“Jagged Little Pill” — the musical (Aka, “everybody hurts”…and lets you know at very loud punk volumes)

David Nurenberg
9 min readJun 20, 2018

Review, with spoilers:

As appropriate to a musical created as tribute to a Catholic songstress, I have a confession to make: Alanis Morisette’s music came at the most perfectly precarious and wounded, open moment of my youth, the freshest days and weeks and months after the breakup of a four year relationship that was the entire universe to my 18 year old moment in time. And here on the radio was someone who understood, who sang raw, blunt yet poetic lyrics about loss and rejection, anger and pain and empathy, as if to say, yes, yes it does mean the entire universe, and fuck yes you should take it that seriously…but with just enough distance (as her songs and albums progressed, she seemed to be just a tiny bit ahead down the road from where I was, the perfect long-distance mentor) to let me know there was light at the end of the tunnel. Not the light of paradise, not a healing light, but a place beyond, nonetheless. It was medicine — a pill, but a jagged little pill. It would cut you up and make you bleed but, as the lyrics on the sign I would later post up on my dorm room door said, “burn it down…you’re going to have to eventually anyway…the fire trucks are coming up around the bend.” The fire trucks were coming. And they came. And the house was still burnt, but there was something of value in what happened next.

What Jagged Little Pill: The Musical seemed to be trying to accomplish was to not just fix this pain-and-then-emergence process to one’s early twenties, but to stretch it out and show that this is a cyclical thing…that at every stage of life, you can plug these songs in, and they speak truth.

I am always deeply suspicious of musicals made from stringing together pop songs around a weak narrative — as a fan of Billy Joel and Green Day, both Moving Out and American Idiot, respectively, disappointed me. I was a little reassured when I read the program and saw that both the writer and the director were my age, had experienced Alanis at the same formative time and treasured that memory, and although the specific places where they connected differed from mine, they seemed to have the appropriate reverence for the material. Perhaps I was also made a little more open to possibility by the pre-show-bathroom-trip experience, as the theater had labeled all of their many-stalled bathrooms into all-gender. Somehow, this mixture of elderly Cambridge theatergoing retirees, middle aged academics (ulp, that’s me now?) and college kids all handled it. There was some giddy weirdness of everyone trying to negotiate it, but the awkwardness seemed so mutual that it had a weird equalizing effect. Ok, we were in “some other realm” now, and everyone else except the few obvious Gender Warriors ™ in the crowd was just as off-kilter as you. Which, coincidentally (but not, take note Alanis, ironically), was one of the themes of the show. Everyone’s messed up, everyone’s got pain.

Nothing new there, of course, and the plot (a seemingly idyllic suburban family and town that, once you scratch the surface, everyone’s got messed up stuff going on) traversed very well-trodden paths. The characters are introduced to us as one-note stereotypes going through the usual tropes, then slowly broke apart and made more complex and human, at least to some extent. Nothing you’ve never seen before, but at least, what you’ve seen before done decently well. The show also attempted to hit on laundry list of contemporary issues — gender/trans stuff, date rape, opioid abuse, porn addiction, and (very very cursorily) race, and global warming.

But none of us was there for the plot or the characters or the “issues,” of course — we all wanted to see what the writer and director had done with Alanis’ music. What saved the show was a combination of very strong actors investing much more power and emotion than the ho-hum script would normally elicit, some incredible singing voices (every single damned cast member could belt out those screaming Alanis high notes skillfully), and, of course, Alanis’ lyrics. I hadn’t heard some of those songs in awhile and it reminded me what an incredibly skillful songwriter she is…her words and music not only carried the show, but made it good.

Some of the permutations and adaptations of her songs were, indeed, very different than I had always imagined. Her songs had always seemed so very individual and private, so seeing some of them arranged as duets or even ensembles was weird. The first few numbers also focused heavily on the teenaged members of the family. Naturally, the “big issues” for teens today revolve heavily around gender identity, so some of those songs brought to mind the movie Team America: World Police’s mockery of the musical Rent (where a cast of puppets sings, “Everyone has AIDS! AIDS AIDS AIDS AIDS AIIIIIDS!”…replace with, “Everyone is Trans! Trans Trans Trans Trans Traaaaans!”)

There was a “Greek chorus” of punk-dressed millennials that swarmed about the stage every so often to badger the woefully “un-woke” adult characters, and it did grate on me a little. I started to realize I’ve gotten to the cranky old man stage where a “these damn kids” reflex kicks in a bit…but fortunately the play was sophisticated enough that, even though the teen characters took themselves and their angsty axes to grind 100% seriously, the show goes to similar lengths to show the struggles of the adult characters. There is a heartbreaking adaptation of “Head over Feet” that is a pair of duets: two teen characters singing that one rare Alanis “falling in love song” genuinely to one another, while the two parent characters, in marriage therapy, simultaneously sing it with painful nostalgia, realizing how far they’ve strayed from that stage of their lives. You can see it as a chilling future for the kids, a warning that there are whole worlds of hurt down the line that these kids know nothing about yet. Or, on a much more basic level, we’re all human, and at every age, there’s painful shit that sometimes you just have to scream angry lyrics about.

Case in point: A confrontation between the trans teenage character and their mother. “How can you not see this is harder for me than you!” the child shouts, and the mom shouts back, “You don’t understand that you’re taking something from me!” To its credit, the show lets us sit and stew in the potential validity of both of those perspectives.

Some of the songs were sung as dialogue (“Not the Doctor” worked surprisingly well as a marital fight) and some lyrics necessarily changed for that purpose. “That I would be good” was arranged as a chorus sang by three of the teen characters to their absent parents, and it felt a little too diluted from what I was used to. When Alanis sang it solo, it seemed like this cry out to God or the universe or whatever Forces we plant in our mind whose judgment and approval we desperately seek.

On the other hand, “Forgiven” was sung as a climactic song by the entire cast and it worked PERFECTLY, as if there was so much power in Alanis’ words that only with a full chorus can you adequately hold it. The character most in danger of being a trope — the suburban-soccer-mom-who-seems-perfect-but-who-has-a-bad-relationship-with-her-daughter-etc — was played by the strongest actress in a very strong cast. Every time the script threatened to traverse that all-too-familiar “blame the mom” road, the actress’ charisma, and the lyrics she sang, kept the show from going there, and demanded we empathize with her and take her seriously as a human being. There were worlds of pain and layers of emotion and complexity in the actress’ singing voice, even if the rest of the script didn’t bring you there. And I have to admit, “Forgiven” took on a whole new and deeper meaning when sung by a fiftysomething mother vs. its original incarnation as a twentysomething’s brooding complaint about how much she got fucked up by her Catholic upbringing.

“Uninvited,” a haunting song by design, was if anything made even more haunting sung as a duet between the mother and her memory of her younger self as she was struggling with the trauma of being a rape survivor, triggered by the rape of one of the teenaged characters in the present day. That particular plot (the teenaged rape victim) devolved quickly into outright agitprop (of course, so did Rent, which consciously interrupted one of its songs to have the characters chant “Act up! Fight AIDS!”), but at least it was agitprop I agreed with. I also liked how the victim, a very minor character, kept appearing and getting thrown into song scenes where there was no reason for it except — and this was kind of clever — to remind us that it would be easy to marginalize and forget her, so she’s always being “kept in our field of vision,” as it were. I liked how there were supportive male characters, but also none of them were let off the hook for their privilege and complicity.

Like many in the audience, I assume, I was waiting for how they’d handle “Ironic”…and, delightfully, it was sung by the teenager daughter character as a poem she wrote and was reading aloud in her English class. And yes, after each verse, her classmates kept shooting up their hands and pointing out how those things were not, in fact, ironic (the crowd cheered and applauded appropriately) and the whole thing was played as “ok, really, you can still have some legit things to express even if you’re a little scrambled about the particulars.”

But the show stopper, the one we all paid our money to see, was “You Oughta Know.”The “wronged teenage ex” character who sang it did so perfectly still, no gestures or movements, under red spotlights center stage, her body in this totally contained space as she let her voice do 100% of the work of communicating the pain and outrage. It was weirdly, amazingly powerful, moreso than if she had been jumping around the stage screaming in the way Alanis had historically performed it. Of course, as the song went on, she slowly did add more gesture and lost that control and by the last choruses WAS doing the jumping around thing, backed up by the entire ensemble of dancers and thunderous music, and at the abrupt end of the song the entire audience leapt to our feet and not only gave a standing ovation…but a standing, screaming ovation. I mean, literally, we were all screaming, for minutes on end, until finally the folks controlling the lights flashed us to sit down and started up the next song’s music.

It was the longest standing O that I’d ever been a part of. And I knew why. Because every one of us had just seen our own fantasy of that song, the one we were ALL envisioning when we had first felt it speak-truth-to-power about our own various heartbreaks…THAT was what we had all imagined, being up there under red lights with a screaming chorus behind us, belting those words out to whoever it was we’d imagined had wronged us.

This may be as close to a Woodstock moment as my generation ever gets. :)

Two hours and forty minutes (not counting the extra time we’d eaten up for the aforementioned ovation), and it felt like half that time. The so-so script I had feared did indeed come to pass, but it was redeemed by great performances and a treatment both reverential and innovative of the source material Alanis wrote back in the 90s. Even by her second album, she wasn’t igniting supernovas with her music anymore…because she had moved on, and you could tell it in her songs. But what she wrote in that moment-in-time in her life was enduring enough to resonate with people “going through that stage” in later years, either as young lovers or, as this show attempted to argue, older folks still wrestling with the sharp jagged edges of what it means to love and lose and try and put yourself back together into something new.

Or, as Alanis would say, the show “won me over, in spite of me,” and what more could I ask?

Originally published at http://wombatzone.blogspot.com on June 20, 2018.

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David Nurenberg

Educator, consultant and author. His latest book is entitled, “What Does Injustice Have to Do With Me? Engaging Privileged White Students with Social Justice.”