Curtain Call

In Suffs, Jenn Colella Is Telling A New Story On Broadway

The Tony nominee reveals the backstage rituals and cure-alls that keep her going.

Starring in Suffs was a reality check for Jenn Colella. Back in 2017, the actor was asked to play turn-of-the-century suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt in a reading of Shania Taub’s new musical, in which the character goes head-to-head with Alice Paul (Taub), an upstart activist. Colella, then 42, thought she was too young for the role.

“I was like, ‘Oh, that’s so sweet. Of course I’ll do it for this first reading, but clearly I’m too young to represent the old guard,’” Colella, now 49, tells Bustle. “But once I got in there, I realized, ‘Oh, this woman was such an extraordinary bad*ss.’”

Two years after debuting at New York’s Public Theater in 2022, Suffs opened on Broadway, and the impact was immediate. The show, produced by Hillary Clinton and Malala Yousafzai, earned six Tony nominations, including for Best Musical. Colella celebrated with neighbor and castmate Jaygee Macapugay by “screaming like we’d won the World Series.”

On stage, their characters were fighting for a different type of victory: women’s enfranchisement. Over time, Colella has become not just “very comfortable” with “representing the old guard,” but proud to share Catt’s legacy with audiences.

Colella, in blue, on Suffs’ opening night.Cindy Ord/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

As part of that story, she shines a light on a new LGBTQ+ narrative: The show imagines Catt and her real-life companion, Mollie Hay (Macapugay), as romantic partners onstage. (Colella herself has been an inspiration for many queer performers, such as Mean Girls’ Renée Rapp.)

The musical took on a new meaning when Colella welcomed her daughter, Morrison, with wife Mo Mullen on Valentine’s Day 2024. Now her opening number, “Let Mother Vote,” hits different.

“I feel like I’m wearing my heart outside of my body. I can cry at the drop of a hat,” says Colella, who earned a Tony nod for 2017’s Come From Away. “Even saying the word ‘mother’ on stage makes me want to burst into tears.”

Her daughter has made Suffs feel even more significant. “It’s an important piece of art that can actually incite change at a time when we need it most,” she says. “I’m doing something that matters and that can actually change the course of our history. I feel like I’m in the sweet spot.”

Below, she reflects on how she prepares to tell Catt’s story, her odd pre-show rituals, and the biggest challenge of Suffs.

Colella (far left) and the Suffs cast sing “Happy Birthday” to Gloria Steinem backstage.Bruce Glikas/WireImage/Getty Images

On her pre-show rituals:

I like to meditate. If I can sit in the space of the theater and just let go of anything that happened during the day and free my mind, that helps me a great deal. Then I’ll put on some Ingrid Michaelson or Sara Bareilles. I like to sing songs that my soul feels connected to. That’s how I warm up as I’m putting on my makeup. And then we do a little prayer sing-song with everybody in the stairwell at five minutes till show.

On dressing-room necessities:

In my dressing room is a humidifier, tons of water, all my makeup, and a lot of very soft blankets and pillows so I can snuggle down for my meditation. In between shows, I definitely like to take a little nap in there. I like Throat Coat tea, and I put Element in my water, which is a magnesium pack, and sometimes I’ll do a throat spray.

On the opening few seconds:

I really get nervous at the top of the show when that curtain opens. My heart is pounding. I feel like a kid again, like it’s my very first solo in the fourth grade choir. I’m taking deep breaths and telling myself that I’m supposed to be there, that I deserve to be there.

On her weird vocal exercises:

Before I get on stage, I have to make some strange noises that’ll turn heads. It’s this kind of siren-y thing, but there’s this rattle that happens behind. It’s so bizarre.

On die-hard theater fans:

I find it remarkable that at the end of my workday, people are standing outside my workplace saying “Good job.” Who else gets that? I’ve had people say “Will you write this lyric on a napkin?” and then they come back and show me a tattoo. There’s one fan who has my signature tattooed on her. Theater fans especially, they mean business.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.