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Hillary Clinton, Malala Yousafzai on producing Broadway musical “Suffs”


In school, did you learn anything about the women’s suffrage movement, other than maybe that it wasn’t until 1920 that a Constitutional amendment gave women throughout the United States the right to vote? No? Well, there’s a Broadway show for that.

“Suffs,” short for suffragists (don’t call them suffragettes, it’s considered sexist), is now in previews.

“I knew hardly anything about the suffragists,” said Shaina Taub, the show’s star and writer. “I think I knew basic information about Susan B. Anthony. I heard of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and vaguely knew there was a women’s rights convention in the 19th century that kind of kicked it off. And that was it.”

Suffragists Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella) and Alice Paul (Shaina Taub) in a scene from the Broadway musical “Suffs.” 

CBS News

The musical picks up the story in 1913, the year thousands of suffragists staged the first-ever big political march on Washington, many wearing white, led by a woman on a white horse.

The march was organized by Alice Paul. “Suffs” spotlights the cause, warts and all, including the rivalry between Paul (played by Taub) and Carrie Chapman Catt (played by Jenn Colella), equally dedicated titans of the movement, but from different generations employing very different tactics. “This is not ancient history,” said Taub. “We can reach back and touch the suffs. Alice Paul lived until 1977.

“These rights were not inevitable; every generation has to fight to protect these rights and freedoms again and again and again,” Taub said.

Lucy Burns was jailed, tortured and force-fed – imprisoned longer than any other suffragist. Ally Bonino said of playing Burns, “It’s the sundae on top of the dream sundae.”     

As ambassadors for the show’s message, Nobel Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai (who was shot in the head after advocating for girls’ education in Pakistan) and Hillary Clinton (who came so close to being elected the first woman President of the United States) were named producers.

“It was so powerful to me,” Yousafzai said during a rehearsal. “All these incredible characters, and [to] see all the complexity behind all that struggle.”

Two of the producers of “Suffs”: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. 

CBS News

Their presence was like extra juice for actors already stoked to be in a show that’s more than the sum of the parts they play.

Colella (whose character, Carrie Chapman Catt, went on to found the League of Women Voters), said, “I’m a new mother. I’m doing this now so that her voice can be more easily amplified when she’s able to speak.”

Nikki James is the crusading Black journalist, Ida B. Wells. “It reminds us that what we’re doing is bigger than just us, than just play, than just storytelling,” James said.

“Suffs” doesn’t shy away from the fact that the women’s suffrage movement discriminated against Black women. 

Journalist Ida B. Wells (Nikki James, second from left), in a scene from “Suffs.” 

CBS News

What looked like a genuine sisterhood developed over a month of “Suffs” rehearsals. Practically everybody involved in the show is female. 

Teichner asked Yousafzai, “For you to lend your name and your reputation, it has to be pretty meaningful. What is the major reason why you said yes to ‘Suffs’?”

“It carries a very strong message for women and girls that the fight may not be over yet,” Yousafzai replied. “Of course, I talk about serious things. But I also believe that sometimes it’s not a speech, sometimes it’s not a protest that can make it all happen. When I think about a musical, for me, it’s a tool, it’s a platform where you are spreading that message, but at the same time, people are enjoying it.”

By the time the cast and orchestra were rehearsing together, they all seemed to be having a rollicking good time. Clinton herself was fired up: “I’m going to go out marching to do something!” she exclaimed. “I cannot tell you, it’s such a joy. It’s going to change history.”

A rehearsal for the Broadway musical “Suffs.” 

CBS News

When asked why she was interested in producing a Broadway show, Clinton said, “Last summer I got a letter from Shaina asking me if I would be willing to be a producer. And you know, I had never done anything like that before. I’m a huge fan of the theater. But I said, ‘Sure. I’ll try, if I can be helpful.’

“We’re in the middle of an election year, and I think any conversation about getting people to vote, how it took so long for women to get the right to vote, how you should not throw away [or] ignore the power of your vote, I think all of that is good,” Clinton said. “This is so meaningful, and truly historic, because women’s history doesn’t get told in a way that’s accessible and so exciting and true.”

Teichner said, “But it’s more than that with you. It is your life.”

“It is my life!” Clinton said. “Keep fighting, keep marching, keep trying. You know, what’s that great line in one of the songs: Progress is possible, but not guaranteed. That’s how I feel about the whole life that I’ve led, the progress that I’ve seen.”

On the first night of previews, women showed up wearing suffragist white, and put on the sashes they found on their seats. Maybe, that might just keep happening.

Audience members at “Suffs.” 

CBS News

For more info:

Story produced by Sara Kugel. Editor: Lauren Barnello. 

See also: 

Votes for women: How the suffragists won


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