The Angst Of The '90s Is Alive On Broadway

Nov 24, 2019
Originally published on November 25, 2019 3:41 pm

Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette's 1995 breakthrough album, spoke to the angst of a generation. Her alt-rock opus is now having its Broadway moment, connecting to the rage of a whole new audience thanks to Diablo Cody, who went back to the songs on Jagged Little Pill to write her first musical. The Oscar-winning writer behind the movies Juno and Young Adult first heard the album when she was a teenager in suburban Chicago.

"I spent the entire summer kind of screaming along to those songs in my car when it came out," Cody says. "It was just irresistible to me."

While drawing inspiration from the album, the musical is not directly about Alanis Morissette. It tells a new story about the Healys, an American family that appears to be picture-perfect but, privately, is a mess. The dad's an overworked lawyer; the son struggles to please everyone; there's a rebellious adopted daughter; and the mom, Mary Jane, develops an addiction to painkillers to cope with the trauma of a past sexual assault. Played by Elizabeth Stanley, Mary Jane is constantly on the verge of a psychotic break, but she's the image of self-control. That composure is tested, however, when a similar incident of sexual assault affects a young girl in her community.

"I think sometimes with trauma, we can sit on it for years," says Tony Award-winner Diane Paulus, who directed the musical. "That's what we've learned through the #MeToo movement ... You can have had a trauma 20 years ago and it can live inside you."

The musical opened last year at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., but there were key changes made for Broadway — namely, one pivotal scene depicting a drug overdose.

"Sometimes we'd finish the number and people would start applauding," Paulus says. Although she knew people were applauding the virtuosity of the performance, Paulus said something had to change. "We cannot have applause there. It's this really devastating thing that's happening."

In the Broadway version, the scene is performed with a strobe light effect, resulting in only glimpses of the overdose.

"That was deliberate, to have the audience go, 'Oh, this is real, what's happening to her,' " Paulus says.

Characters outside the Healy family are also going through pain. The character Joanne, played by Lauren Patten, has her heart broken by Mary Jane's daughter, Frankie. In a pivotal scene, she sings Morissette's iconic anthem "You Oughta Know," which has had audiences pumping their fists and dancing in their seats.

Jagged Little Pill covers a lot of ground. In fact, Cody acknowledges that it may have attempted to tackle too many issues. "It really is like 'Hashtag: the Musical.' It's so much. We have the opioid epidemic, the crazy political stuff that's happening, global warming, #MeToo — all of it."

If all of this seems like a lot, the show's creators are here to remind you of the chaos that they felt in the 1990s, and that we're all still feeling it today.

: 11/25/19

The audio of this story, as did a previous Web version, identifies a scene with strobe lights as depicting a sexual assault. That scene depicts a drug overdose.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

"Jagged Little Pill," Alanis Morissette's 1995 breakthrough album, spoke to the angst of a whole generation. That album is now having its Broadway moment and connecting to the rage of a whole new audience. NPR's Denise Guerra spoke with the show's creators and got a sneak preview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALANIS MORISSETTE SONG, "YOU LEARN")

DENISE GUERRA, BYLINE: Diablo Cody was a teenager in suburban Chicago when she first heard "Jagged Little Pill."

DIABLO CODY: I spent the entire summer kind of screaming along to those songs in my car when it came out. It was just irresistible to me.

GUERRA: Cody is the Oscar-winning writer behind the movies "Juno" and "Young Adult." To write her first musical, she went back to the tracks on "Jagged Little Pill."

CODY: You know, a song like "You Learn" has this line in there about how, you know, I recommend biting off more than you can chew. And I still feel that way. And this show is proof of that (laughter). It's definitely more than I can handle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU LEARN")

ALANIS MORISETTE: (Singing) Swallow it down...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU LEARN")

ELIZABETH STANLEY: (Singing) What a jagged little pill. It feels so good...

DEREK KLENA: (Singing) Swimming in your stomach.

GUERRA: The musical is not about Alanis Morissette. Instead, it takes inspiration from the album to tell a story about new characters. The Healys are a picture-perfect American family. They look happy and successful, but privately, they are a mess. Dad's an overworked lawyer. The son struggles to please everyone. There's a rebellious adopted daughter. And there's mom, Mary Jane, played by an evocative Elizabeth Stanley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORGIVEN")

STANLEY: (Singing) I never forgot it, confusing as it was.

GUERRA: Mary Jane is coping with the trauma of a past sexual assault. To deal with it, she developed an addiction to painkillers. She's described as, quote, "one salad from a psychotic break." But she's the image of self-control. That control is tested when a young girl in her community is attacked.

DIANE PAULUS: I think sometimes, with trauma, we can sit on it for years.

GUERRA: That's Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus.

PAULUS: That's what we've learned through the #MeToo movement that has become so in our zeitgeist now - that you can have had a trauma 20 years ago, and it can live inside you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORGIVEN")

STANLEY: (Singing) I will suffer the consequence of this inquisition.

GUERRA: The musical first ran last year at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. But there are key changes made for Broadway. Paulus explains one pivotal scene depicting the young girl's sexual assault. Back in Cambridge...

PAULUS: Sometimes, we'd finish the number, and people would start applauding. We cannot have applause there. It's this really devastating thing that's happening. And I know people are applauding, like, the virtuosity of the performance.

GUERRA: In the Broadway version, the scene is performed with a strobe-light effect, resulting in only glimpses of the assault.

PAULUS: That was deliberate to have the audience go, this is real what's happening to her.

GUERRA: "Jagged Little Pill" is not just about sexual assault. Characters outside the Healy family are also going through pain.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU OUGHTA KNOW")

LAUREN PATTEN: (Singing) I want you to know...

GUERRA: The character Joanne, or she prefers to be called, Jo, has her heart broken by Mary Jane's daughter. In one of the best scenes of the night, she sings Morissette's iconic anthem "You Oughta Know" and had the audiences pumping their fists and dancing in their seats.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU OUGHTA KNOW")

PATTEN: (Singing) And I'm here to remind you of the mess you left when you went away.

GUERRA: Actor Lauren Patten sings it with harrowing ferocity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU OUGHTA KNOW")

PATTEN: (Singing) It's not fair to deny me of the cross I bear that you gave to me. You, you, you ought to know.

GUERRA: While culturally relevant, the musical attempts to tackle too many issues, something writer Diablo Cody acknowledges.

CODY: It really is, like, Hashtag: The Musical. And I'm proud of that because it's so much. We have the opioid epidemic, the crazy political stuff that's happening, global warming, I mean, #MeToo - all of it.

GUERRA: If all this seems like a lot, the show's creators are here to remind you of the mess and chaos that they felt in the 1990s and that we're all still feeling it today.

Denise Guerra, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAD OVER FEET")

CELIA ROSE GOODING AND ANTONIO CIPRIANO: (Singing) And don't be surprised if I love you...

CELIA ROSE GOODING: (Singing) ...For all that you are.

ANTONIO CIPRIANO, CELIA ROSE GOODING, SEAN ALLAN KRILL AND ELIZABETH STANLEY: (Singing) I couldn't help it. It's all your fault.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story, as did a previous Web version, identifies a scene with strobe lights as depicting a sexual assault. That scene depicts a drug overdose.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.