Inside the Process of Writing (and Rewriting) the 36 Songs of Suffs | Playbill

Special Features Inside the Process of Writing (and Rewriting) the 36 Songs of Suffs

Tony-nominated composer Shaina Taub details the inspiration behind each song—from Rent to Mighty Ducks to the late Liz Swados.

Shaina Taub Heather Gershonowitz

As Stephen Sondheim once wrote, "Art isn't easy." A show that currently exemplifies that statement is Suffs, Shaina Taub's epic multi-decade spanning musical that dramatized the fight for women's suffrage and the real women who led the charge. Taub has been working on the musical for a decade, and it is finally running on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre. To celebrate the digital release of the Suffs cast album June 6, and the show's six Tony nominations (including Best Musical and Best Score), Taub broke down how she wrote each song on the album, which songs used to be 12 minutes long, and the powerful women of musical theatre who provided some key feedback. Read her detailed thoughts below.

Writing the score for Suffs has been a decade-long adventure and I’m jumping for joy that our original Broadway cast album is finally out! I’ve learned so much about songwriting craft during this process and I have a lot I want to share about it all—more than the nice folks at Playbill should be expected to publish. But for now, I’ll try to keep this to a reasonable length, much like I tried to do with the show itself. 

I hope hearing about some of my process is a helpful reminder that writing is indeed rewriting, and as tough as it can get, it can also be really satisfying. This is for all you fellow musical theatre makers and enthusiasts, here we go….

Jenn Colella and company of Suffs Joan Marcus

"Let Mother Vote"

I wrote an opening number early on called "Watch Out For the Suffragette." It was a satirical send-up of very real misogynist anti-suffrage ragtime ditties from the 1910s. The all-women cast would play men and warn the audience about those nagging feminists about to storm the stage. I thought the number would cheekily subvert the expectation people had walking into the theatre. I quickly learned in our run downtown at the Public Theater that I was trying to subvert an expectation that didn’t exist—most people coming in knew next to nothing about the suffrage movement, so I was working against the show by immediately hitting them with an anti-suffrage perspective.

So, post-Public, my first task was to write a new opening number. I got a good note early on from the great Lynn Nottage, to immediately set up the world that Alice [Paul] is about to disrupt. How to best set up the world of the movement? It’s Carrie [Chapman Catt]’s world. I spent time studying direct address opening numbers that do an excellent job of world building without yet introducing the protagonist—"Fugue for Tinhorns" from Guys and Dolls, "Little Shop" from Little Shop of Horrors, "Magic To Do" from Pippin

My first revelation: Oh, instead of the cast portraying men, let’s cast the audience as the men, and let the number be Carrie’s pitch for letting women vote. Making the first line of the show “Welcome, gentlemen” hopefully lets people know A) they can laugh and B) the die is cast: here are women, talking to men, trying to get the vote. Musically, I wanted it to feel like a feminine charm offensive, because that is Carrie’s savvy strategy—make the notion of enfranchising women a sweet treat to swallow, instead of a tough pill. I also wanted it to feel like the sound of America at the time—the status quo she was about to challenge, so I used idioms of ragtime, early jazz and Tin Pan Alley show-tune. I always need to find the hook phrase before I sit down to write any song, and for this one, I went back to the source; “Let Mother Vote” was a very real suffrage campaign back in the day. It immediately sang to me. And knowing I was writing for Jenn Colella’s magnificent voice felt like a jetpack on my back as I worked on this.

"Finish the Fight"

This is the last new song I wrote for the Broadway version of the show. I’ve written five distinct songs for this song slot—three of them with the hook “Finish the Fight” but with different music! There’s a lot to say on this one, but I’ll stick with the iterations that had this same hook. The hook phrase always felt right; Alice’s revelation at the end of the show is that the fight is never finished, so let’s start her in a place where what she wants most in the world is to finish it. But the issue with my first couple versions of the song was both lyrical and musical. Lyrically, the full hook used to be, “I’ll be the one to finish the fight.” It was a declaration, not a desire. Musically, it used to be very staccato and busy—thinking music, very cerebral. This is where playing the role myself really came in handy. As I played Alice in our final reading last June, my journey through the show all made sense to me as an actor except this song. I just felt that hiccup of something not being quite organic.

Sitting back down at the piano, I realized I needed to stop overthinking it, and just open up my heart musically and let it soar, with more upward, major motion. Really let my musical theatre feelings flag fly. What did Alice need to sing and also, what did the musical theatre kid inside me want to belt along to in my living room? Also, once I had "Let Mother Vote" in place, I got really excited by opening "Finish the Fight" with an intro verse that is a reprise of "Let Mother Vote." Alice tries to sing Carrie’s song…but she just can’t. She’s got to do her own thing and start fresh. This also sets up the musical motif generational hand-off in Act II, but more on that later.

"Find A Way"

"Find A Way" came very early in my process, I wrote the beta version of it in 2018, and reader, it was 12 minutes long (it’s now about seven). I was so inspired by "Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along…the idea of a long sequence that takes us through a period of time in our characters’ lives where they are trying to make shit happen, and deepening their friendships in the process. 

My other inspiration, and I’m not afraid to admit it, was the opening scenes in the various Mighty Ducks movies, where they go around, assembling their team of Ducks, and you kind of see each player in their own environment, and they get recruited. The musical themes for Ruza [Wenclawska] and Doris [Stevens] were immediately clear to me—the defiant polka of Ruza and the eager pulse of Doris. But Lucy [Burns] and Inez [Milholland] took me much longer, and were inspired by Ally Bonino and Hannah Cruz’s indelible portrayals. The process with "Find A Way" has been distillation, as so much of Suffs has been. How can I make the leanest possible version to assemble the crew, and then ramp us up energetically to Wait My Turn

"Wait My Turn"

The very first mini reading of Suffs was in January 2018—it had about six songs in it. "Wait My Turn" was one of them, and it has remained ever since. I knew I was writing it for my muse, the luminous Nikki M. James, which again, was like creative Red Bull at the piano. Ida [B. Wells] was a writer, so I tried to make the lyric densely verbal. She was a nonconformist, so I didn’t adhere to any traditional song structure with it. 

This song helped me discover the musical language of Suffs. I employ a lot of diminished chords in this score, because the thesis of the show is the complication of progress: there is joy and there is struggle, and there’s always both—never simply major or minor. I also avoid putting a chord over its root note whenever I can—progress is never fully achieved, even when something feels like it might be resolved. Also dramatically, creating this moment was one of my first forays into poetic license with historical fact. This encounter between Alice and Ida never actually occurred to our knowledge, so I had to give myself permission to truly imagine it.

"Terrell’s Theme"

I wrote this theme in our last round of development before Broadway. These characters used to have “Keep marching” as a theme, but when that moved into the finale slot, I was excited by the opportunity to give these iconic roles a more specific, distinctive hook. “And so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go” are Mary Church Terrell’s actual words, and the motto of the National Association of Colored Women. I strived to honor them in my composition through ascending diminished chords that never fully resolve, sung in triadic harmony by Mary, Ida and Phyllis. At this point in the show, the theme is sung as a mother encouraging her reluctant daughter to keep marching. 

Later in the show, that relationship gets reversed. I think the fact that Anastacia McCleskey, Nikki M. James, and Laila Drew so vividly embody these characters helps the audience hold this theme in their heads for the next two hours until they hear it again, giving it maximum dramatic pay-off in Act II.

"The March"

While this song has evolved extensively over the years, the seeds of it have remained the same. I wrote the “we demand an amendment” hook back in 2016. Originally it was the central musical hook, now it’s the post-chorus tag. "The March" used to be overstuffed with plot and narration. My revelation after the Public run was that people didn’t seem to crave the historical detail, they just wanted to feel the thrill and drama of this massive happening on Pennsylvania Avenue. So, I tasked myself with letting the details go, and just trying to write a banger. 

For this ultimate iteration of the song, I was inspired by the great protest song tradition of call-and-response, and easy to follow, repetitive chant that is designed to be sung outdoors. When Ida busts in, I tried to convey her magnificent disruption by changing the order of the rhyme scheme, so she fully takes charge of the song. The phrase “I want my mother to know I was here” is one of the first new motifs I wrote post-Public Theater run, but more on that later when we get to its pay-off in Act II…

"Great American Bitch"

Alright, so let’s talk about recitative, or sung dialogue. Sung scenes. Recit for short. "Light My Candle" from Rent. A lot of things in Les Miz. A time-honored tool in musical theatre, that (much like salt) when overused, can ruin a dish. I learned this lesson the hard way. 

Once I finally got more comfortable with writing spoken dialogue, it really freed up my songwriter self in any given scene. This is a great example. In the scene after "The March," there used to be a bunch of recit. And buried deep in there was a little drinking song where the suffs sang a sarcastic ode to all the men who had screwed them over, for helping them build the resilience to get where they are today. I stuck with that seedling of an idea as I expanded this into a full song moment: the reclamation of an insult of some kind. "Great American Bitch" popped into my head and I immediately was like: hook, hook, hook, great. I can give them each a verse, and after so much dense story development in "Find A Way," we can just have a good time, bond and hopefully learn to love these ladies. 

I also really wanted to give Ruza a glory moment, and I loved the idea of having an immigrant character coin the term "Great American Bitch." Now, it’s no secret that I love to write a drinking song, it’s such a satisfying form to write in. I knew the song had to be fun, so I needed to have genuine fun while writing it. I just let myself live right in my comfort zone for once. It’s great to push past your comfort zone, I did it all the time on this show. But sometimes, the answer is just laying back in your sweet, sweet home base as a writer.


"Ladies" has always been in the show in some form. This was another case where I knew I was writing for a legendary performer, the singular Grace McLean, and that gave me wings. Right off the bat, I knew I wanted it to feel like a Golden Age musical theatre tune, because [President Woodrow] Wilson is nostalgic and wistful for the great tradition of gender roles. I started by playing through a bunch of Rodgers and Hammerstein songs and going fishing for chord voicings that don’t come as naturally to my hands. "Cockeyed Optimist" was particularly inspiring. 

After the Public, the big evolution of this song was dramaturgical; it used to be a soliloquy. The show used to have vaudeville numbers opening each act, like "Watch Out for the Suffragette" at the top. Since this song has a whiff of pastiche to it with the Golden Age stylings, it ended up in that vaudeville frame as well. I ditched that, and put Wilson in a real scene with Dudley [Malone] for the first half. That way, the song could hopefully act as a paternal teaching moment from mentor to protege about the proper way to treat women. Wilson doesn’t think he’s subjugating women, he thinks he’s protecting them—it’s that kind of benevolent sexism that is the most insidious, and I wanted to use this song to convey that damaging perspective that so many well-meaning men seem to share. 

I also realized we were short-changing the number downtown, it never had a proper ending. When you have Grace McLean at your disposal, you need to give her a big old Broadway ending like she deserves.

Tsilala Brock and Grace McLean in Suffs Joan Marcus

"Meeting with President Wilson"

Back to the recitative of it all. As a librettist, in my revisions since the Public, I tried an experiment where I de-musicalized every piece of sung dialogue in the show to stress test it. The majority of it worked much better as plain dialogue. But some pieces resisted the transformation, and this was one. This sequence passes three years in a handful of bars, and that kind of speedy passage of time is so hugely aided by music.

"Worth It"

Another new song since the Public Theater run. This slot used to be a sung scene between Alice and Inez. That scene in a new form stays as a book scene between Alice, Lucy and Inez, but I realized there needed to be a song-song here (song-song is a very technical term for a real full-blown song with a beginning, middle, and end), and that we needed more inner life from Alice. Who was this girl really, when no one else was around? 

This song was spurred on by a note from the great Jeanine Tesori. She saw one of the readings we had post-Public and asked me something along the lines of, "Why do you never talk about Alice’s decision not to be a wife and mother?" And I was like, "Jeanine it’s not about that! I don’t want to have a boyfriend character (even though the historical records show she likely had one on and off, William Parker). This show is about women working, okay?" Jeanine just looked at me and said, "You don’t need a boyfriend character, but if I’m not in her head when she’s trying to decide how she feels about these things, she won’t feel like a real human woman." 

Well, that hit me like a ton of bricks, so I sat down to write. I decided to go for music and lyrics at the same time, which is rare for me. This was an out-of-comfort zone moment, because it had to be a vulnerable, visceral song. I went with a much simpler chord progression than almost anything else in the show—naked, nowhere to hide, no cleverness. The idea to expand the final chorus to include all our other major characters having the same debate came for Broadway, and our maestra Andrea Grody did the stunning vocal arrangement for it.

"If We Were Married"

I wrote "If We Were Married" back in 2018, and it hasn’t changed much beyond a few little cuts and lyric revisions here and there. I love the great musical theatre tradition of a conditional love song: "If I Loved You" from Carousel, "People Will Say We’re in Love" from Oklahoma!, etc. I tried here to put my spin on that. Nadia Dandashi and Tsilala Brock charm the pants off the audience every night and I’m so glad their rendition is preserved forever on this cast album.

"The Convention"

The hook of this sequence has been there since 2018. There were many songs of the era that were very “rah rah sisterhood.” So, I thought it would be satisfying dramatically to write my own version of “here we are, shoulder to shoulder” to underscore a sequence that was all about conflict. Public-facing harmony, and private dissonance. This Mary/Ida sung scene is another piece of recit that resisted its de-musicalization, mostly because any opportunity to hear Nikki and Stacy stunningly sing together needed to be seized. This sequence also establishes the “Why are you fighting me? I am not the enemy” theme that recurs several times throughout the show. I realized in embarrassment after we froze the show on Broadway that this theme rhymes “me” with “me” (enemy), so that loses me some craft points. but after the fact, I will claim this was intentional to show the imperfection of any collaboration in a social movement.

"This Girl"

I wrote this song in late 2017, and it has remained unchanged beyond small cuts and lyric shifts. The main change here from the Public Theater to Broadway was where it’s placed dramatically. It used to happen before "The Convention," but our brilliant director Leigh Silverman and I quickly realized this completely jumped the gun: If Carrie had already decided to denounce Alice, we were ahead of things heading into the convention. We were giddy when we thought, what if we make
"The Convention" like "La Vie Boheme A" and "La Vie Boheme B" [from Rent], with a song-song in the middle? It immediately activated this soliloquy. Jenn Colella has sung this song full-out, no marking since that first day in our first reading, and it’s electric every night.

"The Convention Part II"

The other half of the This Girl sandwich. A revelation for Broadway was for the last chorus, to make it a quartet with Alice and Carrie and Ida and Mary, to try to highlight the symmetry in their conflicts, and serve as a mid-Act check-in with these central relationships.

"Alva Belmont"

Alva used to have a whole solo song, and god, I wish we had time for it, but the show just got too damn long. Maybe I’ll do the 24-hour version one day like Taylor Mac. This is yet another recit scene that ultimately resisted becoming a book scene. There’s no song structure here—and yet somehow it just kept feeling like it was working. Alva is so eccentric, she has her own song logic—a verse? A chorus? Too boring. "Let’s get crazy," she said to me. Emily Skinner took this and ran with it in the most delicious way.

"Show Them Who You Are"

Alright, so this used to be a sung scene, and it was a favorite of mine and many on the team for a long time. It was a dark, brooding musical scene between Alice and Inez called "Where’s The Inez I Know?" Alice really put the pressure on Inez. It was all very intense. But I knew something was off...Inez’s death was not packing the punch it should (sorry, spoiler alert). And I realized the issue was musical. It was too severe, and therefore forecasted the tragedy to come. I thought, we just need to be in the good times—Alice as coach, Inez as star player (Mighty Ducks-logic again). Let’s give them a soaring, hooky duet, just to hopefully set up maximum heartbreak and reversal when she dies in the next scene. 

This was another comfort zone moment—much like a drinking song, I love me a shuffle. It just puts you in a good mood, and Alice is trying to put Inez in a good mood. So I let myself live in the sweet, sweet world of a shuffle. This was one of those hooks where when I first thought of it, I was like, "Okay, so the hook needs to be something like 'Show Them Who You Are,' but something better than that." I remember saying this to my husband, and he was like, "What? Why is that bad?" And I was like, "Wait, you’re right. Why am I fighting simplicity? This is exactly what Alice wants to say." This is a theme for me, wanting to over-complicate writing. When really sometimes, the first idea, the simple idea, is the right idea. I have many favorite moments in Michael Starobin’s brilliant orchestrations, but the pizzicato strings on the second verse of this song always make me smile.

Hannah Cruz in Suffs Joan Marcus

"The Campaign"

This sequence also used to be 12 minutes. I have all these demos on my laptop (I’m out of storage on Dropbox). This used to be called "On The Trail"—and it was a long sequence of all our core suffs going out on the campaign trail. The revelation over time was that we just need to be with Inez, no one else. It needs to be Inez’s last stand - like Angel’s solo in "Contact" before "I’ll Cover You (Reprise)." Can you tell I’m a Rent-head? 

What always remained musically was the 5/4 uneven time signature. I wanted to convey the sense of there always needing to be more, an extra beat, a skipped beat—there never being enough time in a campaign. This song also used to have too much narration—cities and dates, which Leigh elegantly solved in the design with the rolling state flags as Inez travels from state to state. Lucy’s delivery of the news of Inez’s dying, through the end of the sequence has not once changed since I wrote it in 2018 (another moment when recit won the battle). 

Alice’s anxiety attack in the wake of Inez’s death is a repetitive, circular musical progression, I tried to convey productivity as her coping mechanism—something I know nothing about (jk). One more thing on "The Campaign": deep in previews, when I was taking the advice of the great Lynn Ahrens (to take a merciless razor to everything wherever I could) I was like, "'The Campaign' is so repetitive, that would be a good place to make cuts, it’s the same hook over and over: Get out and vote. We get it, right?" 

But everyone, ultimately including me, revolted at the prospect of cutting it down. The repetition is so true to a social movement, rally after rally, chant after chant, and also we get to watch Inez destroy herself for the sake of the fight in real-time. And on top of that, Hannah Cruz is so divine, the thought of losing any time with her made us all shake our heads.

"How Long"

I wrote "How Long" in the days following the 2016 election, which as you may remember, was not exactly the best of times. So much of Suffs is densely verbal, a lot of words per bar. But I knew after Inez died, there had to be a significant musical shift, even before I had written much of the score, back in those early days. I chose a long, melodic line, and at the top of the song, there is over a minute of purely instrumental music—the first and longest purely orchestral real estate in the show. Finally giving our characters and the audience a moment to breathe and grieve. Some of the solos in the second verse were taken from real tributes to Inez from the time period. My mentor, Liz Swados, had passed away earlier that year, so some of these tributes are a nod to her as well. 

I wanted this song to feel like a song of mourning that morphed into a rallying cry. The “we won’t wait another day” motif is actually the first piece of music I ever came up with for this show—as evidenced by a 20-second voice memo on my phone from 2015, where I’m singing into my phone while walking down Flatbush Avenue (probably while eating a bagel). The biggest revelation from the Public to Broadway was moving the act break. I think I underestimated "How Long." I was like, "Yeah, sure, 'How Long' is cool. But the real barn-burner is 'The Young Are At the Gates,' so that should be the Act I closer, which also dramatically ends us on a cliff-hanger when the suffs get arrested. 

But I wasn’t prepared for the impact "How Long" seemed to have on audiences. The reaction even at the Public was so significant every night, that when the vamp began for "Gates," even though the audience was masked (remember this was 2022 when a third of our performances were canceled because of COVID), I could sense their frustrated expressions that there was more left before intermission.

Company of Suffs Joan Marcus

"The Young Are At the Gates"

Act II! Let’s get into it. I wrote the first version of this back in 2016, in the few weeks leading up to the election, and it was 12 minutes long. (Are you sensing a theme??) The verse and chorus always felt right in my bones, but it was an issue of too many extra musical motifs—like it had everything and the kitchen sink. De-musicalizing things really served the song. It’s now a verse/chorus structure that repeats and builds three times, broken up by two book scenes. I ultimately truncated these book scenes for the cast album, in the name of keeping the record song-focused, but it broke my heart a little bit because the counter-melodies in Michael Starobin’s orchestrations underneath them are excellent (so keep an ear out for them live at the Music Box). 

This song is largely narrated in past tense. In my revisions since the Public run, I really questioned this. Both the fact that it was pretty narration-y, and that it was past tense. I was telling, not showing, and making the action less immediate. Two no-nos. And yet…it just felt so right. I remember talking to the great Lin-Manuel Miranda about how he made choices regarding tense in narration in Hamilton, and if it was acceptable to use past tense in only one song, or if you should make a consistent choice throughout. I remember him saying something along the lines of: If past tense just feels right to you for this song, that’s enough of a reason. That was a good lesson in how sometimes there is a visceral logic that can overrule a dramaturgical logic, and you’re allowed to listen to the former. 

One more thing on "Gates." While the musical hook has remained the same, the third line of lyric in every chorus has changed a bunch. It used to be a series of adjectives “silent and unshakable” and “still and unmistakable.” This ultimately felt descriptive and boring to me. This chorus is a protest chant (albeit a silent one), so I tried to make it feel more like one, and landed on, “The young are at the gates / the young are at the gates / open up, the future’s here / the young are at the gates.”

I lied, one more thing. I cannot take credit for the brilliant phrase, "The Young Are At the Gates." That belongs to the suffragist, Lavinia Dock. It’s one of the first things I found in my research and it lit up like a fire to me. What a phrase—so original and so evocative, and so in the public domain.

"Respectfully Yours, Dudley Malone"

This is another song that never changed in development, except for tiny things. I knew I wanted Dudley to have his own distinct musical language. There are no rhymes in this song and no discernible musical structure; he’s speaking in draft. For this song, I used a combo of real quotes from the letter (“I think it is high time that men of this generation, at some cost to themselves, stood up in support.”) and some of what I imagined Dudley might be thinking (“I may not be a great man, but I am a man who upholds his vows”)

When I first found this letter in my research, I was so struck by the line, “I hereby resign, to take effect at once—or at your earliest convenience.” That delighted me because it was so full of character. Here was this guy taking this major, public stand against the most powerful person on earth, but then he worried that might have come off too aggressively, so he immediately qualifies it: Sir, I QUIT - but like, only if that’s good for you? It just said so much about Dudley’s sweet nature. 

This song requires careful conducting, and our maestra Andrea Grody leads it perfectly every night. And Tsilala Brock nailed this to the wall the moment she walked in an audition room, and we all fell in love with her. Also, let’s talk about buttons! (Buttons are the musical bumps at the end of songs.) When to button, when not to button, that is the question. Part of my experiment in Act II was to hold as much tension as possible, as long as possible. After the suffs get arrested, there are no buttons, no releases until after Fire & Tea when we burn Wilson in effigy. On the cast album though, it felt like a crime to not give Dudley and Tsilala a button, so please enjoy this album-only warm, final chord!

"Hold It Together"

This song is one of those heavy-lifting, let’s-get-a-lot-of-action-accomplished workhouse musical theatre sequences that are so good to have in the show, but so hard to write. Definitely not in my comfort zone category. This was initially called "When I Eat Again" which is…not a very good hook, Shaina. I arrived at "Hold It Together" before the Public—another hook that felt too obvious and basic, but then I realized it said exactly what I meant it to. It's a phrase expansive enough that it could apply to all my major characters at this tense section of Act II, and be sung as both self-talk and a directive to others. Carrie’s section of this song used to be pretty recit heavy, but once I wrote "Let Mother Vote," I realized I could do a mini-reprise of it here as "Let Mother Serve," she’s still singing her same old song, but applying it to a new context with the war. 

I’m obsessed with how Michael Starobin underlaid Irving Berlin’s World War I melody "Over There" in the orchestration—especially because we’re doing the show in Berlin’s theatre! Also Ada Westfall has always been our Mrs. Herndon, and I’m ready for the Tim Burton Mrs. Herndon spin-off, inspired by her iconic vocal delivery.

"Wait My Turn (Reprise)"

This scene and song were in the score at the Public, but have since deepened for Broadway. At the Public, this reprise was purely a solo for Ida, but I realized it could blossom as more of a duet between Ida and Mary. Lyrically, I thought: What if I begin this as a duet sung directly to each other, then transform it into a joint soliloquy, after Mary leaves the scene, so we get more interior life from each character? In the scene part of the duet, they butt heads on strategy, and in the soliloquy part, they express their admiration for each other’s approach. The opportunity to hear both in the span of one song moment got me excited. Stacy and Nikki soar on this every night, and I love listening to them as I do a quick wig change backstage. Also, I’m especially grateful for our associate director, the great Lori Parquet, for dramaturgically gut-checking this scene with me as I continued to hone it. Making a musical is a team sport, and I had an excellent team.

"The Report"

I always knew I wanted to be very clear about the torture American women suffered at the hands of the United States government in prison. But how the hell to turn the forced feeding of hunger strikers into a song? This was a moment where I realized telling not showing might be stronger. The way the Wilson administration tortured and abused the suffs was so horrific, I felt any naturalistic depiction of it would be too heavy-handed or cringe-y. Hearing about the torture through the letters the suffs smuggled out felt more chilling to me—leave it to our imaginations. And when I played with juxtaposing the letters with the official government report covering up the torture, it all fell into place. 

Musically, this is definitely me attempting to be my mentor Liz Swados; just getting weird. Two of the four suffs sing the entire melody on a drone of one note, as the other two dance around it, sometimes in harmony, but more often in dissonance. While this song has remained the same since I wrote it in 2019, there’s been one significant change in line assignment: The reading of the report used to be done by Commissioner Gardiner, a side character who has since been jettisoned. I realized it was much more effective to have Wilson himself deliver it. 


This song is new for Broadway. Downtown, it was a shorter a cappella song called "Relentless." Different adjective hook, inferior song, in my opinion. I thought that after nearly two hours of dense musical information, having a totally a cappella song would be mind-blowing. Eh...I’ll be the first to admit, it didn’t pack the punch I thought it would. And I know. I had to do it every night. I sat back down at the piano and thought, "Okay, this is Alice pouring her heart out, trying to convince this doctor she’s not insane." Another moment of vulnerability for Alice, like "Worth It," but this time, there’s a scene partner: the doctor. And more broadly, the scene partner is the entire world, who has deemed her crazy for just wanting to be seen as a full person. 

I decided to approach this one music and lyrics simultaneously. Again, not my comfort zone, but a great recipe for musical vulnerability. It resulted in more long, open lines than Alice has sung the whole show. Lyrically, in "Relentless," I used to quote Alice Paul who said, “Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.” I knew I wanted to keep that notion, but I needed to make it my own to fit my lyrical structure. So here’s my take: “You think I’m insane / Certifiably nuts / You call it hysteria / I call it guts.” This is another song that doesn’t button in the show. We’ve gotta keep the suspense, will she get released or not? But we gave it a button for the album. Albums can have a button, as a treat.

"Fire and Tea"

The idea for this song was in my earliest outlines, and it has always been in the show. I got so excited by the split-screen of Carrie having tea with Wilson while Alice burned him outside—and the unwitting harmony of those two approaches leading to his capitulation. This is about as rock ’n’ roll as I get in Suffs. I was inspired by "Whipping Post" by the Allman Brothers, which I arranged for my a cappella group back in college (alums include suffs Grace McLean and Kim Blanck!). Speaking of buttons, I didn’t button "Fire & Tea" downtown—big mistake, HUGE. You can’t burn a tyrant in effigy and not let people clap. 

A big revelation dramatically for the top of "Fire & Tea" happened at our Sundance lab in 2019, spurred by Leigh. This song used to be preceded by a long scene of all the happenings once they got out of prison. Really dropped the energy mid-act. Leigh was like, "What if that all happened as one-liners in this tumbling way as the music for 'Fire & Tea' began?" We put it together on the spot in that reading and it just felt like a dramaturgical snowball rolling down the hill. I remember adding Doris’s line, “I leaked the letters to the press” and thinking, "Wow Shaina, what bald exposition, you really can’t think of anything better?" But that line has always gotten a huge laugh. I think because people are just so proud of Doris for doing that, and the surprise of it. Just goes to show sometimes your own opinion of your writing means nothing—I might think something is inspired, audience doesn’t care. Audience is always right, imho.

"Let Mother Vote (Reprise)"

So this used to be a whole thing where Woodrow Wilson had a stroke (which really happened) and then his wife Edith Wilson took over. Grace McLean transformed before our eyes from Woodrow to Edith and that was a huge delight. The issue is: Edith was staunchly anti-suffrage. It would’ve been much better for me dramatically if Edith took over and saved the day, but that felt like too big a historical rewrite. Why give Edith any credit? I was loathe to lose any humor in the show, but then I wrote "Let Mother Vote." And I realized, oh, what if Wilson reprises it when he finally capitulates? So after two hours (or seven years in dramatic time) of watching Alice hold Wilson’s feet to the fire, what does he finally sing when he endorses the amendment? Carrie’s song. 

I hoped that would be an effective representation of the theme of conflicting tactics to accomplish change, and who gets the credit in the end. This felt dramatically and musically superior to Edith’s bit, and it still lets Grace McLean absolutely annihilate, and end her arc with an exclamation point.

Jenn Colella and Shaina Taub in Suffs Joan Marcus

"She and I"

This was also an early idea that has always been the same. I think initially with Suffs, I had a much clearer picture of Act II than Act I, so it’s been a long process of reverse engineering. Musically, we’re late in the game, and we’re in a new location, so I wanted to give this and the following song a fresh sound as a little suite. They’re in Nashville, so this pianist attempted to write some guitar-based tunes. They’re in the country, so the chord progressions are simpler and hopefully gives the ear a break after all the cacophony of prison and fire. 

My main inspiration for this song was "He Wanted to Say" from Ragtime, which I think is one of the most brilliant songs in the musical theatre canon. We get a whole song of Mother’s Younger Brother pouring his heart out, but then we learn he can’t actually express any of it out loud to Coalhouse. Only we, the audience, get to hear it. The agony! Inspired by that, I gave Carrie a whole revelation about her relationship to Alice, that Alice is her younger self, and in a way she both envies and respects her for that. But then we snap back into the reality of the scene, and she can’t bear to give Alice the satisfaction of this news. There’s no button here—in the show or on the album, because the moment never gets resolved.

"Down At the State House"

Gotta love a functional little mini song that just sets up the next thing. The trick of this little sequence was: How do I give the least amount of exposition to be able to receive the "Letter from Harry’s Mother"? I ultimately set this over Doris’s bass line, because she’s there keeping a record of the votes.

"A Letter from Harry’s Mother"

Here’s another one that never changed in all these years, except the ending! This is a real moment from history that was just too specific and compelling to pass up. I always felt passionate about including it because while this show is about the extraordinary women of the time who dedicated their lives to the fight, at the final moment, who pushed it over the edge to victory? An ordinary wife and mother in rural Tennessee, who raised her son to be a feminist. 

Dramatically, it would be much better to have my protagonist take the final action to win the vote, but it felt more important to me to show that the moms out there raising their kids to be socially conscious are as important to the struggle as any full-time activist. And dramatically, it has the element of surprise, which is very helpful this late in the show. I tried to write this for guitar. And thank god, Michael Starobin was able to beautifully orchestrate it that way, and our great guitarist Beth Callen soulfully plays it every night. Musically, I was inspired by Brandi Carlile’s "The Mother," which had come out the year I wrote this. I wanted this song to sound simple, folksy, like nothing we’ve heard yet all night.

Dramatically, I was inspired by that moment in Ratatouille where we go into Anton Ego’s head after he takes the bit of ratatouille, and he’s transported back to his mother’s kitchen, and it returns him to his humanity. I wanted this song to feel like that for Harry Burn. But this damn ending was so hard to crack. When do we let the audience know the vote is won and they can clap? Initially, it ended on Harry Burn’s “aye,” because that’s how we know, he votes yes! But, it felt like such a womp womp to not properly end the song itself. 

And also, I wanted his mother, Phoebe, to get the glory of ending the dramatic beat. This was a rare moment where going back to the history books actually served me. While for this letter, I didn’t use a word of the original text of it for the song, I noticed when re-visiting it, she signed it off, “With lots of love, Mama.” What a universal, evergreen sign-off! And to end the song on the word “Mama” when the opening plea of Suffs was to "Let Mother Vote"…. That symmetry appealed to me. Immediately I was like, "Oh thank god, there it is, there’s the ending." And god, how can I describe Emily Skinner’s rendition of this…. Every night we’re all up there on the bridge in a freeze in the dark, and we’re all just standing in awe of her. I’m so glad it’s permanently captured on this record.

Anastacia McCleskey, Laila Erica Drew, and Nikki M.James in Suffs Joan Marcus

"I Was Here"

This sequence was one of the hardest nuts to crack in this whole damn enterprise. There used to be a song here called "I Wasn’t There," that we were all actually quite fond of. It was sort of a fourth-wall breaking song where the suffs described how the 19th amendment was signed into law by a man behind closed doors in the dead of night. None of them were there. It was an elegy of erasure, and it always felt heartbreaking. Too heartbreaking… It felt like we were denying the audience the celebration they deserved after rooting for these characters all night. 

And yet, the thesis of the show is the incompletion of any political or social victory, so I was loathe to submit to some oversimplified, full-blown celebration. 

"I Wasn’t There" was always followed by this phone call scene between Ida, Mary and Phyllis, but it used to be recit. The placement and general content of that scene always felt right from the earliest drafts. But once we took out "I Wasn’t There," I needed something to get us into the phone call, and to get us out of it. First, a moment of celebration, which I took from "The March" (“I’ve never felt so alive before”), then the phone call, now a scene over underscoring. This is where "Terrell’s Theme" could come back and be reversed. Now the daughter is encouraging the mother to keep going, despite everything. But still, the moment didn’t feel complete, even though I was striving for a sense of incompletion….See what I mean? I looked back at "The March," where I had written this new theme, “I want my mother to know I was here / I want my great granddaughter to know I was here.” I initially thought it would be a complement to "I Wasn’t There" until I realized it might be more effective for an audience to hear a character say, “I want them to know I was here," and sit there thinking, "I had no idea you were there." Rather than the character being self-aware of their own erasure. 

Back to this scene. I realized, hopefully it would be even more effective to hear Mary, Ida and Phyllis sing this theme, and also evolve the lyric into, “I want your greatgranddaughter to know / I need her to know I was here”—speaking directly to the audience, as a demand for remembrance from the ancestors.

"If We Were Married (Reprise)"

I love a good end of show reprise. This one has always been there. I knew I wanted to give a little wrap-up to Doris and Dudley, and also honor Carrie and Mollie [Hay]’s relationship in a direct way. At the Public, the two couples had these reprises back to back. I realized pretty early on in that run (but after we froze, sadly) that they should be overlaid as one reprise (smh). I love the way Jaygee Macapugay and Jenn Colella harmonize here.

Jenn Colella, Kim Blanck, Shaina Taub, Nikki M. James, and Ally Bonino Jenny Anderson

"August 26th"

The last piece of recit that resisted becoming a book scene. Something about this moment being musical allowed me to just let Doris and Ruza float away after they say their goodbyes, rather than having to deal with that naturalistically—as Leigh helpfully pointed out when I attempted to make this a book scene. Ruza’s foray into Broadway was one of my earliest research discoveries, and it tickles me to no end that we have brought Ruza back to the Great White Way after a century, and so perfectly embodied by the fabulous Kim Blanck. 

There are tons of little melodic and lyric reprises here: Doris quotes Dudley’s letter, Alice quotes Finish The Fight and The March. It’s fun to get farther along in writing the score because you can just start stealing from yourself.

"Lucy’s Song"

Another one that came out fully formed and has not changed, except for tiny little things, and the ending. This is another song that I didn’t give a proper ending at first. Maybe I had some notion of songs not properly ending because progress is never really done….Terrible idea, Shaina. Fixed it now. 

Anyway, Lucy doesn’t really get a musical theme in her intro into the show. She’s kind of inevitable; she’s just always there, with Alice. For a long time in development, everyone was like, who is Lucy? What’s her deal? And I was like, "I know, I know just let me get to Act II, there’s gonna be a song for her that will make it all make sense, trust me, guys." I love to write in a lilting 6/8—this is another comfort zone moment. From the moment I brought this song to Ally Bonino and she gorgeously sang it in a reading, there was not a dry eye in the room and there hasn’t been since. 

Leigh also gave me a great note when I was drafting this song, about Lucy having some things she couldn’t quite express, which led to those unfinished lyrics that stop the song in its tracks (“But I hope you know… Even though we haven’t… Even though you didn’t… Even when you drove me to my wit’s end / The best thing I’ve ever been is your friend”)

"Finish The Fight (Reprise)"

This epilogue scene has been a part of my concept from my earliest scribbled outlines in 2014. This is the thesis of the whole show, the hope and despair of the never-ending generational torch pass. We had to go into the 1970s, because I didn’t buy that Alice had any big revelation until that late in her life. This scene used to be all recit, with a '70s backbeat…. It was…fine. But once I wrote the new "Finish the Fight," I realized, oh ok… So, at the top of the show, Alice tries to sing Carrie’s song, can’t stomach it, so has to do her own song. Now, 50-some-odd years later, Alice finds herself singing Carrie’s song again (“Me, the old fogey / How strange”) and this new young person busts in singing her spin on Alice’s song—same musical hook, with some new lyrics, and the musical and generational hand-off is complete. 

Once I unlocked that, I knew I just needed as efficient a book scene as possible to get us to that musical one-two punch. This has become my favorite moment in the show every night. I’m sitting at the desk, playing the old fogey, and I get to watch as rising star Laila Drew, in her Broadway debut, takes center stage and sings her heart out. And I can hear the footsteps of the cast behind the panels getting in place to march as the ancestors in the finale. Magic.

"Keep Marching"

It’s true what they say about musicals, that beginnings and endings are the hardest, and Suffs was no exception. I had the same finale all through development, it was a jam called "Never Over." It had a soulful, backbeat vibe and the hook was, “The work is never over, so it can’t be done alone.” We always felt good about it, it seemed to land well at the Public. Our focus had been so much on the opening, that I think it wasn’t until we got that into place that we turned our attention to the finale. 

Before our final reading, our great producers, Jill Furman and Rachel Sussman, were like, "We’re not sure the finale is really landing as well as it should." That note immediately had the stench of truth to me, and I realized the issue was twofold. Lyrically, my hook was a double negative. Musically, it was too laid-back. The message was right, but the delivery was wrong. This is about a call to action, it needs to surge forward, and have a positive lyric construction. I realized the right lyric was hiding in plain sight elsewhere in the show, so I poached it and put it in the pride of place of the finale: keep marching. Now I told you I love a good 6/8. Even though this score just had one in "Lucy’s Song," I figure I could get away with another, and this one would have a different, more driving vibe. Comfort zone time.

I tried to give this new finale the same clarity of point of view as the opening. In the opening, we’re the women trying to placate the audience, who are men. In this closing, we are the ancestors trying to warn, uplift, and bless the audience—who are just who they are, us in 2024, the next generation, whenever Suffs is performed in the future. What would the ancestors say if they could reach across the century to us now? I had to really sit with my Talmud quote that is the show’s epigraph, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” And do everything I could to put that into a song. And for any perfect rhyme police out there, just for the record, “Will you carry your banner as far as you can / Rewriting the world with your imperfect pen” is intentionally an imperfect rhyme to underscore the theme of imperfection, okay, so don’t @ me.

The finale does finally resolve on a major chord, on the root, no less! But the drums keep going. And in the show, we keep marching for a few bars after the music is done and the lights go out, a poignant choreographic gesture by our genius choreographer, Mayte Natalio. To me it’s an embodiment of my favorite writer, Rebecca Solnit’s phrase, "hope in the dark." 

Those final marches aren’t on this album, but I hope you feel them, and keep marching long past it.

The Suffs album is now available for streaming and digital purchase on all major platforms. The record will have a physical release at a later date.

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