Jagged Little Pill, the third album by Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette, has us unlocked.
Certified 14 times platinum in Australia and topped the Aria album charts in 1996, it is full of anthemic, cleverly introspective and sometimes playful rock tracks. The album gives a voice to Morissette’s inner life with such vivid emotional insight that her audiences – especially women and those in conflict with polite society – have found a soundtrack for their struggle.
Nowhere has this been clearer than in You Oughta Know, the album’s alternative rock masterpiece that unleashes a long-suppressed rage against its subject matter with glorious, full-bodied engagement. It requires an account.
Over 20 years later, the songs (mostly) on this album, some in full and some in fragments, were given new life in a musical written by Diablo Cody (who wrote the movie Juno) and performed by Diane Paulus (although Leah Howard is the resident director in Australia). Today, they are the music of the Healys, a family of the American upper middle class.
Mary Jane (Natalie Bassingthwaighte), a perfect-looking mother with an opioid addiction and long-averted trauma, struggles to stay the course. Her husband, Steve (Tim Draxl), is a workaholic with a porn addiction. Her Nick (Liam Head) is a golden kid who lacks emotional maturity. And then there’s Frankie (Emily Nkomo), the activist girl.
Frankie, who is black and queer (she and her “best friend” Jo, played by Maggie McKenna, kiss while Mary Jane rhapsodizes elsewhere on Platonic Girlfriends) resents her mother’s refusal to commit: insisting on the fact that she does not see the color; dismiss Frankie’s activism as a fad; and refusing to call Jo, who is not binary, by whatever name makes them most comfortable.
When Nick’s classmate Bella (Grace Miell) is assaulted at a party, Healy’s two children attend and the gap between Frankie’s quest for justice and Mary Jane’s preferred method of ignoring an issue becomes a hole. There is nothing to do but sing.
Jagged Little Pill is desperate to be meaningful, tackling more social issues than he can balance (misogyny, racism, transracial adoption, transphobia, classism, disability rights) while also needing to play all the hits. that you would expect to hear in a jukebox musical. It’s an exploration of the trauma that tries to touch so many hearts that it ultimately risks reaching none.
A plethora of protest placards held aloft in the first act looks like cynical dress-up for socio-political relevance. The Broadway production, of which this is a replica, did not live up to these values ââbehind the scenes.
He also doesn’t seem to trust his own soul, i.e. Morissette’s hit catalog. Tom Kitt’s orchestrations tend to go against the material, cutting songs up and layering them in more conventional layers than necessary.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography transforms the ensemble into a choir of young witnesses who are not afraid to take up space and dance with all their heart, but they also crash into intimate moments, as if the songs themselves weren’t enough to make us feel. It’s already theatrical music with a point of view, but the show rarely leaves anyone who holds and possesses that point of view, especially solo. (It also turns silly whenever the Healy men get their own lyrics; it’s hard to believe the music is theirs.)
Yet there are moments that transcend.
When Jo finds out that Frankie has seen someone else – a conventionally attractive, white, cis dude – we watch them fall apart and then rebuild themselves with the only song possible, The Jewel of the Musical, perhaps all of her interest. : You Oughta Know. McKenna creates a journey with her, the most clarifying of the series, and the song tears their throats apart and lands in our guts.
At that point, it doesn’t matter that Jo is mentioned too often in the story or that Frankie doesn’t reckon with the hurt she’s caused. All that matters is this song in good hands, setting us all on fire. McKenna received a legitimate standing ovation in the middle of the show on opening night; later, on recall, it was their greeting that forced the majority of the audience at the Royal Theater to stand up.
Nothing else can touch this moment, but there are cases where it comes close: Bassingthwaighte’s performance is bold, his choices clever and compelling. Nkomo is charismatic and complements Frankie’s youthful spirit with the promise of a roar. Miell refuses to betray Bella’s story with easy dramaturgy, delivering a beautifully judged performance, too often in the background. In the group, it is Emma Ford’s battery that propels us into new sensations.
Jagged Little Pill means so well. It works so hard. Its casting is a treat. If only it weren’t so frustrating. We shouldn’t be able to see through it.