When Shaina Taub says she grew up on musicals, she means it. Her first exposure to World War II was as the backdrop to Cabaret. She credits Ragtime as a fundamental piece in her own navigation of her Jewish identity. And, now, the composer and performer hopes to continue that legacy with a musical all her own.
Suffs, an exploration of the suffragists whose work led to the passing of the 19th Amendment and women’s right to vote, makes its world premiere at Off-Broadway’s Public Theater—eight years after the seed was first planted. The project has been in the works since producer Rachel Sussman approached her with the idea. Soon after that meeting, Taub found herself poring over all sorts of materials in the name of dramaturgy.
“It was such a Pandora’s Box,” Taub explains as she recalls chasing down book after book and going on an eBay scavenger hunt for primary sources. But, eventually, she had to step away from research, lest the project become a sung-through book report. “There’s this responsibility to get it right, and yet also a responsibility to free myself from the fact that there’s no such thing as getting it right.” That mindset allowed Taub to ponder not just the facts of these women but also their emotions: “What was Alice Paul thinking at 3 AM when she couldn’t sleep? That’s not going to be in any of the books.”
“As a dramatist,” she says, “it’s not my job to lionize them. It’s to humanize them, and to find what their flaws, their hopes, their fears were.” Suffs isn’t the story of how the “right” group won their fight over the “wrong” group; it’s the story of how members of the “right” group, even when sharing a goal, diverged—often along generational and racial lines.
“These women were not perfect,” Taub says. “Time after time, white women were willing to make a racist compromise to fight for the enfranchisement of white women at the expense of Black women.” One scene in the musical hypothesizes what NAACP co-founder Ida B. Wells’ response would have been when told—by people purportedly on her side—to “wait her turn.”
Indeed, it wasn’t until 45 years after the 19th Amendment that racial discrimination was explicitly prohibited in voting laws, and there remain to this day myriad legal methods of voter suppression. Taub’s goal with Suffs is to start conversations, rather than end them. “My hope is that it spurs the trail of breadcrumbs for other artists and young people to learn more about these stories and to create their own works,” she says.
Should that spur happen, she’ll be able to witness it firsthand from the stage, as she herself assumes the role of Alice Paul. The ensemble cast also includes Tony winner Nikki M. James as Ida B. Wells, Phillipa Soo as Inez Milholland, and Jenn Colella as Carrie Chapman Catt. For Taub, putting herself in the role is both a reward (“After all these years of writing, I get to jump inside and play with everybody!”) and a humbling exercise (“I’m forced to drive the car I built; if the car is faulty or hard to drive, I know pretty quick”).
Another one of Taub’s projects draws on the intergenerational relationships of women and ensuing power dynamics: the highly anticipated musical adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada. It’s a different beast in that she’s not the sole author (she’s writing the score with Elton John) and she’s not planning to act in it, but the parallels are not lost on her: “The two are constantly in conversation with each other in my head. It’s Carrie and Alice…and Miranda and Andy.”