The Alanis Morrissette musical had me at “Ironic.” Morrissette’s song may be definitionally challenged, but in the Broadway show the number is presented as a high-school theme paper by a not-brilliant teen. When she sings, “Isn’t it ironic?” classmates interrupt to jeer, “It isn’t, though.” Nevertheless, in sparkling Broadway fashion she manages to win a boyfriend out of the matter; the young man is touched by her floundering and tells her not to be dissuaded by the literalists.
Jagged Little Pill (at the Broadhurst Theatre), which contains songs from that era-defining album as well Morrissette’s decreasingly successful follow-ups in the years afterward, turns out to be a surprisingly satisfying success, despite some clunky moments. It’s also something of a breakthrough. Broadway forever struggles with the narrowness of its demographic appeal: To be overly reductionist, the Broadway audience is half gay men, half suburban women over 50, hence offerings like The Cher Show. This is the first big musical to be built around 1990s nostalgia and also the first one with a major grunge influence (though Green Day’s punk-pop 2010 musical American Idiot was in the ballpark). It’s also a rare item in that its central character is a typical contemporary suburban woman. The audience effect of this is notable: Few gay men seemed to be at the performance I saw but lots and lots of women under 50, women who in their 20s watched Friends and Sex and the City and in their teens watched My So-Called Life. Jagged Little Pill channels that lightly sardonic tone without being campy; it’s My So-Called Musical. It stretches the parameters of what we think of as a Broadway tuner and does so with a combination of agile wit and deep sympathy for its flawed characters. Jagged Little Pill isn’t perfect, but it’s better than Rent. Certainly the characters’ problems are a lot more relatable than they were in Rent, a saga of annoying bobo twerps.
On her 30-million selling breakthrough album Jagged Little Pill (1995) and its follow-ups Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (1998) and Under Rug Swept (2002), Morrissette came up with only about ten really good songs, which is about a dozen fewer than you need to put together a jukebox musical, but what makes the show run smoothly is the ingeniously crafted book by Diablo Cody (real name Brook Busey-Maurio). Cody won an Oscar for writing Juno and in subsequent movies such as Jennifer’s Body, Young Adult, and Tully has become a leading screen chronicler of the frustrations and dilemmas of genuine-seeming women. Morrissette’s songs mostly sound like conversations from therapy sessions and don’t have a lot of range. Yet in contrast to the usual jukebox musical, which awkwardly jams its songs into places where they don’t easily fit, Cody has elegantly integrated the songs into her story architecture. “One Hand in My Pocket,” for instance, becomes the anthem of a largely contented lesbian teen, Jo (Lauren Patten), while “You Oughta Know,” delivered with such passion it stopped the show, is an angry diatribe delivered by that same teen after getting dumped. Patten belts out the song so electrifyingly that it’s a rare reminder that a Broadway number can channel all the thunder and anguish of a rock anthem.
The musical develops from the annual humble-bragging Christmas letter the wealthy suburban housewife Mary Jane Healy (Elizabeth Stanley) sends her friends just to clarify how much better she is at life than they are. Her husband, Steve, (Sean Allan Krill) is a senior partner at some immensely well-paying Manhattan firm; son Nick (Derek Klena) just got into Harvard. Off to the side of the stage, though, we learn that things are a bit more complicated than Mary Jane is telling her Pilates posse. Her adopted teen daughter Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding), who is black, is having a lesbian love affair and is starting to chafe at being raised in a “colorblind” family. Her husband is addicted to porn. He and Mary Jane haven’t had sex in over a year.
So, behind the white picket fence, dark secrets lurk? Yes, but Cody is so witty and draws her characters with so much feeling that the story doesn’t seem shopworn. (“Don’t call me Jo-Ann; I’m not a f***ing fabric store,” Jo says; a wealthy mom at a coffee shop is described as exactly what she is ordering: “a skinny flat white.”) A character who suffers from opioid addiction never seems like a stereotype, in part because her descent is staged as a strange, scary, riveting pas de deux, to Morrissette’s creepy 1996 song “Uninvited.” As a woman slides into the lethal embrace of painkillers, a dancer serves as her interior self, a doppelganger slipping and flopping uncontrollably on a sofa. “Harrowing” is a word that does not often apply to anything on a Broadway stage, yet it’s a perfectly apt description for this spellbinding interlude, as realized by director Diane Paulus and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
A main driver of events is a #MeToo element, yet it doesn’t feel opportunistic, contrived, or reductionist. Morrissette has been frank about being a sexual-assault victim for many years (her 2002 hit “Hands Clean” is about statutory rape). Moreover, far from indicting men in general, Cody instead outlines how innocent men can suffer, even many years later, from other men’s sexual attacks on women. Male sexual misconduct can create a chain of woe that feels as grueling, and as relevant for our time, as the chains dragged around by Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol. At one point the show does turn too heavily didactic, though: The grungy third-to-last number, “No,” presented as a public protest of rape, is both weak as a song and too preachy as a spectacle. It should have been cut.
Jagged Little Pill rebounds for a heartfelt and moving finale, though, via two of Morrissette’s best songs, as the following year’s family Christmas letter takes a hilarious turn into a frank, unvarnished recounting of domestic troubles. This feels like a special legacy of the 1990s; the term “oversharing” dates from 1996, according to Merriam-Webster, and became necessary partly because of the incessant therapeutic self-evaluation that spread through the culture from admired figures (mainly women) such as Morrissette. Narcissism is a vice, maybe even a scourge. But I don’t think the Alanises of the world are wrong to say there’s growth to be had in honest acknowledgment of one’s own pain. She put it beautifully in a single line that sums up the show: “You bleed; you learn.”
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