Let’s Talk about that 'Jagged Little Pill' Musical Because Diablo Cody and Alanis Morissette and You Already Clicked, Didn’t You?
Yes, 2018 has raided your 1995 cassette collection and brought Jagged Little Pill to life in musical form, with a book (the story and non-lyrics) written by Diablo Cody. You have questions? You have so many questions. I have answers. Let’s dig in….
So is this musical really based on that album?
Not so much like that or Green Day’s American Idiot, concept albums with a more cohesive throughline. This is more like the musical Beautiful about Carol King, using her music. Only this isn’t about Alanis. So … actually Rock of Ages is probably the best analogy. A show with its own storyline that happens to use pop music only, here, it’s all music of a singular artist.
So if it’s not about Alanis…?
Diablo Cody (think Juno or the recent Tully) decided to create a story around what she saw as an underlying theme running through the whole album:
It’s an album that tells us to wake up, “swallow it down,” and confront our fears. Most popular music encourages the pursuit of pleasure; Jagged Little Pill actually recommends discomfort. These songs suggest that we subject ourselves to that which hurts (and ultimately heals). That we debride our deepest wounds even though the process itself can be excruciating…. Working on this show, I am often struck by how inherently theatrical the music is, even before it’s been rearranged for the theater. The romance, laughter, tears, sex and loss are already there, embroidered into the lyrics and melodies.
(Source: a piece written by Cody in the show playbill.)
Ok. But, like, what’s it about?
Jagged Little Pill is about the Healey family. On the surface, they’re modern day, textbook perfect suburbia — the does-it-all mom, the hardworking father, the knowingly-cool daughter, and the star academic/athletic son. But beneath the surface, there are a host of issues. The parents are in a year-long relationship rut, the mom’s hooked on prescription pills, the son’s struggling to do the right thing when his best friend is accused of rape, and the daughter is dealing with a heaping pile of sexual and racial identity politics.
Through its two hours, the show primarily splits its focus over three threads. One follows the mother Mary Jane (if you’re familiar with the album, of course there was going to be a main character called Mary Jane) and she continues to spiral and crumble under the pressures of keeping up her family’s perfect appearances. A second follows the rape storyline, which starts out very subtly before raging (figuratively and literally) to life in the second half. And the third follows the daughter Frankie coping with being a black daughter in a white family and navigating complex bisexual waters when a new boy at school starts to come between her and her girlfriend.
It is. But Diablo Cody being Diablo Cody, and true to Alanis’s approach to lyrics, there is humor mined within the depths of what’s a very heavy story. While I wouldn’t call the show a comedy, it is fun with more laughs than the above would have you expect.
How does the show work the music in?
Most songs are used in a way that flows back and forth between being the literal words coming out of a character’s mouth and being a metaphor to help expose inner emotions. Although a few of the album’s songs feel a smidge shoehorned in, on the whole, this works surprisingly well. For example, after the show opens with a clever way of introducing us to this perfect family, the first song kicks in, “Right Through You” (the songs are not used in album-order), as a way to allow the audience to see through this veneer to the troubles beneath the surface. The scene transitions to one between mother Mary Jane and daughter Frankie, where they alternate parts in “All I Really Want,” as we see the chasm of the mother/daughter strife between them.
In addition to a willingness to play around with the lyrical perspective of songs, having one song often encompassing multiple characters’ point of views, the show is also not slavishly married to the underlying compositions themselves. Some songs have portions excised, while others have new lyrics to better fit the show’s context. (An interview I read with Cody suggests that these modifications were entirely her own, though with Alanis’s blessing.) With few exceptions, this serves to keep the audience in the moment, not focusing on an out-of-place lyric. As for the songs themselves, yes, the show uses every song from the album, including the hidden track “Your House” (which the guys behind me at the bar line were immensely excited about before the show began). It also pulls in about six songs from other albums, including my personal favorite Alanis song, “Uninvited” (from the City of Crows soundtrack. There are also two songs that I can’t even place - I don’t think they’re original, but I also can’t seem to find them on any album, and I’m not a diehard enough Alanis fan to otherwise know what songs they’re variations on. Point being, there’s a lot of Alanis for you in this show.
Uhm…what about “Ironic?”
So after the first couple of numbers, when it became clear that the songs were open to some reinterpretation and that the show was willing to have some fun with the songs, I suddenly had a very important question dawn on me. Knowing Diablo Cody, how was the show going to respond to the fact that the things in “Ironic” have been lambasted for twenty years as not being, well, ironic? And Cody hits that one perfectly, coming up with a clever way to use the song itself within the arch of the story, while also having the show absolutely present (and respond to) that particular criticism.
Ok, but is Jagged Little Pill any good?
Short answer, yes. The music and performances are fantastic. The live rock band that is frequently brought on stage is energetic and tight, and perfectly walks the line of sounding like the original songs while still sounding live. And with the exception of one bit of miscasting, the performances are great, both from a pure acting perspective but particularly when it comes to the song. Credit to Sean Allen Krill, who plays the father, as Alanis songs can be tough for a guy to pull off, and he does so admirably.
But it’s two of the female leads who are show stoppers. Lauren Patten, who plays Jo (Frankie’s girlfriend), delivers a fun performance that often reminded me of Laurie Metcalf on the original run of Rosanne (we won’t speak of the current thing). She belts out several great songs, but then she literally stops the show with “You Oughta Know,” as she absolutely embodies the rage and anger and frustration of that song in an all-out performance. Understanding that this was the opening night, with an audience full of Alanis fans who were particularly hyped to see her biggest hit, I’ve still never seen an audience go that nuts for a performance. It was like a minute and a half of pure crazy town, and Patten deserved it. (Including my favorite part, when someone basically called back to her character “I see you.”)
But Elizabeth Stanley, as Mary Jane, good lord. If this show makes its way to Broadway, she is a fucking shoe-in for a frontrunner Tony nomination. At times, you could close your eyes and swear it was Alanis herself on stage, yet Stanley makes every song her own, not merely a cover. She is also the best actor in this cast and, tasked with the role that has the biggest character journey, she delivers an unflinching performance. If her performance of “Uninvited” doesn’t make audience members at least a little misty, they’re dead inside. (The person behind me, at the end of the show, said she cried four times during the second act.)
That “Uninvited” performance is also the second number in the show to deal with a very difficult piece of stage (and real-life) imagery in a clever way involving staging and choreography that I’m not sure I’ve seen before. Both scenes are hard ones to pull off without becoming overly melodramatic or not taking the subject matter seriously enough, compounded by the fact that they’re being put to pop/rock songs. Credit to director Diane Paulus and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui for taking a swing for the fences. (And credit to them both in general for a subtly directed and entertainingly choreographed performance in general.)
As for the story of the show, as I said above, it’s very importantly of today. At times it’s a little too on the nose, and a little too much is crammed in there. But it’s hard to fault Cody, because the intent and the ambition is so good. At least, you’ll think so if you buy into the show’s clear agenda, which is staunchly liberal and staunchly feminist (it’s right up this Feminist Hugbox of a website’s alley). While this audience was all in, it’s easy to see many (unfortunately) who would be off-put by the show’s unflinching look at rape culture, support of the youth political rally movement, and acceptance of fluid gender politics. But fuck ‘em. This show isn’t for them.
We’re in a time when, using Cody’s words, we’re suffering some deep cuts and feeling a lot of hurt. This show is a message that we might just make it out the other side. This show isn’t for the assholes, it’s for us. Yes, it’s for the kids of the ’90s who found solace in a former child actor’s raging rock album. But more importantly, it’s for the kids of today who have had enough of our bullshit and are going to fix this shit on their own.