Jagged Little Pill, the new Broadway production based on the multiplatinum 1995 Alanis Morissette album of the same name, is a departure from your usual jukebox musical. It’s neither the story of an artist’s career (Tina, Jersey Boys, Beautiful) nor a more literal interpretation of their work (American Idiot follows Green Day’s concept album closely, while rock ballet Movin’ Out includes characters drawn from Billy Joel’s lyrics). The closest popular comparison might be to Mamma Mia, which stitches ABBA songs into a comic plot unrelated to the band’s career or work. But while that show’s approach is campier, this one takes its songs and story more seriously.
Jagged Little Pill’s transition from studio recording to stage embraces risk, befitting the show’s inspiration. When Morissette released the record, she was best known for a couple of dance-pop singles and the TV show You Can’t Do That on Television; a shift to alternative rock was no sure thing, but it paid off. With that in mind, here’s how the album plays out on the stage.
Though fans have fond memories of the Jagged Little Pill album, the Broadway version is far from an exercise in nostalgia. Diablo Cody, the Academy Award–winning screenwriter behind Juno and Young Adult, weaves the songs from the LP—plus a few others from Morissette’s career—into a plot about the Healys, a suburban Connecticut family whose complicated lives encompass virtually every prominent social and political issue of our tumultuous times. The central storylines tackle opioid addiction (afflicting Mary Jane, the mother); sexual assault (which impacts Frankie, her daughter, who supports a classmate who’s been assaulted, and Nick, her son, who wrestles with his responsibility after witnessing the crime); and race (Frankie, who is black and has been adopted by a white couple, experiences racial tensions at home and school). The show also touches on climate change, the benefits of couples therapy and, on a much lighter note, the paleo diet.
It’s also funny
While a lot of the material is heavy, Cody’s dialogue is funny when it’s intended to be—and the moments of levity buoy the audience throughout the show’s 2-hour-40-minute running time. Frankie is serious about activism, but Mary Jane interprets her daughter’s “[Expletive] Fascism” sign as a “crafts project.” Even some somber moments, including Mary Jane’s hospital stay after an overdose, feature gallows humor. “Remember when we were younger before the kids, we’d party and drink too much and we would joke about going to rehab someday?” her husband, Steve, asks. “Well, you did it!” And there’s a moment when a teacher walks around with an “I just farted” sign taped to her back, so don’t worry about a shortage of silliness.
The show acknowledges the familiarity of its source material. Part of the fun for us was thinking about how Cody tackled the challenge of fitting well-known songs into a novel format, finding the right spots in the plot for the existing music and making the necessary lyrical tweaks. Some scenes and lines engage with existing perceptions and critiques of those songs. “Ironic,” for example, becomes a poem read aloud in class by Frankie, whose classmates ridicule her for not applying the correct definition of ironic.
“And isn’t it ironic,” she sings. Another student weighs in: “It’s not, though?”
In a couples-therapy scene, after Mary Jane sings that she’s “not the doctor” (in the song “Not the Doctor”), the therapist treating her and Steve introduces herself: “Hello, I am the doctor.”
And even though the musical is not about Alanis Morissette, the artist herself exists within the reality of the show; the audience discovers this when Steve is learning to play guitar and Mary Jane notes that he “only knows how to play one Alanis Morissette riff” (from “I See Right Through You”).
It has a lot of voices
If you’ve heard the Jagged Little Pill album, you probably identify the tracks closely with Morissette’s distinctive singing voice. In addition to the Broadway musical adapting the songs to address characters of different ages, races and genders, there’s the matter of the actual voices belting them out. A cast of 23 takes them on here; it’s a testament to their performances and Morissette’s songwriting that the tunes still bring down the house 25 years after their initial release. “You Oughta Know,” for example, sees Lauren Patten take center stage as Jo (Frankie’s girlfriend) and—with the help of the band and a light show—temporarily turn the musical into a rock concert. Then again, anyone who’s heard the snippet of “You Oughta Know” in Weird Al’s “Alternative Polka” already ought to have known, at least subconsciously, that Morissette’s music would sound great in any context.
Jagged Little Pill plays at the Broadhurst Theatre; buy 2-for-1 tickets for NYC Broadway Week performances at nycgo.com.