With Clinton as a Producer, ‘Suffs’ Takes a Political Battle to Broadway


Shaina Taub was ready to watch Hillary Clinton win in November 2016. She had been at Harvard, doing research for an ambitious musical about the women’s suffrage movement, and was swept up in what felt like the inevitable: a woman elected president of the United States. Taub had traveled to New York City from Cambridge for election night, eager to cheer on Clinton, whom she had phone banked for.

But Clinton lost, and Taub was utterly deflated. Returning to Cambridge to work on a show about triumphant women was the last thing she wanted to do. Yet, it was Clinton who reignited that fire in Taub with a concession speech in which she implored “all the little girls” to never doubt that they are “deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve” their dreams.

Now, after years of development and an Off Broadway run at the Public Theater in 2022, “Suffs” is scheduled to open on April 18 at the Music Box Theater on Broadway, with Clinton making her debut as a producer. (The team backing the show also includes Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner.)

“Many of the themes resonate with me personally,” Clinton said in a phone interview, “given my own life and career, including the tension between the so-called establishment and activist voices.”

“I’ve been on both sides of that debate,” she continued. “And the larger lesson that’s in the score — that ‘progress is possible, but not guaranteed,’ and ‘the future demands that we fight for it now’ — I resonate so strongly with that.”

In addition to Clinton and Taub, some of the “Suffs” cast and creative team recalled their first time voting, and shared their thoughts about what suffrage means to them.

Role: Producer

First election year: 1968

Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey were on the ballot when Clinton voted for the first time. She had entered college as a Republican, like her father, but her views were shifting.

Listening to Nixon’s nomination acceptance speech at the 1968 Republican National Convention, she recalled recently, “I wasn’t sure that I really agreed” with what the party’s leadership was “saying and doing,” especially after such a turbulent year in which Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated and protests over the Vietnam War swept the country. Clinton ultimately voted for Humphrey, the Democratic nominee, mailing in her ballot from Wellesley College to her hometown, Park Ridge, Ill.

As “Suffs” arrives on Broadway during another presidential election year, Clinton said: “There is no guarantee in a democracy. Every generation, every election, every voter has to keep replenishing the values and ideals and energy and purpose of democracy.”

“When you see what the women portrayed in ‘Suffs’ went through to earn the right to vote,” she added, “their agitation, their protests, their marching, their picketing, going to prison, being on hunger strikes, playing the inside and the outside political game to make the case to get President [Woodrow] Wilson finally to endorse it, to get Congress to pass it, to get it ratified in the states — when you think about that process, it should make anybody feel very privileged to be able to vote.”

Role: Writer and composer, who is also portraying Alice Paul

First election year: 2008

When Taub first voted, in the presidential election of 2008, she felt adulthood begin. She was a senior at New York University, and said that voting for Barack Obama made her feel as if the world was at her fingertips.

“My right to vote — and really all the rights and freedoms I enjoy as a woman in America, all the independence, all the autonomy that I have — was never inevitable,” she said. “It was not handed to me. It was not expected. It had to be earned. It had to be fought for.”

The morning after Obama won, Taub walked into a class in the theater department, and one of the professors was at the piano playing Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” an anthem of the civil rights movement. “It’s one of my favorite New York memories,” Taub said. “It felt like the entire city was celebrating.”

Taub added that she wanted “Suffs” to be a “reminder to people that in way harder times, we’ve been able to save and preserve our democracy, and that seeing this story from over a century ago can give us hope and energy to carry forward.”

Role: Choreographer

First election year: 2004

Mayte Natalio’s parents are Dominican immigrants who take their U.S. citizenship and right to vote very seriously. Growing up in Queens, she said, “My mom would come back from work, drop her bag, and be like, ‘We got to go vote!’”

A choreographer who is new to the production, Natalio said she can sometimes be cynical about the state of political affairs, but her mother’s passion is infectious. Trying to balance the two positions, Natalio then summarized her feelings by quoting James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

As she prepares for the opening, she said she has been thinking a lot about forward movement, and not just in her notes to the cast. “‘Suffs’ has reminded me that it was worse, and it can get worse if you get lax,” Natalio said. “We can go backward if you’re not keeping the fire.”

Role: Ida B. Wells

First election year: 2000

Nikki M. James, who plays the Black investigative journalist Ida B. Wells in “Suffs,” was performing in Canada when she cast an absentee ballot in the 2008 presidential election.

She watched the election results in a bar with fellow cast members as Obama became the first Black man elected president of the United States. “I stood watching Barack and Michelle and their two daughters” in Grant Park in Chicago, “with all these Canadians and a handful of Americans,” James recalled. “And it was really the first time I felt my Americanness and how hard it was for me to not be on my own soil on this big, monumental election.”

She continued: “The way that the negativity and the pain that came with the Trump election has galvanized some people, I think, missing the 2008 election really had a way of being like, ‘Oh, my Americanness is important to me. Voting is important to me. I want to be a part of the history of my nation.’”

Years later, when James was pregnant with her daughter and voted in the 2022 primaries, she put a “future voter” sticker on her belly.

Role: Ensemble member

First election year: 2012

Jenna Bainbridge grew up — and cast her first ballot — in Colorado, where voting is now conducted almost exclusively by mail. (The state sends ballots to every registered voter.) So for Bainbridge’s first time voting, she dropped her ballot into a mailbox, and then had a sip of champagne.

She voted in person for the first time two years ago, in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Bainbridge’s polling place is the same school that her nieces attend, five minutes from her house. But when she got to the school, the “accessible voting this way” signs pointed to a staircase — and she’s a wheelchair user. So she had to vote on a table out in the open, where everyone could see. She told multiple people about the issue, but worries it won’t be fixed by November.

“Historically, voting is very difficult to people with disabilities,” Bainbridge said. “People with disabilities are often fully prevented from voting, prevented from being onstage, prevented from getting jobs, prevented from having marriage equality.

“There are so many barriers in the world, and I think about being onstage and having other disabled people see me onstage,” she added, “it opens up the perspectives of what’s possible.”

Role: President Woodrow Wilson

First election year: 2002

In Costa Mesa, Calif., Grace McLean’s first polling place was inside someone’s garage. Voting felt “small-town communal” and she’s sure she dressed up; she probably wore her church clothes.

The actress has been a part of “Suffs” for about seven years now. Both the musical and the pandemic piqued her interest in voting and advocacy. During the pandemic, she worked with other theater workers on Amplifying Activists Together — a weekly phone-banking event — to call local representatives about issues like raising money for housing and health care, something she had never done before.

For McLean, the show feels like a corrective, one way to give the women’s suffrage movement a bigger platform. “What we get usually is a little bit of a footnote, like, ‘Woodrow Wilson was a president. During his term, women got the right to vote. Yay,’” said McLean, who hams it playing President Wilson in the show.

“History can feel like an inevitability” if we don’t recognize “that it takes so much effort.”

Role: Inez Milholland

First election year: 2010

Hannah Cruz, who plays the labor lawyer Inez Milholland, registered to vote as part of one of her favorite classes, government. Her first election, in 2010, was a local one in Connecticut.

Cruz, who joined “Suffs” in 2021, originally played the Polish American suffragist Ruza Wenclawska, who took part in protests outside the White House seeking Woodrow Wilson’s support for women’s suffrage. She was among the women who were arrested and sent to the Occoquan Workhouse, where they were abused.

“I’ve spoken to and seen so many women who seem so moved by this,” Cruz said of the show. “And so many people who are so shocked by the story, who didn’t know about it. And I think that’s one pillar of what art should do, is teach us about parts of our history and ourselves that we don’t know.”

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