Hillary Clinton brings a 'universal' story of women's rights to Broadway

Hillary Clinton has always been a theater child at heart.

Growing up outside Chicago, the former secretary of state vividly remembers listening to cast albums of “Camelot” and “West Side Story” on a wonderful, large stereo in the living room with her mother. They watched “Singin’ in the Rain” whenever it was on TV, and in college, she eventually caught her first Broadway show.

“I was with some friends in New York and we heard about this new musical called ‘Hair,’” Clinton, 76, recalls. “We went to the box office and, of course, they didn’t have tickets. But if we lingered around, they said they might let us in at intermission to stand in the rear. So that was my exposure to Broadway: the second act of ‘Hair.’”

More than 50 years later, the former presidential candidate is preparing to make her Broadway début as a producer on “Suffs,” a rousing and hopeful new musical that opens April 18 at the Music Box Theatre. Written by and starring Shaina Taub, the compelling true story chronicles the yearslong crusade by suffragists to pass the 19th amendment, which was ratified in 1920 and granted women the right to vote.

Although Clinton is a frequent theatergoer, “Suffs” is the first time she’s been approached about producing for the stage.

“I’ve never had this opportunity before,” Clinton says. “It’s been exciting for me to not only support this wonderful show I believe in so much but to have a bird’s-eye view of putting together a Broadway production.”

'It Felt Like Unearthing Concealed Treasure'

Hillary Clinton and Malala Yousafzai producing. An election coming. 'Suffs'  has timing on its side - ABC News

Taub started working on “Suffs” in 2014 after reading “Jailed for Freedom,” a 1920 memoir by suffragist Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi), detailing her work in the women’s movement alongside Inez Milholland (Hannah Cruz), Lucy Burns (Ally Bonino) and Ruza Wenclawska (Kim Blanck). The musical depicts the activists’ untiring efforts to influence President Woodrow Wilson (Grace McLean), resulting in demonstrations, incarceration, hunger strikes and even death.

“I couldn't believe I'd never learned about them in school,” Taub says. “It felt like uncovering buried treasure. Here was the narrative of a group of impassioned, obstinate, driven young women who find their sense of pleasure in taking on an impossible challenge together. I saw myself and my pals in them.”

Clinton adored “Suffs” when she first saw it Off-Broadway in 2022 at the Public Theater (the birthplace of another groundbreaking historical musical, “Hamilton”). She was especially struck by the complex dynamic between vivacious rabble-rouser Alice Paul (Taub) and so-called “old fogey” Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella), who butt heads over whether it’s more effective to be civil or rebel against an antiquated system.

“It’s the inside-outside game; it’s the push and pull. Both are necessary,” Clinton says. She points to the show’s stirring finale, “Keep Marching,” which emphasizes “how change is made bit by bit, with each successive generation making their mark. I found that very endearing and poignant.”

The musical also casts a light on resilient Black suffragists including Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James) and Mary Church Terrell (Anastacia McCleskey). Taub doesn’t shirk away from the tragic reality confronting Black women, who were effectively prohibited from voting until 1965 but have continually shown up as leaders and organizers throughout history.

The 19th Amendment “did not change people’s ability to vote for a huge swath of our population,” James says. “There’s a bittersweetness, but Shaina smartly leaves this show with an indictment and an offering to the audience: ‘We hope that you are moved. Yes, this was a monumental feat, but there is more work to be done.’”

“Suffs” is directed by Leigh Silverman (“Violet”) and features an all-female main creative crew. The ensemble, too, represents a diverse variety of ages, ethnicities and gender identities.

“I never expected to be in a room that’s so diverse and supportive and uplifting,” says Dandashi, whose parents are Syrian and Bolivian-American. “It just feels like dessert for dinner. I feel so spoiled.”

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Go Inside the Rehearsal Room for Broadway's Suffs | Playbill

Last year, as “Suffs” was contemplating a Broadway run, Taub wrote Clinton an impassioned letter inquiring whether she would be interested in signing on as a producer.

“I poured my heart out, telling her about how her 2016 campaign coincided with my writing the first song for the show, ‘The Young Are At the Gates,’” Taub recalls. “I was so fired up by her persistence and brilliance on the campaign trail and was so proud to vote for her. Then in the aftermath of that election, when I was experiencing despair like so many of us were, I watched her speech and heard her tell females everywhere to never doubt how valuable and potent they are. That gave me motivation to keep going and compose this program over the past eight years.”

For the former New York senator, "Suffs" was a no-brainer: “I said to myself, ‘This is such an important story and I want to help in any way I can,’” Clinton says. Since last summer, she has been offering feedback on new compositions and dialogue and has attended multiple rehearsals and preview performances.

“It feels like she’s one of us,” James says. “She comes with Secret Service, obviously, but she’s so thoughtful and takes a moment to talk to all of us.”

Clinton intends to wear white – a hue of the suffrage movement – to the show’s opening night. (“It’s a way to honor the ancestors and encourage younger people to continue the fight,” she adds.) For her, it’s still “surreal” to have her own Playbill bio, which cheekily observes that she’s a “popular-vote winning-presidential candidate.” (“I thought it was an appropriate add-on for the play we’re producing,” she says with a chuckle.)

She’s proud to co-produce “Suffs” alongside Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for women’s rights and education. “It’s a reminder that this might be an American story, but in many ways, it’s a universal one,” Clinton says.

And more than anything, she hopes that theatergoers will be galvanized to get out and vote in this contentious election year.

“When you see this show, you look at how long and hard women fought to get the right to vote,” Clinton says. “Today, we have people who take their vote for granted or don't thin it makes a difference. I can surely assure you that every vote does count because I've been winning and losing elections in the course of my life.

"I can't think of a more important message for people to hear this year when we have such a consequential presidential election coming up in November."