Monday, July 22, 2024

Shaina Taub on ‘Suffs’ Tony Wins, Working With Hillary Clinton and Elton John

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In a community of multitaskers, Shaina Taub is still most likely one of the busiest people on Broadway. Taub wrote the music, lyrics and book for Suffs, her musical bringing the women who fomented the women’s suffrage movement vividly back to life and firmly out of the history books to which they’ve long been relegated; she’s also one of the show’s stars, playing the central role of movement instigator Alice Paul.

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At last week’s Tony Awards, Taub took home the prizes for both original score and book of a musical, and gave a moving televised speech calling out some of the pioneering women who paved the way for her – including both fellow composers and one of her lead producers, Sec. Hillary Rodham Clinton.  

Shaina Taub as Alice Paul

Shaina Taub as Alice Paul in Suffs.

Joan Marcus

Sitting in her dressing room a little over an hour from showtime on a recent night, the 35-year old Taub is clearly still absorbing her wins, though she admits that the ongoing routine of performing onstage each night has helped keep her grounded. “To have the tangible act of doing the show,” she says, “brings me back to reality in a beautiful way.” (The show’s original Broadway cast recording is currently out on Atlantic Records).

Below, she speaks to Billboard about Suffs’ long road to Broadway (including its run at New York’s Public Theater in spring of 2022), the status of her next project – writing the lyrics for Elton John’s music in the The Devil Wears Prada musical (set to open at London’s Dominion theater in July prior to a West End transfer in October) – and more.  

The world of theater often feels like a more progressive one than TV or film — but as you pointed out in your acceptance speech it’s still a fairly small group of women composers who are getting recognition of this level. What’s been your experience?   

I’ve been so blessed to have been taught well for so long by so many brilliant women. Elizabeth Swados — who’s a legend of theater, composer, educator — I got to be in her class [at NYU], and she was the first person who pushed me off the cliff to write a song before that was something I thought I could even do. And Jeanine [Tesori] especially is just a titan of composing in our field for any gender. She’s been so generous — she just let me come and play crappy first drafts, and gave me essential devastating feedback, tough love and real-talk in moments when I’ve had questions about the business and about the craft. Georgia Stitt too, who put together Maestra, which is such an amazing community for women and non-binary folks making theater. Kristen Anderson-Lopez has been so kind.  

A lot has been made this season of me being the second woman to write and star in a musical but the first one is Micki Grant, an incredible artist I sadly never got to meet whose legacy should be given a lot more attention. We’ve always been here, and so many women are my peers on Broadway right now: Rebekah Greer Melocik is a good friend, and her work for How to Dance in Ohio was so gorgeous; Kate Kerrigan with The Great Gatsby, she and I have come up together; Bekah [Brunstetter] and Ingrid [Michaelson] for The Notebook. Anais Mitchell – whose Hadestown I was in off-Broadway — we’re both Vermont girls and she’s such a confidante. Everyone is just so forthcoming; it’s a real sisterhood.  

You clearly did work on Suffs between the Public and Broadway runs. How did you come to terms with what needed editing? Was there a moment between the runs of reset for you? 

There really wasn’t a lot of a moment of reset. There was no back in the saddle – we kinda stayed in the saddle. I had demos of new ideas for songs from May 2022 that are now in the show on Broadway. I knew that it wasn’t finished, and there’s just that intel you get from a first production that you can’t get in a workshop or reading because the audience tells you everything and they tell you fast. It took a lot of willpower to keep going; I’m so proud of what we did downtown, and we had so much love for the show and also a lot of critique of the show. There were times that got me down, but any sense of feeling down pretty quickly transformed into almost this adrenaline, this sense of being underestimated that put me on fire to be like, we’re gonna finish this show, dammit!  

enn Colella Kim Blanck Shaina Taub Nikki M James and Ally Bonino

From left: Jenn Colella, Kim Blanck, Shaina Taub, Nikki M James and Ally Bonino at Suffs‘ first preview performance.

Jenny Anderson / @jennyandersonphoto

What kind of changes did you know you had to make? 

There were two driving principles to my revision. More humanity, less history: just making sure everything was as character- and emotion-forward as possible, with all the historical detail I fell in love with taking a bit more of a backseat. And then I kind of made a promise to myself that I was gonna spend more time sitting at the piano than the computer, trying to let my impulses be visceral, let me pull from my musical heart first and see where that would lead. 

Did you always intend to perform in Suffs? 

I always wanted to perform in it. I’ve always performed in my work — I find writing and performing feed each other. But I initially thought I’d play Doris, the young intern type character who documents everything. It sort of felt like the Mark in Rent character and I’ve always wanted to play Mark in a gender-flipped Rent. [Laughs.] But Alice was a difficult nut to crack, finding her inner life. She didn’t leave that much of a paper trail in terms of her emotional life.

And it was also about finding Alice’s sense of humor. I got a great note from our orchestrator, Michael Starobin, who came to see me play at Joe’s Pub early last year and was like, “I wish there as more of that girl in Alice – that self-deprecation and humor.” It was such a great note, and I think it helped me make her come alive.  

What has Sec. Clinton been like as a producer? 

She’s just been such a cheerleader and a warm, supportive presence — how vocal she’s been in her support of us before reviews, nominations, awards, just her vote of confidence in us and that we could see through this thing we started at the Public, that gave me faith in the dark and hard moments of tech and previews and the “Oh boy, we’re gonna go face the music again [on Broadway], what are people gonna say…” Knowing she believed in us so wholeheartedly that she was willing to attach her name and her legacy to this piece of art, that gave me confidence I needed in really vulnerable moments.  

Rachel Sussman, Secretary Clinton, Jill Furman, and Morgan Steward

Suffs producers Rachel Sussman, Sec. Clinton, and Jill Furman, and co-producer Morgan Steward.

Jenny Anderson / @jennyandersonphoto

Can we please discuss her amazing Tony night caftan? It was definitely one of the biggest stories of the night… 

I loved it. She looked gorgeous as always, and she seemed to me to be so liberated. And to see her be so celebrated by the theater community with that standing ovation — it was great to see her given her due. She’s a theater lover, and beyond just being an enthusiast I think she understands the importance of theater to the public discourse. She gets that it matters beyond just entertainment; it’s a public common good that should be funded, that should be championed, and that’s rare in a leader of her stature. New York theater loves HRC! 

Have you been juggling Devil Wears Prada work with all this too? Are there lessons you’ve learned in the editing process for Suffs that you’re finding are applicable there? 

I mean, that’s another long and winding road — we’re going through a lot of changes, and it’s exciting. I was actually just texting with the creative team right now! I’ve been working on that show for six years, it’s gone through so many permutations, and yet we keep trying to figure it out. It’s such a fundamentally different experience [from Suffs] in that I’m collaborating so much, writing lyrics for a composer who’s worked lyrics-first for his whole 50-plus-years songwriting career. That’s really strengthened me as a songwriter, to write lyrics first and lyrics only. It’s gotten me excited for my projects after this to be a little more in the music seat, after this lyric-honing time.  

It’s crazy with theater, you can never plan these things in advance. I never imagined it would be this insane overlapping season, but luckily we got to do a lot of amazing work last year. Elton and I wrote a few new songs, so it’s on its way.  



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