Some music is so emotionally raw, it’s almost embarrassing. The vulnerability of its rage and sorrow feels too messy and explicit, detailing dark recesses of feeling many of us would just as soon keep hidden. When Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill came out in 1995, it sounded like the id of a generation of disaffected young women unleashed in one guttural howl. To some it was delicious catharsis; others were reflexively turned off by its earnestness. I devoured it on repeat like the drama queen I was — and then suddenly, promptly pushed it away.
Alanis was too much. She had no chill. And if I wanted to grow up, I needed to stop stamping my feet or staring off into the middle distance wallowing in a vague sense of the world’s injustices, and learn how to cope.
The same qualities that make Morissette’s music uncomfortable are what make it uniquely suited to musical theatre — which yes, some people also find embarrassing in its emotional displays. Jagged Little Pill, the new musical opening on Broadway tonight, ingeniously seizes on the dynamics that made the album divisive and wrests them into an explosive and shattering portrait of American suburbia. It’s a story about dirty and difficult open secrets, how much we’d rather ignore them, how painful it is to confront them head-on, and how absolutely necessary doing so has become.
The Healy family has a surface sheen: Dad works long hours in the city, Mom whips up pancakes from scratch, their high-achieving son just nabbed early acceptance to Harvard, and their adopted daughter (who’s Black while her family is white) devotes herself to civil activism. Underneath all that, Dad (Sean Allan Krill) is lonely and self-soothing with porn and Pepto Bismol, Mom (Elizabeth Stanley) is sliding into addiction to pain meds, pressure to be perfect is crushing their son (Derek Klena), and their daughter (Celia Rose Gooding) is just trying to figure out who she is. (She happens to be bi, but her coming of age isn’t about coming out.) The rape of a classmate (Kathryn Gallagher) at a party has implications for each of them and turns the plot’s emotional gears.
Diablo Cody, best known as a screenwriter of wry, women-driven narratives like Juno (2007) and Jennifer’s Body (2009), achieves remarkable depth in a story that can sometimes seem to sprawl, both in order to incorporate as many Morissette songs as possible (two new tracks have been written for the show) and check off a laundry list of current social ills. Cody’s sharp humor certainly helps. But if the scope of what Jagged Little Pill aims to address feels precariously ambitious, the musical never short-changes its delicate, intertwined treatment of both sexual assault trauma and opioid abuse. To match Morissette’s music, beautifully orchestrated here by Tom Kitt, Cody’s script is honest and believable in a way that surpasses Tony-winner Dear Evan Hansen, its nearest Broadway kin.
The physical production from director Diane Paulus has the seamless flow of a waking dream turned terrible nightmare, with an efficient, paneled scenic design from Riccardo Hernández vividly lit by Justin Townsend. Paulus’ staging, and especially the work of movement director and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, are most extraordinary when the musical is at its most unflinching. How do you stage sexual assault? Slow its queasy momentum, capture its impact? Or demonstrate a long-buried trauma clawing its way to the surface? The results are among the most arresting moments of stagecraft on Broadway in recent memory.
The uniformly strong cast makes Morissette’s songs their own, even lending some a subtlety the original recordings make up for in brashness. But there’s a reason that “You Oughta Know” — the album’s most furious anthem, incredibly sung here by Lauren Patten playing the spurned lover — gets the most riotous applause. The time for learning to cope, for pretending that everything is and will be fine, is over. Welcome back to the age of rage.
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar
Photos by Matthew Murphy