed Act I, as “a 12-minute sung-through odyssey”; now it opens Act II and incorporates brief book scenes. “I felt free, finally, of the confines of having to musicalize everything,” said Taub, who called book writers “the unsung heroes of the American musical.”

Less History

“One of my guiding principles was stepping away from the research,” Taub said of the rewriting process. “I had to reckon with myself that I had fallen so in love with that history, and I became so passionate about having others fall in love with the history, that I was including too much of it.” Instead, she set out to better delineate the characters’ inner lives, emotions and personal struggles. “I had to finally give myself permission to truly invent,” she said.

A Brand-New Start

The off-Broadway version opened with the vaudevillian “Watch Out for the Suffragette!,” inspired by actual anti-suffragist songs of the time. Taub wanted “to subvert the expectation of this being a dry, dusty, eat-your-vegetables type show, and surprise people with comedy and satire.” Alas, the number tanked. “We realized that, by and large, audiences don’t know anything about the suffrage movement, so I was trying to subvert an expectation that wasn’t there,” Taub said. The new opener, “Let Mother Vote,” sets up the context and what the characters are fighting for (and against). The switcheroo also reflects Taub’s efforts to reduce the fourth-wall-breaking touches that burdened the earlier version.

The Gift of ‘G.A.B.’

A catchy new song for Broadway is “G.A.B.,” which stands for “great American bitch.” Taub wanted a lighthearted bonding moment for the suffragists, and she reexamined a sung dialogue sequence from the Public production called “After the March,” in which the elated women discuss the effect of their action in Washington. “I wanted something where they were reclaiming something,” she said. “Then that hook popped into my head: What if she gets called a big great American bitch? I was like, ‘We need to have fun with these women and get to know them as people.’ A big point of my rewrite was to help you be like, ‘Oh, they are like me and my friends.’”

New Theater, New Set

As for the staging, Silverman pointed to the challenge of going back-and-forth between intimate and anthemic, or between a small room and a march in the streets. “I needed a delivery system, scenically, that would allow me to do that fluidly, beautifully, hopefully surprisingly,” she said. Mimi Lien’s set at the Public was dominated by oversize stairs. Riccardo Hernández, new to the Broadway production, opted for a more minimalist approach. (Silverman stressed that the changes in the creative team had to do with the vagaries of theater scheduling — two years elapsed between productions, after all.)

The Music Box itself plays a major role in the overall visuals, with Corinthian columns similar to the ones dotting Capitol Hill. “We saw those columns, the same as what is in Washington,” Silverman said. “You would walk in, and you would be like, ‘This show has always been here and should always be here.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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