How Suffs on Broadway Built Its Team of Powerful Women | Playbill

Special Features How Suffs on Broadway Built Its Team of Powerful Women

Creator and star Shaina Taub and director Leigh Silverman on why leadership behind-the-scenes is just as important as who's on the stage.

Leigh Silverman and Shaina Taub Heather Gershonowitz

In 2016, Shaina Taub found herself at a crossroads. On one hand, she was living the dream. She was a working actor busy on some big projects: the original Off-Broadway casts of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and Hadestown. On the other hand, Taub was also blossoming as a composer, having been commissioned to write a musical adaptation of Twelfth Night for the Public Theater. She had a choice to make: Should she continue on as an actor in those very ambitious, potential-filled projects and probably go to Broadway that way? Or should she focus on composing?

“Even though my dreams were coming true as a performer. I was like, ‘If I don't really go down this other road of taking my writing seriously, it's gonna close,’” she recalls feeling. Even though she admitted she didn’t feel entirely “confident or good” about it, she chose to pursue composing. And now, Taub is about to take the Broadway stage, starring in a show she wrote the book, music, and lyrics for: Suffs, which begins performances March 26 and opens April 18 at the Music Box Theatre. “To now, eight years later, make my Broadway debut on my own terms—it's so worth it to have taken that bet on myself,” Taub says proudly.

That bet has yielded high rewards. Taub is also the lyricist for the highly anticipated musical adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada (based on the book and the Meryl Streep-led film). The musical, which is composed by Elton John and stars Vanessa Williams, will begin its West End run this October. In fact, in the last year, Taub had been writing new songs for Suffs and Prada simultaneously. “It's wild how these projects, they're just a slice of your life," muses Taub. "Like, [Suffs] will be the show that I wrote from 25 to 35. And it's not the same show I would have written if this project had come into my life from 45 to 55."

Suffs, fittingly, is starting its Broadway run during Women’s History Month. The musical takes its name from the suffragists who tirelessly advocated for women’s right to vote, when the patriarchy was determined to keep them voiceless and powerless. It has Taub and Tony-nominated director Leigh Silverman at the helm, as well as an entirely female and non-binary cast—among them Tony winner Nikki M. James, Jenn Colella, Emily Skinner, and Grace McLean as President Woodrow Wilson. Taub leads the ensemble cast as real-life suffragist Alice Paul.

Shaina Taub Heather Gershonowitz

“I think it's an incredible story, told with amazing music, about a group of women who were fighting passionately for what they believed in,” says Silverman. “Fundamentally, it's a show about people who are trying to create change and have nothing but obstacles in front of them. And that feels inherently dramatic, inherently exciting.”

Key members of the creative team are women as well, such as choreographer Mayte Natalio and music director Andrea Grody. Plus the show is lead produced by women: Tony-winning producer Jill Furman, Rachel Sussman, Hillary Clinton, and Malala Yousafzai—the latter two making their Broadway producing debuts. Talk about a powerful group of women.

That was intentional, says Silverman. “For actors to walk into that [rehearsal] space and say, over and over again to us, ‘This is awesome. This is cool. I've never had this.’ Those are the kinds of rooms that I want to create and lead and be part of and inspired by.”

Indeed, how Clinton and Yousafzai got on the Suffs producing team was due to Taub’s persuasive words. The former Secretary of State and the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate had both seen the musical Off-Broadway at the Public Theater and had met with the cast afterwards. Taub had actually phone-banked for Clinton during the 2016 election. And Clinton’s line in her 2016 presidential concession speech where she said, “Every woman and girl out there, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful,” helped Taub find motivation to finish writing Suffs.

“I wrote her this letter and I told her about how she was such a root of inspiration for the show and how important it would be if she would join us,” says Taub. Then lo and behold, Clinton responded to Taub’s letter right away and now the former First Lady is a producer on Suffs. Likewise, Yousafzai was also compelled to join the producing team due to Taub sending her a heartfelt letter. Says Taub, “I still can't get over that they were willing to come on-board and we feel very honored. Since the show is about that generational relationship [among feminists], to have Secretary Clinton's generation and Malala's generation—that combination feels really right.”

Notes Silverman about her collaborator: “One of the things that I love about working with Shaina is that she cares as much about the leadership inside of the room as the product that's outside.”

Taub and Silverman have been working on the show for close to a decade, both driven by a passion for combining entertainment with advocacy. Taub’s album, Songs on the Great Hill was released in 2022, and was driven by her feelings during the COVID-19 pandemic, with lyrics such as: “We ruined the air/With all our gassy cars/But the billionaires are safe on Mars.”

Meanwhile, Silverman has made advancing women and marginalized voices a key part of her career, having directed Jeanine Tesori’s Violet and Lisa Kron’s Well on Broadway. She will direct David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face on Broadway, about the Miss Saigon casting controversy, in the fall. This duo wears their artistic mission statement very much on their sleeve.

“Our friendship has been such a treasured part of this,” Taub says, looking at Silverman, who nods in agreement. “I think we're aligned in the kind of work we want to make…bold, unapologetic, feminist, funny, crazy….”

Then the two of them, simultaneously, say, “Rigorous.” Smiling, Taub adds, “We both, like, get off on rigor.” The two of them chuckle at the shared understanding.

Leigh Silverman Heather Gershonowitz

Suffs had a highly publicized run Off-Broadway in 2022 at the Public Theater. Though the run was entirely sold out and extended three times, the critical reception was mixed. Taub took those notes to heart. In the almost two years since the Public run, Taub and Silverman have had two more workshops of the material. Taub has cut songs from the Off-Broadway run, and written new songs. She’s still re-writing and refining, even in rehearsal. The revisions have been led by two key creative principles: “Put the history books away” and “sit at the piano more than…the computer.” In short, spend more time on character and heart.

“I could get lost in [research],” admits Taub. “And having this amazing chance over this last year to work towards the Broadway production, I was like, what if I just leave that over there, and finally, fully, really allow myself to let it come from me.”

That includes letting the characters breathe instead of always being vessels of information for the audience. For instance, Taub has written a new character song for her leads, which has been released to the public, called “Great American Bitch.” Each woman in the core group of suffragists are allowed to make jokes, let loose, and showcase their distinct personalities. Suffs has even released merch that has that title cheekily emblazoned on it.

And due to scheduling conflicts, the creative team on Broadway is also almost entirely new to the show. To Silverman, this has been an opportunity to reimagine Suffs. "There's a real combination of factors that led to the changes," Silverman remarks. "It feels simultaneously like a brand new show, and closer to the heart of the show...There's a lot about the experience of starting over that is quite cathartic for everybody."

Taub does admit that a big question since the previous production has been how to tie together the many themes of the piece. History is not tidy: the suffragists won white women the right to vote, but they explicitly excluded Black women from that fight and that victory. That push-and-pull of trying to tell a satisfying story while giving equal time to the many diverse faces involved in the first wave feminist movement and acknowledge the work left to be done—it's quite a task but one that Taub feels called on to continue.

“The core of it is…it was in my first notebook, the Talmudic quote of, ‘You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it,” explains Taub. “And just letting that idea of leaving a project incomplete and what that is—in terms of passing down to the next generation, in terms of friendships, in terms of your own relationship to your work. I'm just like, let that be the connective tissue between all of the disparate themes.”

Never being finished—that’s a reality in the show and it’s also what makes Suffs so urgent and relevant. The musical may be chronicling a chapter of women’s history, but the fight for women’s rights is not over. In 2022, when Suffs had its world premiere Off-Broadway, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. And now, Suffs is premiering in a world where this conflicting blend of emotions, joy at being on Broadway and sadness for the current moment, is something the Suffs team feels deeply.

“We have an anthemic finale called ‘Keep Marching,’” explains Silverman. “I just wanted to give people some sense of hope and joy moving through this current moment, which seems incredibly prolonged and endless. And that they can keep that spirit, that I think Shaina captures so beautifully, and take that with them outside into the streets.”

Leigh Silverman and Shaina Taub Heather Gershonowitz
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