THOSE HIT SONGS with their raw, roiling emotions — from “Ironic” to “You Learn” to “Hand in My Pocket” — still carry some of the spirit of Alanis Morissette in the new Broadway musical Jagged Little Pill.
You oughta know, however, that the story isn’t hers.
Unlike shows in a steady stream of Broadway biomusicals woven with tunes pulled from pop goddesses’ catalogs — think, Carole King (Beautiful), Donna Summer (Summer), Cher (The Cher Show), which have come and gone, and Tina Turner (Tina), which just opened — the latest arrival on New York’s main stage isn’t exactly a perfect fit in this songbook sorority.
It’s not that kind of jukebox. Morissette, now 45 with three kids, insisted on that.
“When I was brought to this project, we didn’t have a book or a show or anything,” says fiftysomething director Diane Paulus, whose credits include Waitress, Hair, and Pippin, for which she won a Tony. “The one thing I was told is that this is not going to be an Alanis Morissette bio. Her one request was that it not be about her. And as much as we’re all channeling our inner Alanis, this is not her biography.”
Instead, characters, themes, and jagged emotional terrain covered in the 1995 Grammy-winning album by the Canadian singer-songwriter have been transformed into the story of a seemingly idyllic Connecticut family who, upon closer scrutiny, isn’t so picture-perfect. At all.
Race, addiction, rape, and sexuality are among the weighty issues they’re facing, thanks to book writer Diablo Cody, who, like Morissette, makes her Broadway debut with this musical seen last year at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. For the cast of characters onstage, if something can go wrong, it will.
“The album is really an emotional journey,” says Cody, 41. “It was almost begging for a theatrical adaptation, because the songs are so story-driven. I could just see this story building with this family, this very image-conscious mother, and an oppressive community — the fictional town of Greenport, a wealthy, leafy hamlet. And there’s this daughter, who’s saying, ‘Everybody, wake up. Open your eyes.’ That’s where it all came from.”
Actually, not quite all.
“I also drew from my own personal life a little bit,” adds Cody, who grew up near Chicago and first made a splash with her 2007 teen pregnancy indie comedy, Juno. “I love my family, but when I was growing up, there was a lot of emphasis on how we presented ourselves. I was a suburban teenaged girl when the album came out, so I was right in the sweet spot of being able to appreciate it, and I did. I just always felt something strong for that material.”
She’s not alone. Since 1995, Jagged Little Pill has sold 33 million copies around the world, about half of that haul in the US.
“Alanis was super-prescient. The album spoke to a kind of rage I think we hadn’t experienced. It spoke to me personally,” says Paulus, who adds that her teenage daughter has now gotten hooked on the album.
Having legions of fans of the music — from teens to boomers — can’t hurt at the box office at the Broadhurst Theater, where the show earned $1.1 million in its first full week of previews in advance of its official Dec. 5 opening. And industry stats from trade group the Broadway League seem to be in the show’s favor: 66% of Broadway’s audience is female, and the average age is 40.6 years.
Still, all that doesn’t guarantee attendance. Broadway tickets are much pricier than an album, and retrofitting lyrics and putting them into the mouths of characters is always tricky business. For her production, Paulus has combined a live rock band that drifts on and off the stage and a set of gender-fluid, multiracial young dancers that pulsate in and out of the action.
Yes, Mamma Mia!, which stitched a wispy story around ABBA tunes, made a mint, raking in $624 million during its 14-year Broadway run. But, cue the sad trombone, Green Day’s American Idiot — a show that more closely resembles the Jagged Little Pill transformation of songs primarily from a single album along with some fresh material into a musical — didn’t see so much green. Despite winning two design Tonys, the 2004-concept-album-turned-2010-musical ran for about a year.
Paulus believes that timing is on her team’s side. The themes and inherent anger have a topical resonance that will strike a chord. Songs feel like “they were written yesterday for today,” Paulus says. “That’s how this music feels. That’s how the lyrics feel.”
In a one-on-one with Cody in Interview, Morissette said as much herself.
“The only song I’m not sure I stand by is ‘Not the Doctor,’ where I basically say, ‘Your s— is your s—, and my s— is my s—, and let’s just keep it church and state.’ As I get older, and after almost 10 years of marriage, I realized that in a relationship, I can participate in someone else’s pain, or histories, and not feel like I’m being dysfunctional or resistant to it. But the rest of the songs, shockingly, I can stand by.”
As Morissette stands by, time will tell if Broadway audiences step up and, even better, fall head over feet. — Bloomberg