Five Things You Oughta Know About the 'Jagged Little Pill' Musical

Nathan Johnson
The cast of "Jagged Little Pill"

Alanis Morissette is the latest artist is getting Broadway musical treatment, and if you’re surprised then you haven’t been paying attention. Like Carole King, she’s a singer-songwriter who crafts universally empathetic lyrics tinged with honest reflections. Like The Four Seasons, Cher and ABBA, her material features rousing anthems that make you want to (respectfully) tap your feet and bop your head. And like the Go-Gos, she has a sizeable fan base nostalgic for the days of yore: In this case, the summer of 1995. 

But Jagged Little Pill does not mean to be a fun jukebox singalong show in the vein of Beautiful, Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia, The Cher Show or Head Over Heels. In this production, you think, you cry, and yes, you learn. And while it’s not a biography of the Canadian alt-rock heroine, the show serves as a loving salute to her musical contributions that endure to this day. As well it should: A year after Gen Xers mourned the death of Kurt Cobain, this trailblazer made it devastatingly clear through the power of song that young people (especially young women) are multi-faceted individuals that demand authenticity.

This message -- along with many others -- shines through in the passionate musical that attempts to solve too many problems in under three hours. But, in the words of Morissette herself in “Head over Feet,” it will likely win you over. Here’s five things to know about it.

1. It doesn’t take place in the 1990s

Though some of the characters are draped in flannel, don’t get your retro hopes up: This story is very much steeped in the present. Consider that it centers around a wealthy, fundamentally unhappy Healy family of suburban Connecticut: mother Mary Jane is hiding a secret; father Steve is a workaholic lawyer with a porn addiction; high school senior son Nick is an overachiever feeling the pressures of success; and daughter Frankie is a black bisexual teenager whom the Healys adopted.

The characters sing about hot-button issues, from opiate addiction to gender identity to sexual assault. The show also features real-life images from the Women’s March and the gun-control movement. And yet the songs fit rather seamlessly, proving that Morissette got woke while many of her peers were still sound asleep. 

2. The set list expands beyond the titular album 

Jagged Little Pill is so dense with plot that could have sustained solely on the 12 songs from Morissette’s seminal, Diamond-certified 1995 album that gives the show its title. You’ll hear all of them framed within inspired contexts: “Ironic” is sung in a high school writing workshop (cue the jokes about the meaning of irony!); “Forgiven” is an act-one curtain closer set in a church that dramatizes an unsettling turning point in Mary Jane’s spiraling pill addiction. The show also features nine other favorites from Morissette’s later repertoire, including “Hands Clean,” “Thank U,” and “Uninvited.” Plus, two new songs have been written for the occasion, “Smiling” and “Predator.”   

3. Um, it’s not actually for Gen Xers 

Isn’t it ironic, dontcha think? The teens that related so profoundly to Morissette’s sentiments back in the day are now middle-aged adults whose bodies have a little more in the middle and a little less on top. (The artist herself was a mere 20 when she laid down the vocals.) But youth springs eternal, as the musical is aimed squarely at the Gen Z-ers not yet zygotes when the album was released.

On stage, the slew of high-school characters face the most pressing challenges and belt out the most heartfelt numbers. The only two grown-ups on stage act and react off their kids’ behavior. In fact, if you’re an adult without children, you’ll find little in the story to grab hold of. That is, unless you count the dead-on accurate portrayal of privileged SoulCycle riders who like to hang out at fancy juice bars. As for the Baby Boomer crowd? Well, The Phantom of the Opera is still playing a few blocks down...

4. It has serious playwright cred 

The musical's book was supplied by Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno (as well as the sublime Young Adult and Tully), who has a knack for crafting distinctively pointed and observant dialogue. Her tart humor is all over the place and, more times than not, enhances the heavier scenes. On feelings of sadness: “I’ve always believed happy people only exist in orange juice commercials and in Utah.” On an unsatisfied sex life: “I’m like a beagle under the table begging for scraps.” The most clever? An in-joke about Morissette herself. 

5. Its best number is...

Though some of Morissette’s lyrics are refashioned to fit the original story, the most emotional number is mercifully left untouched. That would be the iconic eff-you anthem “You Oughta Know,” sung by a scene-stealing Lauren Patten (who plays a heartbroken queer teen). The specific staging is so sparse that it feels like we’re invading her privacy. And her stinging rendition, which starts as an unplugged ballad and builds through to the guitar-shredding chorus, rips through the soul. At the show I attended, she received an ovation mid-song. The haunting performance almost made me forget that Morissette (maybe) wrote “You Oughta Know” about one Dave Coulier.  

Jagged Little Pill is now playing at the Broadhurst Theater in New York. 


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