Well, ARE you thinking of me when you fuck her? I was definitely thinking a lot about Alanis Morissette as I watched Jagged Little Pill, the big Broadway jukebox musical based on her record-breaking debut album (and a few other songs). Mainly I was thinking this is what happens when a great rock album gets fucked over by Broadway. So yeah, spoiler alert, not really a fan of this.
Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno and creator of United States of Tara, has taken Morissette’s wordy, listy songs and created the story of a suburban American family on the verge of a breakdown. MJ Healy (yes, Mary-Jane – guess what song she gets to sing) is the all-blonde, all-perky soccer mom keeping her family together, while her husband Steve is away a lot with work, her golden-child Nick is on his way to Harvard, and daughter Frankie is in a rebellious phase. Between them all we get a laundry list of modern-day talking points. From opioid addiction, porn addiction, sexual exploration, date rape, gender fluidity, social anxiety and basic ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. Had it have been written now I’m sure pandemics would have featured in there as well.
It’s trying very hard to be a modern, socially conscious piece of art, but its chosen medium, the jukebox musical, struggles to enable it to reach the genuine heights required to do these serious topics justice. At times it becomes trite and often condescending. Jukebox musicals tend to work best when they stick to an artist’s biography (à la Beautiful: The Carol King Story) or when they throw all pretence away and go for good time, fun and spectacle (à la Mamma Mia! or Moulin Rouge!).
And that’s the paradox you’re faced with here; the songs from the album Jagged Little Pill the album are raw and intense, but Jagged Little Pill the musical is choreographed and professional. A musical centred on the opioid crisis, or date rape would illuminate those topics, but throwing in too many storylines means none are treated with the focus they require. Of course, the story has been written to maximise the tunes and not the other way around.
That’s no slight on the performances or the creatives – all in very fine form. Lauren Patten, who blew me away in Fun Home, is equally as impressive here as Jo, Frankie’s best friend. She gets the funniest lines and her rendition of You Oughta Know tears the roof off and is worth the price of admission on its own to be honest. It would have had more power had the storyline of Frankie’s sexual exploration and flirtation with same-sex relationships had had more room to breathe.
In the theatre it felt like I was on a different wave-length to the middle-aged couples who filled the rows. It was clear for many this was just the walk down memory lane they wanted. Drunk, comfortable 40-somethings singing along to the anthems of their angrier teen years.
For artists, Broadway musicals used to be the last stop on the way to recording covers of the Great American Songbook, proof you’d sold-out and your audience was too old to care. If we get Alanis Morissette’s Christmas album later this year I won’t be surprised.
Jagged Little Pill usually plays at Broadhurst Theatre, New York, but is currently closed along with the rest of Broadway due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tickets for future performances and more details can be found on the official website.