For some of us, all it takes is a little harmonica riff. Or maybe it’s the way her voice goes a little nasal and weird, or deforms a word, or breaks. But I am telling you, there are relatively healthy 30- and 40-somethings all around you who, if they hear any song off Alanis Morissette’s album Jagged Little Pill, will come completely undone. The 1990s come flooding back: the fury of heartbreak, even if you hadn’t had your heart broken yet; the thrill of hearing a “good girl” sing the word fuck; the resolve to bear up and call out and be grateful and be mad all at the same time. Even if you think you left all that stuff behind, the song “You Oughta Know” will have you (a) punching the sky, then (b) lying down on the floor to wallow in emotions you thought were long tidied away.
Anyway! Enough about me. This isn’t about Jagged Little Pill, the still-powerful record from 1995. This is about the rock musical of the same name, now on Broadway. Screenwriter Diablo Cody has written her first piece for the stage, using (mostly) songs from Morissette’s blockbuster album to tell the story of the stressed-out Healy family and its secondhand involvement in a sexual assault. There’s enough anguish in that music, the reasoning goes, for many stories.
Our lead character is Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding), the black teenage daughter of the white Healys: Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley) and Steve (Sean Allan Krill). Her white brother, Nick (Derek Klena), has just been accepted to Harvard, so the family’s riding high. Of course, none of them are as high as the seemingly perfect Mary Jane, who’s dry-swallowing black-market OxyContin, which has led to her sexual withdrawal from Steve. He’s extremely sad about this, and he’s also working a lot. He gets a verse on several of the songs — an older man singing lyrics written by a 20-year-old woman suffering from the ill effects of her treatment by older men. It’s … disorienting.
We’re introduced to Frankie as she’s kissing her girlfriend, Jo (Lauren Patten), but she quickly falls for a boy in class who likes her poetry (“Isn’t It Ironic,” cleverly repurposed as a jejune creative-writing assignment). Frankie is not a particularly kind teen, meaning she blithely misses the way she’s ripping her best friend apart (Patten sings “You Oughta Know” at her, so she oughta have picked it up) and certainly doesn’t notice her mother’s pain. When Nick sees his buddy rape his friend Bella (Kathryn Gallagher) at a party, the family — tangentially related to the assault — finds itself involved. Frankie decides to make it her own cause, Mary Jane insists Nick stay clear, and Steve never registers it and just wants to heal his marriage.
The long collaboration between Cody, Morissette, and director Diane Paulus has resulted in confusion and occasional silliness. The thrust and specificity of the album makes it through the Broadway treatment only once, when Patten does her solo, tearing her guts out at the edge of the stage. “You Oughta Know” is perversely one of the only solos. Everything else has been chopped up and handed around like a dish at Thanksgiving — making a mush out one of the great point-of-view albums. The obvious move would be to make Frankie a musician. She could be Billie Eilish in her bedroom, singing her rage into her laptop camera; hell, she could be a baby Alanis. But Cody makes Frankie a girl activist, a rather all-purpose one, who switches from hand-painted signs about free menstrual products to “I Stand With Bella” when events call for it. I would note that Frankie doesn’t actually stand with Bella. She stands at the center of the protest she has organized, on a platform above Bella, and she never actually gives Bella the assistance the poor girl explicitly asks for (help with Frankie’s brother). Though characters constantly laud Frankie as “brave,” the girl Cody has written is insensitive and eager for the limelight, even when the suffering isn’t hers. If this were an intentional point about the narcissism of youth, right on. But instead, Frankie’s insistent centering feels like an attempt to conceal a dramaturgical problem: We’d better say Frankie’s crucial so no one notices that she could be removed from the narrative without changing its shape.
Because the story, the arc along which the musical actually moves, belongs to Mary Jane. Cody, a mom in middle age herself, is interested in concatenating trauma. Mary Jane got addicted to pills after a car accident jolted loose old, forgotten responses to a sexual attack, and when she realizes her own son is complicit in Bella’s assault, she hits rock bottom. The musical can seem artificial when it moves away from Mary Jane — even though Stanley doesn’t have the rock sound the songs need, she at least seems like a woman for whom a musical made out of Alanis Morissette lyrics makes sense. The timing works out, as does the deep need to reconnect to her youthful courage. Her body is remembering an assault from the 1990s; the music, with its way of picking us up and slamming us back 25 years, could be the perfect way to theatricalize that.
But theatricalization is exactly the issue. Paulus has a dozen or so dancer-singer-emoters who pop compassionately into view during every song — choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui gives them urgent, frantic movements, one part street dance, one part hyperliteral kids at a concert (on the lyric “one hand in my pocket,” they put one hand in their pocket). Oh boy. For one thing, the chorus is a major component in the project’s uncooling. Cherkaoui is from the world of modern dance, a form that avoids earnest “Broadway face” for good reason. You can be crunking along in cool clothes (costumier Emily Rebholz has them in crop tops, flannels, and Army jackets); you can have badass shaved sides and a single earring. But look at each other with that corny “Oh my God, you’re dancing too?” look, and all your rock-and-roll coolness flash-evaporates.
Also, who are they? It’s an important plot point that Frankie lives in wealthy Metro-North exurbia, surrounded by and stifled by whiteness. The chorus, however, has been carefully selected for maximum diversity. Frankie’s classmates are walking around in Vineyard Vines, while the ensemble is the entire goth stairwell at the Fame High School for the Performing Arts. Every time they showed up to sing backup for Mary Jane’s latest breakdown, I thought, Guess there was a Rent audition at the Westchester mall. And their presence draws out the team’s worst impulses. It’s right and understandable to consider gun violence in a contemporary piece about teens, but Paulus and Cody do the near impossible: They make the moment absurd. During “All I Really Want,” they have the whole company lie down for a few seconds after the lyric “Here, can you handle this?,” while the screens show an image of a high-school massacre. That’s it. At this point, the show has devolved into the Saturday Night Live skit about a student-written Drama Club showcase. We’re trying to make you think, parents and faculty. Or can’t you handle it?
So okay, this particular effort is ridiculous, but at least it’s a hint of something that might yet be. Morissette is a hell of a musician, and Cody consistently writes about women who have to do field surgery on their own psyches. They could still make a great musical together. (Alanis had already made two albums before Jagged Little Pill; your first effort isn’t usually your best.) And if you’re absolutely so hungry for Alanis that you can’t wait for her upcoming tour with Liz Phair, it might be worth it. Certainly, music director Bryan Perri and sound designer Jonathan Deans have cranked the volume up high enough that the audience responded as though it was at a concert. I heard a little singing along, and people surged to their feet at the last guitar squeal. Our bodies were shaking, our ears were sore — ah, I thought as I made a note to listen to an Ani DiFranco album on the way home — young again.
Jagged Little Pill is at the Broadhurst Theatre.