There’s a sculpture in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol that is often overlooked, but is destined to get an exceptional amount of attention in the coming year. Adelaide Johnson’s monument to women of the suffrage movement depicts three early advocates, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony… as well as an unfinished block of marble behind them which is believed to suggest that the fight for women’s rights also remains unfinished.
The world premiere of a new musical about suffrage, 19: The Musical, calls to mind this sculpture. The U.S. is coming upon the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, and women, while they proudly exercise their right to vote, still fight against other disenfranchisements and inequities. Especially in this era of #MeToo, equal rights remains a work in progress.
19: The Musical gives a glimpse of the How and Why. And while most Americans can tout Susan B. Anthony’s name, but perhaps don’t know the role of other tenacious women — like Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt or Ida B. Wells — in the climax of the fight for the 19th, it gives progress some historic perspective.
As a lesson, the play is brilliant, bringing lesser famed characters and their roles to light in an entertaining and thought-provoking way. Charlie Barnett’s scores are passionate and powerful, and 19’s script, lyrics and plot by co-creators Jennifer Schwed and Doug Bradshaw are stage-perfect (including an ironic – but true! – twist near its conclusion). The play’s movement is interesting, but seems gratuitous and doesn’t always work well to advance the plot. But like its theme, 19: The Musical is evolving. Perhaps a future Broadway version will include more character development and less choreography.
For its world premiere performance, DC’s Katie Ganam plays a convincing Alice Paul: fierce and robust of voice, and aggressive without finesse. Brenda Parker keeps the story moving along poignantly as heavenly narrator Susan B. Anthony; but it is Millicent Scarlett that steals the show as Ida B. Wells. She shines the brightest spotlight on both the fact that suffrage didn’t have a 100% cohesive strategy and that black suffrage had — has — that much more of a heartbreaking and tragic journey.
But it’s not all tears and trials. At its heart, 19: The Musical details a triumph. Audiences will chuckle over Woodrow Wilson’s mansplaining (and other 21 century references, like being #blessed). And if you’re in the market for feminist t-shirts, the slogans are sensational.
19: The Musical plays for only three nights at the National Museum for Women in the Arts — all already entirely sold out. Yet audiences will no doubt hear more about this timely musical as the 19th Amendment celebrates its centennial.
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. (Ratified August 18, 1920)