I don’t remember more than a few suggestions on the women’s electoral movement in my textbooks on elementary school history. The nearly 100-year history of women fighting for the right to vote often boils down to two main points – Susan B. Anthony and the 19th Amendment – and some have dismissed the suffragettes as self-righteous thugs.
In an effort to counter these notions of these revolutionary women and their struggles, the new musical “Suffs” begins with the satirical vaudeville “Beware of Suffragettes!”, Which sings an ensemble of women and non-binary actors. (The show was scheduled to open Wednesday at the Public Theater, but was canceled due to positive coronavirus tests.) Dressed in drags – even mustaches – they caricature their male detractors. A tedious history lesson awaits us, these hypothetical skeptics predict in the song; the terrible feminist “plans to scold you for three hours in a row”.
My first thought: God, I hope not.
After all, “Suffs” has a long duration – two hours and 45 minutes, and although the musical is not guilty of swearing, it is guilty of suffocating the impressive – albeit exhausting – US history through its modern lens.
Shine Taub, a public theater playwright and creator of the musical, plays Alice Paul, a wayward young suffragette who gathers a group of women who lead protests, suffer abuse and imprisonment, and march on Washington for access to the ballot. box.
Taub is excellent in the role of Paul, although her standby (Holly Gould) took the role, as Taub gave a positive result on the coronavirus just before the planned opening of the production.
In the metaphorical barracks, Paul is joined by Lucy Burns (played by the inconspicuous Eli Banina), her friend and suffragette, who helped Paul create the National Women’s Party. There are also Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi, who is full of seriousness), a diligent young student and writer from Ohio, and Ruza Wenceslauska (attractive Hannah Cruz), a tough Polish-American factory and union organizer. Ines Milhaland (Philippa Soo), a labor lawyer and a posh secular lioness, is their public face; as Inez, Soo, Hamilton’s favorite chief, brings sugar, impudence and style to the band, marching with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
During the seven years covered in the musical, from 1913 to 1920, when the 19th Amendment was finally ratified, Paul struggled with his sisters. She has a long-running dispute with Carrie Chapman Kat (Jen Wheel), who, as head of the National American Association of Suffragettes, finds Paul’s moves too radical. And then there’s journalist and suffragette Ida B. Wells (Nicki M. James), who tries unsuccessfully to bring the race into motion by challenging Paul’s short-sighted vision of change.
But her real opponent is President Woodrow Wilson (Grace McLean), who arranges the stage by jumping up a ladder with a top hat and cane, chanting misogynistic lyrics such as “Men Make Money / Ladies Make Bread / Men Make Rules / Ladies Make Bed” . McLean’s lively performance introduces some of the few moments of ease in the musical; otherwise total stiffness penetrates the production.
Perhaps because the whole production feels so attuned to today’s gender policies and protests, it is so aware of the possible criticism that it treats its theme with excessive caution. So, in just 20 minutes, the show “Suffs” makes it clear that it doesn’t put Paul as the perfect warrior-holy movement. When Paul refuses Wales, she responds with the song “Wait My Turn” (“Don’t you realize you’re not free until I’m free. / Or do you refuse to see?”), Establishing her role as the musical’s racial conscience, which is a time from time pops up as a reminder of the pitfalls of white feminism. And all these women and stories of their activities are uncomfortably crammed into the show, too scared to miss anything that is filled with information.
In many ways, “Suffs” is a clumsy successor to another great historical musical of the Hamilton public, borrowing some of its approaches to structure, trying to avoid criticism of its policies toward women and slavery. But it’s a risk that comes with revising history in light of today’s feelings. Even this feminist tale occasionally serves as a replica of those funky founding fathers who met in the “room where it happens”; our suffragettes sing that no woman witnessed the signing of the 19th Amendment because “a man signed a paper behind closed doors in a room somewhere.”
But the musical doesn’t need to try so hard to defend itself or prove its relevance, say, by showing the threats and bullying of men that are inserted into songs like “March”. Nor should one return to value, as, for example, when the mother of a Tennessee senator, the “widow of an old farmer,” sings a bungee song, begging her son to vote for suffrage, promising in return his favorite meatloaf. Or a combination of stroking some couples in the end and the tough finale of “Never Over” about a continuous march to progress.
Lee Silverman’s direction is as methodical as the text; the tempo is fast, and the songs are dense with an exposition like Hamilton’s. But “Suffs” turns out to be just work and mostly not a game, and when it comes to the music itself, nothing really pops up. There are a few dry notes of vaudeville, pop music and sweet songs such as “If We Were Married”, a number that feels like a modern hit performed by Fred Aster and Ginger Rogers ’1937“ Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off ”. It’s a parody of such cute courtship numbers, but it provides just that.
Music is most interesting when it resets the exposure and allows the characters to express their hopes, disappointments and desires. Kalela interrupts her performance in one such song, prickly “This Girl”. Kalela squeezes his words and sharpens his gestures, hitting the notes with a boxer’s blow in the ring. Harmonies, as well as in the ensemble number “How long”, which goes from a tone of despair to a tone of stability, also give music a much-needed dimension.
The usually transgressive style of choreographer Raja Phaser Kelly (exhibited in shows such as “A Strange Loop” and “Fairview”) feels destitute, chained to his very literal interpretation of the material; there is a lot of marching and posing, syncopated step. Mimi Lien brings a similar austerity to her set design – perhaps the majestic steps and columns of Congress, or some institutional building – but simplicity works here, allowing the Suffs to focus on its diverse lineup of storytellers. In costume design, Tony-Leslie James finds a satisfying balance between formal skirts with a high waist and black lace-up boots, and wide-brimmed hats have enough ribbons and feathers to make southern churchgoers faint.
“Suffs” ends with the passing of the torch from one generation of change-makers to the next, reconsidering the recent clash between new politics and old politics: what was once revolutionary is becoming obsolete. Despite all the work the show is doing to highlight the successes – and failures – of the women’s rights movement, as well as the ever-evolving nature of our policies, it focuses as much energy as possible to look as timely as possible. But, as the Suf learns, the movements are transformed; our leaders are changing, as are the demands of the people on the picket line. This is a lesson that the musical must take to heart: you can not live in the past, present and future of our country’s politics at the same time – at least without getting lost.
Until May 15 at the Manhattan Public Theater; publictheater.org. Duration: 2 hours 45 minutes.