Here is our review of Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morisette’s jukebox musical cast recording.
There’s always something that gives me pause whenever I hear the words “Jukebox Musical” when describing a particular show. That may not be a fair first impression, given that these songs are made into theatre showpieces in the first place: oftentimes these songs are so popular, the artists behind them possessing of such an iconic status that there’s no way for a show to lose any significant amount of money when you basically write a story (any story, to be honest) around their stock “Best Of” album. It will make money (I’m looking at you, Mamma Mia!), while not necessarily having the most profound of plots (I’m looking at you, Rock of Ages).
But perhaps the reason why some pop hits work and some don’t lie in the inherent quality of the work. There are some artists whose songs “speak to”, instead of “speak of”, the zeitgeist in which they were created. These songs have a life of their own, sustained by the energy of the generation it represents. In the mid-90’s, comfortably mired in the grunge movement, no one could deny that Alanis Morissette spoke to millions of disaffected teenagers worldwide. With the release of her first global album “Jagged Little Pill” in June 1995, she was catapulted to stardom on the back of such gems as “Ironic”, “Hand in My Pocket”, and “Head Over Feet” among others.
So it comes as no surprise that for such a successful artist to see her work reinterpreted onstage. What was surprising was how long it took them to put it together. I would venture to say that this is a very savvy move on their part. Alanis’ most ardent fanbase in the 90’s were teenagers. Now those teenagers have enough money to actually go see this show. Make no mistake; this show is a love letter to all of us 90’s kids.
Jagged Little Pill revolves around the Healy’s: a seemingly perfect, all-American family. The book by first-time librettist Diablo Cody (Juno, Paradise, United States of Tara) follows them through their journey of self-discovery in the face of events that make them question their beliefs on gender identity, racial politics, and emotional connection. Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus (Finding Neverland, Pippin, Waitress), deftly handles these complicated issues with nuance and heart: in dealing with topics such as queer identity, sexual assault, and the very real breakdown of human relationships, it can oftentimes be difficult to frame these within the limitations of the medium.
BUT: The performances of the brilliant cast that includes Elizabeth Stanley (Company), Sean Allan Krill (Godfather of Harlem), Celia Gooding (Fame, Urinetown), Derek Klena (Dogfight, Wicked), among others are what breathes such life into what are already potent and raw songs; propelling the plot forward with such intensity that it takes your breath away.
“Hand in My Pocket” is a youthful and exuberant declaration of friendship between Jo (Lauren Patten) and Frankie (Celia Gooding). This is a perfect example of one of the many clever ways the writing team weaves the music into the story without any seams showing: the lyrics needed very little changing, instead turning it into an actual conversation, the words just made an odd sense as ramblings between two close friends on their way to class. You see the same trick later in Act Two’s “Not the Doctor”, where the song is turned into a short, albeit delightful, argument between Mr. and Mrs. Healy in therapy. “Ironic” is turned into a funny little song about a class session that explores literary composition. It pokes fun on Alanis’ own little gaffe about how her lyrics aren’t really ironic in the strictest sense. I distinctly remember Jessica Zafra calling this out in one of her Twisted columns years back, something to the tune of: a black fly in your chardonnay is not ironic, it sucks. I swear, I’m tickled pink in hearing that line repeated almost verbatim in the song.
“Forgiven” is a masterclass in score and vocal performance. The song opens with such a calm dread that gives way to sections of pure aural seduction. It gives us a glimpse into Mary Jane’s (Elizabeth Stanley) mind, and the sexual frustration that informs her addiction to painkillers. Her tortured line: “We all needed something to cling to, so we did…” takes on a new, more profound, earthly meaning. On the other side of the coin, you have Jo’s (Lauren Patten) jarring rendition of “You Oughta Know”. You could really hear the river of anger and hurt kept behind clenched teeth as she powers through the song. It is a song that is felt, more than heard even when it was first released, and it has not lost an ounce of its significance and intensity here.
Less is more. We’ve heard that saying countless times, and it is specifically applicable to this show. In doing away with the usual distractions that seem to plague other musicals in its category, and just choosing to focus on the material and the potential truths hidden under Alanis’ raw lyrics, “Jagged Little Pill” has successfully set itself apart. It is a show that is worth seeing in its own right. Bring tissues; it’s going to get messy AF.
“Jagged Little Pill” is currently running on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre. The Original Broadway Cast is available for digital download on Apple Music and Spotify.