There isn’t much I can tell you about Alanis Morissette’s album “Jagged Little Pill” that you don’t know already. If you are a Gen Xer or an ‘80s millennial, you likely owned the album; you probably argued with someone over the meaning of the word ironic; perhaps you mouthed “would she go down on you in a theater” while locking eyes with someone worth the flirt. At the very least, you heard Morissette’s songs whether you wanted to or not, because for a time there in the mid-1990s, they poured out of what seemed like every speaker.
The end result is an emotional albeit predictable show that too often feels like it's pandering to the millennial demographic via stereotypes of what young people look like and care about.
Now those songs are back, albeit repackaged to fit a suburban melodrama. Part of a broader nostalgia trend in pop culture, Broadway is filling its theaters with stage adaptations of the era’s pop fare designed to appeal to adults in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Unfortunately, along the journey from album to stage, "Jagged Little Pill” has lost the raw rage that made it so special. The end result is an emotional albeit predictable show that too often feels like it's pandering to the millennial demographic via stereotypes of what young people look like and care about. Morissette’s words become less jagged little pill, more cherry-flavored cough syrup.
In 1995, Alanis Morissette was lightning in a bottle. She was a 20-year-old former TV star with brown Rapunzel hair that dominated her tiny frame, two bad dance albums and enough warranted rage at the entertainment machine to fill a diary with barbed lyrics.
Unlike her early work, Morissette’s third album “Jagged Little Pill” was a phenomenon — propelled by the underground jet stream of the Riot Grrl movement and grunge, it flew to the top of the mainstream charts. The album won five Grammys, sold 33 million copies, and made Morissette the recipient of the type of is-she-or-isn’t-she-good controversy that happens when an artist becomes way too popular, way too quickly.
But while Morissette’s artistry was a matter of debate, her rage was not. “You Oughta Know,” arguably her most celebrated song, is a claw-your-skin-off breakup anthem. “And every time you speak her name/ Does she know how you told me/ You’d hold me until you died,” Morissette growls, her anger and pain so potent it feels contagious. Her unapologetic emotion offered a permission slip to women and girls who had been tamping down their rage for years.
The late ‘80s, ‘90s and early aughts is now back in vogue, bringing with it a cascade of beloved TV shows and movies rebooted for the times. It’s no coincidence that right now on the Great White Way you can catch “Mean Girls,” “Moulin Rouge,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Beetlejuice” and “Harry Potter;" “The Devil Wears Prada” is coming soon, as is “13 Going on 30.” As of last Thursday night, there is also “Jagged Little Pill.”
In theory, Cody and Morissette seem spiritually symbiotic forces — women who successfully penetrated the mainstream while still keeping a modicum of individuality and darkness.
The ingredients of the stage version of “Jagged Little Pill,” directed by Diane Paulus, are deliciously promising. It is, of course, scored by Morissette’s iconic album with a book written by Diablo Cody, most famously, of “Juno.” In theory, Cody and Morissette seem spiritually symbiotic forces — women who successfully penetrated the mainstream while still keeping a modicum of individuality and darkness. In practice, the show is a jam-packed letdown; a pandering expression of millennial favorites (Alanis Morissette!) and beliefs (progressivism!) delivered on a painfully woke platter. In the words of Morissette herself, “I see right through you.”
Cody’s book takes Morissette’s music, including various songs from later albums and two written expressly for the show, and shapes them to fit the story of the suburban Healy family. The Healy’s existence is filled with all the Soul Cycle, Ivy League angst and social climbing that Connecticut stereotypes evoke. Mary Jane, played by Elizabeth Stanley (cue track nine on “Jagged Little Pill”) is the family matriarch; she is joined by husband Steve (Sean Allan Krill), their Harvard-bound golden child Nick (Derek Klena) and their perpetually protesting adopted bisexual daughter Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding).
While four may seem like a good number of characters to focus on, Cody keeps going. There is also Bella (Kathryn Gallagher), who is sexually assaulted at a party, Andrew (Logan Hart) her attacker, Frankie’s best friend and girlfriend Jo (Lauren Patten) and Frankie’s unexpected male love interest Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano). That Morissette’s singular voice is chopped up and shared amongst these eight individuals has the instant effect of tempering the emotional heft of her songs.
On top of these main characters, the show employs an unexplained chorus, whose grunge aesthetic and flailing dance moves mirror the way Morissette looked and moved in the ‘90s, but feel incongruous in the overtly contemporary setting. Who are these flannel-clad figures continually stepping out of the shadows? I wondered more than once. In some scenes they fill necessary chorus roles — protestors, classmates — but in others they just seem like ghosts. The ghost of grunge? Of the ‘90s? Of Alanis?
Perhaps because of the need to shoehorn the lyrics to the plot, Morissette’s music becomes painfully literal. “All I Really Want” opens Morissette’s album with a question that pitches into desperation; it sounds like it's being sung by a woman on the edge of an emotional cliff. In the musical, “All I Really Want” takes place mostly at the Healy breakfast table as the family members share the lyrics; the effect is a splintering of the complex rage of Morissette’s singular voice as four people complain about being misunderstood. In place of anger, we get domestic angst.
The shatter and scatter of emotion is disappointing but less abrasive than the sheer number of progressive themes “Jagged Little Pill” attempts to tackle. In two-and-a-half hours the show takes on opioid addiction, rape culture, school shootings, transracial adoption, protest culture, sexual identity and the #MeToo movement. (And I could keep going.) With so much to care about, you end up caring about nothing. In the spaces where caring should have been, my brain filled with questions about whether I was being topically pandered to. Did the director think younger audiences required a parade of wokeness to come to the theater?
Instead of introspection, the show asks its audience to look outward onto a veritable after-school special of contemporary issues.
In the song “All I Really Want,” Morissette sings “Why are you so petrified of silence? Here can you handle this?” Then there is just dead air. When listening to the album, that rather blistering stillness forces the listener to dive within. In the show, that silence is used to make a point about gun violence. Instead of introspection, the show asks its audience to look outward onto a veritable after-school special of contemporary issues. Some of the most emotional moments in the show are identified sonically for the audience by what sounds like a pan flute.
All that said, there is one moment in “Jagged Little Pill” when the crackling potential of the show aligns with the power of the original album. After Jo, the butch, beanie-wearing high schooler, is cheated on by her girlfriend Frankie, she confronts her with a burn-the-house-to-the-ground rendition of “You Oughta Know.” The song fits perfectly into the narrative, the stage — often crowded with large video panels — becomes largely bare as Jo harnesses the full depths of her rage. The actress, Lauren Patten, handles the song differently from Morissette, reinventing its power in the process. Patten’s voice is lower, her words less breathy. But she crescendos with Morissette’s ire, finding a rage stride that demands people sit back and pay attention.
By the end of the number, Patten is scream-singing “’Cause the joke that you laid in the bed that was me and I’m not gonna fade as soon as you close your eyes,” bathed in red lights and clawing at her own skin. The moment evokes the same hair-raising explosion of feeling that listening to Morissette’s song in your bedroom in 1995 did. It captures the ragged desperation that people typically only allow themselves after their heart really breaks.
When Patten ended the song in a preview performance, teetering on the edge of the stage and nearly spitting the words at the audience, the entire theater leapt to its feet. It felt like communal release. It was what “Jagged Little Pill”could have been. Patten receives a mid-performance standing ovation nearly every night.
The album “Jagged Little Pill” ends with a secret a cappella track so vulnerable it can make you fidget. Without the protection of instruments, Morissette’s voice sounds nearly defenseless. “So forgive me love if I cry all afternoon,” she sings, her voice cracking on the final note. Nothing is polished, nothing wrapped up. The musical leaves none of those frayed edges.
It is undeniably difficult to recreate something as ripe with nostalgia as “Jagged Little Pill,” but if the show is courting millennials, the placement of its rage is all wrong. As a generation we are indeed beaten down every day by the realities of the world around us; the opioid crisis, the #MeToo movement, the infringement on our rights, school shootings. It’s not a stretch to say that we are a generation that is both angry about our present and full of nostalgia for our youth.
But seeing a theatrical mirror of exactly what sparks our fury isn’t doing us any favors. The catharsis we need, the catharsis we want, is the opportunity to go back in time. To put the tape in the cassette and drown out the world with music. We want to scream along with Alanis’ pain, to channel her rage as our own. We want to leap to our feet mid-performance with the shared history of being young and mad and having something to sing that conveys the hurt.