Broadway By Design: SUFFS

Suffs is running on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre. 

By: May. 22, 2024
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In Broadway by Design, BroadwayWorld is shining a spotlight on the stellar designs of this Broadway season, show by show. Today, we continue with the creatives from the six-time Tony-nominated Suffs- Scenic Designer Riccardo Hernández, Lighting Designer Lap Chi Chu, Sound Designer Jason Crystal, and Costume Designer Paul Tazewell.


It’s 1913 and the women’s movement is heating up in America, anchored by the suffragists — “Suffs,” as they call themselves — and their relentless pursuit of the right to vote. Reaching across and against generational, racial, and class divides, these brilliant, flawed women entertain and inspire us with the story of their hard-won victory in an ongoing fight. So much has changed since the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment over a century ago, and yet we’re reminded sometimes we need to look back, in order to march fearlessly into the future.

Where did the design process begin? For sceenic designer Riccardo Hernández, it was with iconic American architecture. "The inspiration for the scenic design for Suffs was the monumental architecture of Washington D.C., which drew inspiration from Classical Greek and Roman temples," he explained. "I specifically created a set of portals evoking the Entablature of the Supreme Court with all of its architectural details. Within this frame I had a set of four Corinthian columns that can slide in to create different configurations. 

Suffs

Suffs

"Scale was a dominant factor in the overall design. The first idea I crafted in the model was Inez Milholland’s procession down Pennsylvania Avenue, where she led thousands of women, riding a stunning white horse, all while dressed in white to create one of the most beautiful moments in American history. Visually speaking, this is the key to my design. The architecture of the portals’ cornices, the fluted Corinthian columns and the RP cyc upstage are also white, which can be illuminated to create an operatic grandeur. Once this framework was crafted, I began to create a fluid space that could move to enclose and articulate intimate private spaces, the framing device being sliding American Victorian paneled walls and fluted Corinthian pilasters. This framing device allowed us to move fluidly from the public to the private spaces with ease. The other crucial inspiration in the design is the Music Box theater itself with its Neoclassical architecture. The bridge I have in the design that flies in and out is an exact replica of the theater’s side boxes’ balcony railings."

Lighting designer Lap Chi Chu added: "I wanted to accentuate the ways in which the Suffrage movement was comprised of so many different individuals with unique motivations who chose to come together for a like purpose. Shaina often expressed how the efforts to earn women the right to vote read like an action movie.  It is historical in nature, but I wanted the design to feel present and active; to propel the story forward with velocity."

Suffs

Where did the Suffs sound come from? "One of the developmental work sessions for Suffs was unamplified, and I was lucky enough to just sit and listen to Shaina [Taub]’s music purely acoustically. I was particularly taken by the intricacy and power of her and Andrea [Grody]’s vocal arrangements. Sitting in a small room and hearing 17 singers arranged left-to-right, I was able to pick out individual voices in a way that can be difficult to do when you’re hearing many voices mixed through just one or two loudspeakers," said sound designer Jason Crystal.

"This also spoke to the historical context of amplification at the time. None of the women portrayed in Suffs would have used microphones or speaker systems. The only way to be louder was to have more voices. (Fun fact: In 1919, President Wilson was the first President to use an amplification system, the same year Congress passed the 19th amendment).

Suffs

"I was excited to incorporate this impression - the feeling of a collective crowd, yet still made of real individuals - into the Broadway sound design. There are speaker systems at the Music Box that only get activated for large or complex vocal moments, like 'The March', 'How Long', and 'Keep Marching'. In those moments, I modify the dispersion of voices throughout the sound system in real time and at different ratios, supported by software I wrote for this purpose. As the crowd grows, it not only gets louder, it also gets wider. More arrivals of more voices, all from the stage, but with an enhanced ability to pick out individuals from the greater crowd."

Costume designer Paul Tazewell started his process by researching the real women. "My inspiration for Suffs was largely influenced by vintage photos of the actual women that the story is written about. The entire Suffs team, including director Leigh Silverman, writer Shaina Taub, and each member of the cast, took poetic license in depicting who these women were and how they looked and dressed," he explained. "The clothing was also influenced by the stellar cast of wonderful actors  playing these roles, which allowed for me to make specific choices to highlight these powerful women in our history."

Suffs

Where did the design team hit their biggest hurdles? Chu and Crystal's were both pretty practical...

"Finding enough room for lights," said Chu. "This production covers so much geography, and so many emotional highs and lows, we really needed to pack in a lot of visual story.  Set Designer Riccardo [Hernández] and I used every inch of the theater, sometimes digging into the floor to create space for more lights."

"Hats! In case you haven’t had the privilege of seeing Suffs yet, one thing that doesn’t go unnoticed is the large number of hats (upwards of 40, I believe) worn by characters throughout the show," explained Crystal. "They are beautiful (hooray Paul Tazewell), but they are difficult! For a sound designer, hats can be problematic because they might cover a microphone, or, more commonly, provide acoustic reflections off the hat brim, which causes the sound entering the mic to have a brittle or noisy character. 

Suffs

"Each character/hat combination needed to be approached individually. It wasn’t really possible for me to create a generalized approach, given the hats’ differing styles, logistical requirements (dancing with a hat is different from pinning a hat to a wig), the voices of the actors wearing them, and the number of hats some of the characters wear throughout the show."

"My biggest challenge was having the transitions of time be clearly represented through the changes in costuming," said Tazewell. "Suffs is a story that spans the years from 1912 through 1920. Over this period of time there were significant changes in fashion silhouettes that underscored the shift in the women's suffrage movement and the eventual empowerment of women, which was seen through fewer strictures on corsetry and lengths and volume of skirts. As an idea and image, I compare this to the symbolic burning of bras seen later in protests against oppression of women through the 1960s." 

"The biggest challenge in this project was the ease and fluidity demanded for all the different scenes that move rather quickly, " added Hernández. "I have an elevator that delivers Alice Paul’s different offices, while we pre-set other elements on a center track upstage of the wooden Victorian sliding walls. Large iconic elements fly in to create different locations:  A dilapidated store front window wall and Victorian brass sconces for Alice’s first office, a large American eagle flanked by the Corinthian columns and Victorian red wallpaper for the Oval Office, a replica of the White House fence for the “The Young Are at the Gates,” a large Neoclassical arch that flies in to reduce the height of the space creating more intimate configurations, a framed photograph of Inez, a menacing dark brick wall for the prison, and the beautiful pageantry of flags and banners for multiple scenes, all moving simultaneously to breathe in and out of scenes alongside the music composed by the amazing Shaina Taub."

Suffs

"Another great challenge was the horse Inez rides in the Act I procession. Leigh did not want a realistic horse, but rather a poetic visual gesture for this iconic event. I created an armature made from bent steel painted white, which emerges from the armature of an actual horse sculpture our actress Hannah Cruz rides. The front has a golden horse’s mask that beautifully matches the style of the golden armor she is wearing that was designed by Paul Tazewell. The overall effect results in the feeling of a magical, almost spiritual force of this woman leading the path to change, marching through history, and teaching us to fight for a better world."  


Suffs is running on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre. 





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