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How Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill tries to reinvent the jukebox musical

The new Alanis Morissette show is the most ambitious jukebox musical yet, for better or for worse.

Celia Rose Gooding and Lauren Patton perform “One Hand In My Pocket” with the company of Jagged Little Pill.
Matthew Murphy

Broadway seems to get a new jukebox musical every few months: There are ersatz Chers and Tina Turners and Carole Kings and Jersey Boys all over Times Square. Still, there was something a little shocking about the very idea of Jagged Little Pill, the new jukebox musical based on Alanis Morissette’s seminal 1994 album that premiered on Broadway in December. Jukebox musicals, surely, were for nostalgic baby boomers with tourist money to burn. They can be well executed, but traditionally they are painfully sincere hagiographies that wedge their songs into their subjects’ lives with much, too much, literalism. So what was Alanis, the poster girl for Gen X’s ironic nihilism, doing on Broadway?

Then Jagged Little Pill opened in Boston in 2018, and the rumors began: As jukebox musicals go, the early buzz whispered, Jagged Little Pill was actually not that bad. It had some astonishing performances. It had fixed the jukebox musical.

Part of what made Jagged Little Pill so exciting, according to those early out-of-town reviews, was that it eschewed the traditional biographical jukebox musical plot (“And then they said I shouldn’t be myself, but I was! And then I won a thousand Grammys!” is usually how you can summarize a typical plot.)

Instead, first-time playwright Diablo Cody’s book tells the story of a suburban family caught in contemporary malaise. Perfect mother Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley) is drowning under the weight of keeping up appearances, and she’s become dependent on opioids. She’s also struggling to connect to her daughter Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding), a committed activist who sings to Mary Jane that she’s “frustrated by your apathy.” But both Mary Jane and Frankie have to reconsider their understanding of each other after Frankie’s classmate Bella (Kathryn Gallagher) is raped at a party.

It’s still rare and unusual for a jukebox musical to have an original plot not focused on the artist themselves, so for many critics, Cody’s involvement was already an enormous step forward for the genre. But after the show moved to New York and was met with initial raves, a counternarrative began. For some critics, Cody’s book was the show’s weak link that let down Morissette’s music, a “shaky and contrived” mess of “confusion and occasional silliness.”

One month after the show’s Broadway debut, the conversation about whether Jagged Little Pill is worth swallowing has calmed down a little. So Vox culture writers Constance Grady and Aja Romano decided to take this time to talk through Jagged Little Pill and the problems of the jukebox musical. What makes them work, what makes them not — and is this particular musical any good or not?

Two blonde women, both dressed identically, are onstage. One is singing and reaching towards the other, who is suspended mid-leap, about to land on a couch.
Elizabeth Stanley as Mary Jane and Heather Lang as Mary Jane’s dream self in Jagged Little Pill.
Matthew Murphy

Constance: In the month and change that Jagged Little Pill has been out, we’ve had time for a rough consensus on the show to develop among critics, and it goes a little something like this: The performances are brilliant, but the book is overstuffed at best and a shapeless mess at worst. Where you fall on the musical overall seems to depend upon which aspect of the show you’re willing to give the most weight to.

I’ll put my cards on the table. I think Jagged Little Pill is a mess, and I love it with my whole heart. I had a blast at this show. I laughed, I cried, I cheered. I have only a glancing acquaintance with Alanis’s original album (I was slightly too young and way too uncool to listen to Jagged Little Pill very much in the ’90s), but the music is so undeniable, and the young cast so strong, that it was easy for me to let myself get swept away by everything that was happening onstage.

Like, try to sit there while Lauren Patten’s heartbroken Jo absolutely shreds “You Oughta Know” and not start screaming with catharsis. You can’t! It’s physically impossible! That’s why the show has to stop dead for a standing ovation every night as soon as she’s finished.

On the other hand, I have to acknowledge that this show suffers from the standard jukebox musical problem of forcing its characters into position to sing a particular song. And because this particular example is trying to do so much at once, giving every single character a disconnected subplot of their own, it doesn’t quite have time to pay off the tensions its songs set up.

“You Oughta Know” is a bit of a case study in this problem. An Alanis musical absolutely has to have someone sing “You Oughta Know,” because it’s one of her best and biggest hits. To set up the song, the show puts together a love triangle, so we see Frankie become torn between her girlfriend Jo and new kid Phoenix. But at the same time, the main concerns of Jagged Little Pill as a play are Mary Jane’s opioid addiction and the ripple effects from Bella’s rape, and it really doesn’t have time to make the love triangle feel like anything more than an afterthought.

The aims of this show as a jukebox musical and the aims of this show as an original musical are at odds, and as a result, its center of gravity is warped. This giant showstopper of a number is embedded in the slightest and weakest arc of the show. And the only conclusion Jo gets after the heartbreak and rage of “You Oughta Know” is half a verse in the finale, which is … a pretty weak conclusion.

Having said all that, I actually think that as far as this genre goes, Diablo Cody’s much-maligned book is pretty solid. If nothing else, Cody managed to people the cast with characters who all have different personalities, but who all believably feel like they are the kind of person who would break into an Alanis Morissette song if given the chance. That’s such a monumental achievement for a jukebox musical that I have to give her props for it.

Aja, where do you fall on Jagged Little Pill? Does the critical consensus feel correct to you? And do you love it in spite of the structure — or hate it because of it?

Aja: I’ll be very upfront and say that I grew up with an unshakeable, nay, zealous, faith in the thoroughly integrated book musical, whose songs evolve organically from the book and the characters. So the last two decades of musical theater have been pretty fraught for me, because I deeply resent the rise of the jukebox musical. It’s a regression in form! It’s everything Broadway aspired for decades to evolve beyond, now wrapped in a fancy marketing package as a cheap trick to get people into theaters! It’s cheating, Constance!

So, with all that said, I really do appreciate the spirit of Jagged Little Pill. Its aims are pure, its ambitions are to become a real musical, and I’m mostly in its corner. The creative team understands that you just shouldn’t treat Morissette’s music like that in any other pop biopic. Most jukebox musical scores are light even if the subjects are serious, but Alanis’s music is raw emotion. It’s the classic Gen X mix of depression and angst, infused with societal malaise and a touch of addiction.

Even its upbeat moments veer into neurotic, manic, difficult. JLP really couldn’t ever be a jukebox musical in that sense, because who’s actually gonna play Alanis on a jukebox? You play Alanis while screaming into your pillow at 3 am over a dirty breakup. You play Alanis while eye-rolling at each other about how ironically self-aware you’re being about playing Alanis — a move the musical itself parodies, in a scene meant purely to lampoon the cultural reaction to “Ironic.”

But the fact that I’m talking about how a musical is breaking the fourth wall to answer the longstanding cultural perceptions about one of its songs is part of the inherent problems you run into with musicals like this one. You have to work much harder to create characters the audience cares about as much as the songs themselves, and especially to get those characters to fit the situations prescribed by those songs.

“You Oughta Know” is one of the most glaring examples of this, because this song is meant to be the show’s climactic showstopper, but it just doesn’t fit. “You Oughta Know” is full of the kind of deep bitterness that results from a relationship that’s lasted years, not the uncertain, relatively new relationship it’s assigned to onstage.

Lauren Patten acts the hell out of Jo — who I read as emphatically nonbinary, FWIW — and she also gets one of the show’s other big numbers, “One Hand In My Pocket”. But her role is frustrating, because even though she’s one of the most compelling actors onstage, she’s working hard to fill a very thinly written part. Remember, Jo is the strongest leg in that ultimately weak love triangle Constance mentioned, and the character seems to have been created just to deliver strong (low-key queer) anthems, not to do much of anything else.

We barely get glimpses of her life outside their relationship with Frankie, and we really don’t even understand that relationship before it starts falling apart. Ultimately, the contrast between these giant, overly emotive songs and such an underwritten part just highlights just how lacking so much of the book is. (Next time, just make the whole musical about the misfit genderqueer kid! Done!)

Lauren Patton (center) sings “You Oughta Know” with the company of Jagged Little Pill.
Matthew Murphy

Diablo Cody’s book is overstuffed with too many social issues and too many characters, and it’s really obvious that much of this bloat is about finding ways to shoehorn in all the Alanis songs you know, whether or not they make sense and fit the plot or its characters.

“Head Over Feet” bizarrely gets split between two couples at once, as an attempt to give our main character, Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley), some backstory with her husband. Only this random nostalgia break abruptly happens in the middle of a bitter couples therapy session, where its placement makes no sense. Similarly, turning “Ironic” into a purely throwaway meta-number seems like a wasted opportunity, but that’s what happens when you’re trying to match characters to songs instead of letting songs grow out of character.

Additionally, Tom Kitt of the Pulitzer-winning Next to Normal did the orchestrations and arrangements for JLP, and I felt like Next to Normal heavily influenced this show in spirit without influencing its approach to characterization and story structure — so I felt the ghostly imprint of a much better show about family dysfunction bleeding through at every turn.

Even so, there’s a lot to like about JLP. The staging and choreography, together with the additional music by Glen Ballard (Morissette’s co-writer and Jagged Little Pill’s original album producer) and Kitt are all fantastic and full of pulsing energy and heart. Even though the characters are all little more than ciphers, Mary Jane in particular is the classic “unlikeable” Diablo Cody protagonist. She’s really hard to take until she becomes almost heartbreakingly vulnerable, and Elizabeth Stanley really nails that performance.

I wasn’t as moved as other audience members were by the scene where “Uninvited” invites us into the darkness in her head, but boy did I appreciate it as a way of drawing out that song’s complex, layered meanings, and as a way of elevating the jukebox musical itself. If we have to have jukebox musicals, and it seems we must, I’d rather have a dozen Jagged Little Pills that don’t quite work than a dozen blander, frothier musicals that do.

Constance: I absolutely agree on Jagged Little Pill’s massive ambitions, and I think you’re correct, Aja, that they are both its saving grace and one of its biggest problems. We can see this basic paradox not only formally but also thematically, because whoa, boy, does this musical have ambitions of handling a lot of different social and political themes. And it honestly only really has space for maaaaaaaaybe one and a half of them.

Most obviously, this is a musical about the opioid addiction crisis. Frankie’s mom Mary Jane is addicted to pills, and over the course of the show, we delve into Mary Jane’s addiction, its roots, and all the ways it’s begun to warp her ostensibly perfect suburban mom life. That plotline works nicely, I think: “Smiling” in particular, in which we see a disoriented and alienated Mary Jane going backwards through her day’s routine, really succeeds at making Alanis’s music feel fresh and new and character-based, is staged in an inventive and effective way, and is also genuinely moving.

We’ve also got the date rape plotline, which I would say is handled in a way that feels … basically fine. Sure, some of the protest scenes are a little cringe-inducingly earnest, and yes, songs like “Predator” and “No” get extremely literal interpretations (“Predator” can more or less survive it; “No” can’t). Still, Cody’s book gets nicely nuanced in the way she talks through the concerns here, especially when it comes to who believes whom and why. The plotline plays into Mary Jane’s addiction story in a thoughtful way. And Kathryn Gallagher gives a really grounded, smart performance as Bella throughout this subplot.

And then, sort of stuffed into the corners of the play, we’ve got Frankie’s political activism, and that just does not work at all. This plotline seems to want to cover basically all the progressive causes du jour, including climate change and, in a very bizarrely weighted moment, school gun violence.

There’s also the barely-sketched-in subplot of Frankie’s angst as a black girl adopted by a very white family, plus the sexual politics of her queer love triangle between Jo and Phoenix. Those issues are just kind of … there. They take up space, they inspire some extremely energetic rage-dancing — but there’s no room for the show to explore them as fully as they deserve. It begins to feel as though it’s just going through a checklist of issues for the wokeness street cred, rather than caring about those issues for their own sake.

Celia Rose Gooding performs “Unprodigal Daughter with the cast of Jagged Little Pill.
Matthew Murphy

Aja: And that is, wait for it, the ultimate irony of Jagged Little Pill: The show doesn’t care enough about any of the issues it’s cycling through to make them meaningful — when the whole point of the Jagged Little Pill album is the terror of caring too much.

Alanis’s album was an instant legend in part because it captured the zeitgeist of a generation that had turned toward ironic detachment to cope with the lack of control they felt over the world and their own lives. Alanis’s songs explicitly voiced the terror and anxiety of letting yourself care for anything at the end of a century in a culture increasingly veering towards nihilism. Her lyrics embraced her own neuroses and the power of her own bitterness in ways that also enhanced and amplified her hesitant, constantly-deflected shows of genuine affection and positive emotion. They made us feel how hard it is to love and care for anything.

And look, everyone knows that a suburban nuclear family is always a deceptively idyllic allegory for larger societal disquiet, right? That’s the trope. But when we look at the vast pantheon of stories that use this trope, too often suburban malaise itself is treated as the problem and not a symptom of something larger.

I think that’s the basic mistake Cody makes here: She treats most of her characters like they’ve been inducted by default into the national suburban burnout epidemic, and that’s the reason they’re all in individually self-absorbed hazes that keep them from connecting to each other or even listening to each other half the time. (On that front, I also think her storyline is strangely non-critical of the male members of our family, who both are actively dismissive of the pain of the women in their lives until they magically aren’t anymore, in ways that aren’t really fully examined or dealt with.)

These characters are performing their default identities, both individual and collective, and hitting their trope marks so they can get into position to sing their big Alanis number: the angry adopted child rebelling through feminism; the overworked absent dad who resents his depressed wife for not making him feel loved; the all-American jock who implodes under the pressure of getting into a top school by going to a dangerous high school party. It all feels perfunctory. But a cast full of characters truly inspired by Alanis Morissette would be fighting with themselves every step of the way about where they wanted to go, and why, and why they’re even this invested when it’s clear nothing matters at all.

Jagged Little Pill, the album, isn’t about characters performing simulacrums of humanity while being stuck in a bucolic modern hell: It’s about characters loudly and angrily trying to fight through that malaise to something better and more authentic. But here the characters’ struggles collectively feel far more performative than sincere. In a musical full of fight songs, there’s very little fight at all.

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