Music

Jagged Little Pill: a love letter to the album and the musical

Alanis Morissette’s 1995 release gets a second life on Broadway.

Alanis Morissette’s 1995 release gets a second life on Broadway

With lyrics by Alanis Morissette and book by acclaimed screenwriter Diablo Cody, Jagged Little Pill the Musical is as earnest and urgent as its source material. (Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect/Getty Images)

Jagged Little Pill was the first record that made me feel powerful. That even at my ugliest and messiest and most isolated, I was a person and I counted. If you're a person who has always counted, you might not understand why this validation was so gratifying, why it tethered me to the Earth, why I was no longer a ghost just because I was poor, fat, and a girl. 

Jagged Little Pill even made me feel a little dangerous, which I liked instinctively more than I understood intellectually. It was another sort of power, one I had previously only wielded when I channeled Miss Piggy as a child and kicked boys in the shin if they called me names. On Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette howled and raged, laughed and rejoiced, confided and confessed; she was the danger, naming these things in her songs that she refused to look away from, refused to make better, refused to shut up about.

There was criticism that Jagged Little Pill was overwrought or melodramatic, that it wasn't cool enough or good enough, or that its ubiquity eventually helped make it a parody of itself. But for so many of us, Jagged Little Pill was the first time we felt seen. It was a catharsis, an album that modelled ways to witness and ways to riot, and the grace to find some wry humour in between these moments. On Jagged Little Pill, Morissette illustrated the various prisons of perfection, the rot under the veneer. She didn't shy away from confronting unpleasantness, calling out hypocrisy, or flipping the script on her oppressors. Silence was killing her. She found a way to be free.

Jagged Little Pill: the Musical, which opens on Broadway on Dec. 5, captures the spirit of Morissette's album beautifully. The musical is as earnest and urgent as its source material, with lyrics by Morissette, music by Morissette and Glen Ballard, and book by acclaimed screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, The United States of Tara). The story centres on a family of four, each member hiding something and suffocating in their secrets and loneliness, and the musical is thoroughly contemporary, touching on everything from racism and rape culture to the opioid crisis and homophobia. Cody does impressive work pulling narrative threads from close readings and nuanced deconstructions of the album's songs, while Morissette and Ballard take huge risks that pay off beautifully, reinventing and reimagining their songs for Broadway. The collaborators also wrote several new songs, and use two of Morisette's later hits, "Hands Clean" and "Thank U," to strong effect. But for fans of the album, it's all about those Jagged Little Pill songs.

The first big number, "All I Really Want," sets the stage for what's possible musically: at first, it's a mother and daughter agitating against each other, each asking for something the other cannot give. Then the duet splits into four parts, and the whole family is flexing its crumbling ruins against the backdrop of a blistering live rock band. "Hand in my Pocket" becomes a queer anthem, wherein stating basic things like "I'm poor but I'm kind/ I'm short but I'm healthy" becomes a way of cataloging your existence as resistance, telling the world everything you are even when the world keeps telling you what you aren't. "Ironic" is reimagined as a teenage girl reading her creative writing assignment in class and everybody interrupting her every other line to complain about her misuse of "ironic." "Forgiven" and "You Oughta Know" are the showstoppers, literally. "Forgiven" closes out Act 1, and the juxtaposition of story and the crescendo of the cast is heart-wrenching. "You Oughta Know" pulses with anger and betrayal, and the performance is so devastating that there was a spontaneous standing ovation mid-show.

Jagged Little Pill's journey to Broadway probably seems strange to those immune — prescriptively, performatively or genuinely — to its charms. But those of us who have loved it have secretly hoped a day like this would come. The record that helped us love ourselves, forgive ourselves, and see ourselves now has its own second life thanks to Jagged Little Pill: the Musical, and a third life, too, with the recently announced 25th anniversary tour next year.

The musical's expansive reimagining of the album's songs is like growing up with a group of friends, all of us stepping into our future selves together. Reaching backwards and forwards through time, growing into deeper understandings together. In revealing new facets of the album's depths, the musical also reveals new facets of my love for all of these songs. Jagged Little Pill forever.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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