On the day I was to see 19: The Musical—which is about how the amendment granting women the right to vote came to pass in 1920—our Constitution Denier in Chief made a perfectly timed gaffe. There he was at his Oval Office desk surrounded by women who had come to watch him put his Sharpie to the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commemorative Coin Act—a bill that would direct Treasury to mint a special one-dollar coin (which had worked out so well for Susan B. Anthony).
Upon signing, a stumped Trump asked in all seriousness: “I’m curious why wasn’t it done a long time ago?”—the meaning of the word centennial apparently out of reach of his brain. Then, in all self-servingness: “I guess the answer to that is because now I’m president, we get things done.”
19: The Musical has a presidential character nearly as alarming a buffoon: the pompous Woodrow Wilson (Brian Lyons-Burke in top hat), who famously stalled women’s suffrage and jailed and tortured suffragists. At odd moments the musical has him muttering to anyone in earshot, “Mansplain, mansplain, mansplain.” He may be historically a dick, but here he’s the butt of the joke.
For nearly three years, Jennifer Schwed and Doug Bradshaw (book and lyrics) and Charlie Barnett (music) have been collaborating on a musical that would popularize the much-ignored story of the courageous women who fought for decades against a system stacked against them to get the right to vote. The idea was to have it ready by the women’s suffrage centennial next year. Notable figures in this struggle—such as Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Ida B. Wells—would be brought to life in scenes and show tunes together with a chorus of dancers and singers.
Portions of the work in progress have been presented in more than 30 workshop productions. I reported on one at 1st Stage last January, which was when I first recognized not only the outstanding songwriting gifts of the creators but also the enormous challenge they had undertaken: to reconcile the requirements of a song-and-dance Broadway-style musical with the underlying gravitas and hostility in the history of women’s suffrage, which in fact had taken a punishing path to its happyish ending. Now aptly at the National Museum for Women and the Arts (though on a small stage not well equipped for live theater), the full two acts with book intact had their world premiere, and the creators’ material could be appreciated more clearly—even when at times the execution got in its way.
The musical begins at the end, right after the 19th Amendment has passed, with an opening number that is inspired. The stage fills with women wearing black-and-white T-shirts that say Suffragist and singing a lighthearted ditty to a tune you could do the Charleston to, “19 (We Won).” It’s about how inequality “will soon be over”:
The 19th Amendment makes our gender ascendant!…
Our fight for equal rights is done!…
We should have equal pay within the year!…
This witty sendup of over-optimism, accompanied by over-ebullient choreography, gets the show off to a smart start. You just know a reality check is coming. Indeed, a savvy apparition appears—Susan B. Anthony, who in history did not live to see suffrage but who here as “Sue B” (Brenda Parker) warns the revelers in song that it’s not going to be “Easy.”
We next meet a central figure in the struggle, Alice Paul, here nicknamed “AP” (Katie Ganem), who sings a beautiful ballad as a letter to her Mother (Karen Bralove) about her aspirations for equality and freedom (“Dear Mama”). Her fierce determination will lead a movement (and, coincidentally, propel the musical’s book) with a seriousness of purpose. AP teams up with Lucy Burns (Krystle Cruz) in a winking vaudeville-style number called “Partners in Crime.” Together they launch the National Women’s Party and the stage fills again with singers singing and dancers dancing to a rousing womanifesto, “New World Order.”
This buoying up of spirits will become a musical motif of the show as it turns its attention to the daunting conflicts—both external and internal—that the real-life movement faced.
The first of those conflicts is dramatized with the introduction of Carrie Chapman Catt (Maria Ciarrocchi), whose conservative blouse and skirt reflect her politics (“I’m Prim, So What”). Though Catt’s got plenty of grit (“You best not mess with me!”), she contrasts with the radical activism of AP and Burns (who will later wear a T-shirt saying Feminist AF). Subsequently in the show a tactical difference will divide them: Catt wants a cautious state-by-state approach to women’s suffrage; Paul insists the focus be federal. Here, in another upbeat song-and-dance number, the musical cleverly depicts the stresses and successes of coalition-building toward a common goal (“Two Sides of the Same Coin”).
A visit to London proves a sobering turning point. The American suffragists meet with British suffragists, in the persons of Christabel Pankhurst (Elizabeth Keith) and Emeline Pankhurst (Millicent Scarlett), who had been brutally jailed for public protests. “Power responds only to pressure,” Christabel tells them, meaning power will crack down on dissent. The Americans get the point, which is underscored when foremother Sue B reappears to spur them to civil disobedience: “Don’t make my mistakes… The right is more precious than peace.” Later AP will address a rally of women activists about what the future may hold: “I cannot guarantee you your safety. I cannot guarantee you your life.” And the show as essential feminist civics lesson gets a whole lot more real.
With the introduction of Ida B. Wells (Millicent Scarlett), the show confronts the racism of white suffragists head-on. Born in slavery and raised as a free woman, Wells became an important journalist of the era and was devoted to Black liberation. Here the character functions as the show’s conscience. When a major suffrage demonstration is being planned, AP critically decides that Wells should not march in front, so as not to lose the support of “white Southern ladies.” Several gorgeous songs express Wells’s dismay—and Scarlett’s vocals are powerful—”Will You Be Here for Me” and “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” in which AP pointedly stands her ground. Finally AP decides Wells can march in the rear with the Howard University contingent. “I’ll march where I damn please” is Wells’s response:
Don’t talk to me about your pain… How dare you ask me to wait?… No more can I stand for this privileged equality… Only the Black woman can say when and where I enter.
That last line references the title of a work by the African American historian Paula Giddings, and it’s just one example of the many quotes tucked insightfully into the script. Another is a line the book gives to Alice Paul—”Courage in a woman is often mistaken for insanity”—which was actually what a male shrink said when refusing Woodrow Wilson’s order to declare her crazy.
The show includes some very dark episodes in the struggle, indelible reminders of just how brave these women were. In silhouette, backlit by red light, we see women political prisoners who have gone on hunger strike (“Jailed for Freedom”) being forcibly funnel-fed. Similarly in silhouette we see women arrested at a protest being pummeled by cops with billy clubs. “Protest, arrest, release, repeat” goes the refrain of another song-and-dance number (“Release & Repeat”), this time devoid of naive cheer.
During a visit to Wilson’s office, Alice Paul is amusingly met with the aforementioned mansplaining plus musical condescension: “Be a Sensible Girl,” he sings, backed up by a bouncy chorus line in polka dots. Preoccupied with a gathering war in Germany, Wilson is unsympathetic to her cause. “La la la” he says, plugging his ears to tune her out. Unimpressed, AP later calls him a “charlatan, fraud, hypocrite.” Only massive public pressure—which included a silent protest at the White House (“Silence”)—was to change presidential and congressional minds. But that pressure came at a great cost for movement sheros, who in 1917 were viciously imprisoned and tortured at the Lorton jail in Northern Virginia. (A museum near the site will open next year.)
After the embarrassment of that “night of terror,” Congress passed the 19th Amendment, leaving it up to at least 36 of the states to ratify. The nailbiter came down to Tennessee, where the outcome would be decided by the vote of one tiebreaker: Representative Harry Burn (Gregory Scott Stuart). In one of the most amusing and touching scenes, he is schooled by his mother (Scarlett) in the beautiful “Listen to Your Mother”—and he comes around.
There follow more big musical numbers of celebration and empowerment including a “Reclaiming Our Time” chorale and a very moving “My country, ’tis of thee, / Sweet land of liberty, / Of thee I sing…” When near the end Alice Paul reads the actual text of the 19th Amendment, it comes not with the fizzy optimism of the beginning but with deep emotion well earned:
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.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
19: The Musical reclaims a time when women fought like hell and paid a price so that women today can go to the polls—even if like most white women in America three years ago they vote a racist idiot into the White House. The book is sturdy, the lyrics are skillful, the score is first-rate. I’ve listened to and enjoyed the preliminary cast album on Spotify over and over. It’s terrific.
That said, the show feels long, and the boost-your-spirits musical numbers get repetitive. Worse, the choreography was too show-off-y for this small stage, too cutesy, and did not so much enhance the storytelling as distract from it. At times it was as if Busby Berkley and June Taylor had a quarrel and no one won. The production of this musical needs to trust more the substance of its storyline. There’s too much ingratiating, too much making nice.
The creators are raising funds to do an industry reading in New York for Broadway investors, producers, and directors. My hope for this show is that it secures such professional backing and that its next iteration will be a production conception worthy of the very promising material. (Click here to make a tax-deductible donation.)
19 (We Won)
Partners in Crime
New World Order
I’m Prim, So What
No Matter the Price
Will You Be Here for Me
Put Yourself in My Shoes
Will You Be Here for Me (Reprise)
The Bloody March
Liberty For Inez
Dear Mama (Inez Reprise)
Two Sides of the Same Coin
The War at Home
Right Women, Right Time
Release & Repeat
Victory Will Be Mine
Damned if I Do
Release & Repeat (Reprise)
Reclaiming My Time
Night of Terror
Jailed for Freedom
Listen to Your Mother
Dear Mama/19 (Reprise)
Reclaiming Our Time (Reprise)
Alice Paul (aka AP): Katie Ganem
Carrie Chapman Catt: Maria Ciarrocchi
Emmeline Pankhurst / Ida B. Wells: Millicent Scarlett
Lucy Burns: Krystle Cruz
Sue B. Anthony (aka Sue B): Brenda Parker
Christabel Pankhurst / Inez Milholland: Elizabeth Keith
President Woodrow Wilson / Dr. Gannon: Brian Lyons-Burke
Police Chief Sylvester / Representative Harry Burn: Gregory Scott Stuart
Chorus & Dancers: CinCin Fang, Haylee Green, Raquel Jennings (swing), Danielle Marquis, Angela Norris, Reyina Senatus, Katy Sherlach, Elizabeth Spikes, Rebecca Weiss, Katie Zajic
Ensemble: Alexis Primus, Katy Sherlach
Mother / Ensemble: Karen Bralove
Jennifer Schwed: Writer/Lyricist/Director/Producer
Doug Bradshaw: Writer/Lyricist/Director/Producer
Charlie Barnett: Composer/MusicalDirector/Arranger/ Piano/Producer
Costumes: Jennifer Schwed
Lighting Design: Dan Martin
Sound: Turner Bridgforth
Vocal Captain: Millicent Scarlett
Choreography: Danielle Marquis, Angela Norris
Dance Captain: Kristen Briscoe
Stage Manager: Elise Edwards
Running Time: Two hours 35 minutes, including one intermission.