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Shaina Taub (Photo: Joan Marcus)


By Fern Siegel

Suffs is to women's rights and the suffragette movement what Hamilton was to the founding father. It bursts with energy, sass and smarts. And that's thanks to Shaina Taub, whose talent is extraordinary. As Alice Paul, a young suffragette passionate about a woman's right to vote, Taub succeeds on every front. She's responsible for the book, music and lyrics of the new Broadway musical at The Music Box. And it's a winner.

Epic in scope, Suffs, a rare original musical, outlines the arduous fight to pass the 19th Amendment, which finally gave women the right to vote in 1920. They asked for representation - but for decades, suffragettes were dismissed, maligned or jailed. Their courage was astounding - and it underscores the injustice and invisibility of women that so few Americans can name them. Taub is brilliantly correcting that oversight.

Paul doesn't want a "ladylike" approach to suffrage or to be told to quell her rage. She burns with the activist spirit for equality. She's up against the genteel Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella), an older woman who has led the charge for years, but in a polite fashion. Her opening number, "Let Mother Vote," illustrates the soft-steady approach: "Let mother vote, we raised you after all." (First proposed in 1878, the proposed amendment simply said: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.")

Like all political groups, the suffragettes debate tactics and polemics, such as where black women will march. Their issues are championed by Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James). While there are clear generational differences, Taub gives Catt her due in "This Girl," who details her own struggles.

The musical opens in 1913, 65 years after Susan B. Anthony began the movement. Paul's frustration is shared by her colleagues - Roza (Kim Blanck), Lucy (Ally Bonino) and Inez Milholland (Hanna Cruz) - and together they form a new group: The National Women's Party, funded by Alma Belmont (Emily Skinner), a wealthy socialite. (One of the lead producers here is Hillary Clinton.)

A group of women in clothing on a stage

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Kim Blanck, Hannah Cruz, Nikki M. James, Nadia Dandashi, Shaina Taub, and Ally Bonino (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Milholland achieved fame riding a white horse down Pennsylvania Avenue at the first Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C. She dramatically dressed in white to symbolize the "New Woman" of the 20th century. However, men attacked the marchers and police did nothing to protect them. President Wilson (Grace McLean) sums up the condescending, dismissive attitude of the time, while Dudley (Tsilala Brock), his right-hand man, gets schooled by a suffragette ("If We Were Married") and discovers how much discrimination women face.

Yet the women remained resolute. Catt asked for suffrage; the New Women demand it. Various numbers chart their progress to be seen and heard. In "Finding A Way," the lyrics stage their challenge: "How will we do it when it's never been done? How will we find a way where there isn't one?" As they persevere, Taub details their struggles and the singular personalities that carried the day.

A group of women in clothing on a stage

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Jenn Colella, center (Photo: Joan Marcus)

"Great American Bitch" is a clever song that recounts the names women were (and are) routinely called for asserting their rights. Far from being hurt by the accusation, the women send it up. And that's part of Taub's point: The gender wars continue. "Keep Marching" celebrates progress, while reminding us to sustain the fight for justice when forces align against us. Suffs should be required viewing - it's clever, meaningful and frankly, essential.

The all-female cast is blessed with strong voices and engaging performances, aided by rich storytelling and a score both rousing and informative. Every actress shines. The choreography by Mayte Natalio clicks, while Paul Tazewell's costume design and Riccardo Hernandez's sets capture a specific time and sensibility. Leigh Silverman deftly directs a superb cast that delivers the best Broadway musical of the season.

Suffs, The Music Box, 239 W. 45 St

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes