Alanis Morissette’s album “Jagged Little Pill” screamed onto the radio in 1995 with its cutting, confessional lyrics sung by a probing, emotive, remarkably young, female artist. Fans connected deeply to her channeling of raw angst. The recording sold millions of copies and earned two Grammys, including Album of the Year.
Now — more than 20 years later — "Jagged Little Pill" has been transformed into a full-blown, rock-laden musical at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge.
Looking back, Morissette remembers being surprised by how many people saw something of themselves in her album.
"On one hand, it was heartening because I immediately felt less alone in my challenges,” she recalled. “On the other hand, it was horrifying ‘cause I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, there's a lot of people who are relating to this, ergo there must be a lot of people in pain.' "
Fast forward to 2015, well before the #MeToo movement took off. Diane Paulus, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, got a call from a producer asking her to go back to “Jagged Little Pill” and give it another listen. Like him, Paulus wondered if the decades-old album could be made into a musical for today.
“I think a lot of people associate ‘Jagged Little Pill’ with this watershed moment of female rage,” Paulus mused.
When it was released, or unleashed, the album delivered a singular, soul-tearing listening experience. The chart-topping, sexually-explicit song “You Oughta Know” wails with honest anger and pain over being objectified, used and tossed away.
Morissette sings, “Did you forget about me, Mr. Duplicity? I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner. It was a slap in the face. How quickly I was replaced. And are you thinking of me when you f--- her?”
But Paulus said that when you look at the album -- and really get inside the lyrics -- it goes much deeper.
“Yes, there's rage, but there's also a cry and a plea to feel," said the Tony Award-winning director, pointing to the lyrics in the song “Wake Up”:
You like pain, but only if it doesn’t hurt too much. And you sit, and you wait, to receive. There’s an obvious attraction to the path of least resistance in your life. Well there’s an obvious aversion. No amount of my insistence could make you try tonight. Cause it’s easy not to. So much easier not to. And what goes around never comes around to you.
Paulus agrees that for a lot of people (including this reporter) listening to “Jagged Little Pill” is intimate — like having a close friend sharing some of her deepest — sometimes darkest — thoughts and secrets. The musical's writer, Diablo Cody, feels the same way.
“It is interesting to take an album that feels private and to turn it into this communal experience,” the Oscar-winning screen and TV writer said on a recent morning at the A.R.T. in Cambridge.
Cody accepted the challenge of adapting “Jagged Little Pill” into an original story — her first musical book — for a theater audience.
"It's one of those ‘Dear Diary’ type albums, you know?" she said. "It's not something you put on at a keg party."
Cody spent a lot of time with "Jagged Little Pill" as a teen — usually alone.
“I think there's a reason that album caused such a sensation,” she reflected. “Alanis’ voice was just so fresh, and so direct. And she was giving voice to a lot of the anxieties that I had as a young woman."
The album's songs burst with psychologically-dense drama. Morissette wrote many of them with producer Glen Ballard when she was just 19-years-old, and they managed to pack them with a raging torrent of different emotions, stories and characters.
“They speak to being marginalized, they speak to addiction and recovery,” Morissette said, “and ruptures within relationships, ruptures within relationships with God or spirit.”
Morissette said she was totally psyched to collaborate with Cody and Paulus on her album’s metamorphosis. It became quite clear from the get-go that it would not be a jukebox musical or a bio-musical. But the team seems OK with the term, 'therapeusical,' " Cody said with a laugh. "This show is about processing stuff that you've been through."
To start, the trio mapped out themes, characters and relationship dynamics on a white board in the musician’s Malibu home. Cody says their central character — a mother — emerged as she listened to the song “Mary Jane.” She remembers saying to herself, “Oh, this is a person. And she's consumed with perfection. And I know who she is. I can write this.”
On the album the song begins:
What’s the matter Mary Jane, you had a hard day. As you place the 'Don’t Disturb' sign on the door. You lost your place in line again, what a pity. You never seem to want to dance anymore.
Now in the stage version of “Jagged Little Pill,” the same words are sung by Mary Jane’s husband, Steve, played by actor Sean Allan Krill:
It’s a long way down, on this roller coaster. The last chance street car went off the track, and you’re on it.
This switch has the potential to be off-putting for some of the album’s hard-core fans, but it works for Morissette.
“Hearing Mary Jane sung from a male-body perspective in a very empathic way — it's like the masculine being empathic toward the feminine — are you kidding me?” she asked with a little laugh. “Even just talking about it right now I get teared up.”
Now Morissette’s songs fuel a complicated web of a plot. It revolves around an upper-middle class New England family struggling to maintain a façade of perfection as the parents and their two teens struggle to face their challenges — and each other.
The production opens with Mary Jane reading the family’s carefully-crafted, super-shiny annual Christmas letter to the song “Right Through You.”
“It’s been an interesting year,” actress Elizabeth Stanley says perkily on stage. “I recovered from my little fender bender in February. My car may have been totaled, but you can’t total Mary Jane Healy. After a couple of surgeries my body is stronger than ever.”
Then a 13-member, modern-day chorus like something out of a Greek tragedy alludes to the truth.
“The mother in this family is secretly struggling with opiate addiction,” Cody said of the musical’s narrative, “which is, you know, an epidemic in our country right now — and something that I personally have dealt with in my life, not as an addict, but with a family member. It felt like the right thing to write about at this time.”
It’s been Tony Award-winning music supervisor Tom Kitt’s job to help the creative team figure out how Morissette’s penetrating, personal-feeling songs would be sung and by whom.
"Each song is a puzzle that you put together," he explained. "Some are more complicated." The priority, he adds, is "keeping Alanis' voice intact and making sure it feels like her soul onstage."
Kitt is no stranger to turning a beloved album into a musical — he also took Green Day’s “American Idiot” to Broadway. Kitt recalled how Paulus was set on incorporating a Greek chorus into “Jagged Little Pill.” The director wanted it to represent the conscience of the characters, of society, and could act as a singing alt-psyche for the characters.
For Kitt, the chorus made sense as a device to expand Morissette’s songs.
“Her music is so anthemic that it lends itself to a huge vocal arrangement and presence,” he explained.
The more intimate songs Kitt arranged into solos and duets. “All I Really Want” is shared by Mary Jane and her adopted daughter Frankie, who is African-American and finding her way in a predominantly white community. "Perfect," a journey into the pressures we live under as kids and young adults, is sung by Mary Jane's over-achieving son, Nick.
There's a lot going on in this re-imagining of a 23-year-old modern pop-rock classic. The creative collaborators mined the songs then distilled them into a slew of timely, issue-driven through-lines and subplots. Longtime music journalist Joan Anderman admitted she wasn’t sure how they could turn this album into something other than a jukebox musical. "It's hard to conceptualize something like this," she said, laughing.
But right after seeing a preview performance of “Jagged Little Pill,” Anderman said the material feels fresh, not forced.
“There's issues of consent, there’s issues of sexual assault, the opioid crisis, diversity, gender, sexual identity, gender identity,” she listed off. “And they fit so naturally into a narrative about suburban life. That's extraordinary that we find ourselves at this time and how little things have changed.”
For her part, Morissette told me she’s encouraged that people are talking more frankly and compassionately about these issues today.
“It feels like there’s an openness to how to navigate this whole human story,” she said with a laugh, “You know, there’s more of a movement toward wholeness.”
Twenty years ago, some critics called Morissette a psycho-babbler and referred to her concerts as “stadium therapy.” These days she believes people are more receptive to what she has to say as a musician, writer, guest speaker and host of her own holistic therapy-infused podcast. Now the 43-year-old mother of two hopes this new musical will humanize issues for audiences while modeling ways to heal from relational trauma — in the theater, outside of it and, most importantly to her, together.
American Repertory Theater's "Jagged Little Pill" runs through July 15 at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge.
This segment aired on May 18, 2018.