I remember being a freshman in high school, donning a Wicked sweatshirt and skinny jeans (my standard attire on any given day), and justifying for the thousandth time to one of my best friends how I could take seriously any work of fiction in which random bursts into song were not only encouraged, but required.
But I didn’t really have an answer for him as to why I loved musicals so much. It’s just been an innate part of me since…forever. I grew up on musicals. My obsession began with The Sound of Music at age 8 and only intensified from there; 17 years and a “No day but today” tattoo later, I’m still all about that #theatrelife.
But when you stop and think about it, the concept really does sound silly. People have been singing and dancing their way through complex (and not so complex) storylines for centuries; but that doesn’t mean that some don’t find musical theatre ridiculous.
I’ve taken as many opportunities as possible to see live theatre–from Ocean State Theatre’s production of Rent to Kinky Boots on Broadway.
But my new favorite musical is one I found right at home. And it’s helped me articulate the power of musical theatre like I’ve never been able to before.
A concept: a musical, but the plot is digestible without music, though the music itself is used as a really effective backdrop that enhances, rather than distracts from, the overall message. And the music is from Alanis Morissette’s 1995 ‘Jagged Little Pill’ album.
This show is all that and so much more.
In May, Jagged Little Pill made its world premiere at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge. I saw it then and three times since. I haven’t stopped thinking about it.
The book for Jagged Little Pill was written by Diablo Cody, perhaps best known for films like Juno and Jennifer’s Body, and as an aspiring writer with a list ten feet long of writers I admire–especially women–I can’t imagine this show being what it is without Cody. Essentially, she provides a contemporary setting for Morissette’s music: a pretty standard nuclear American family in suburban Connecticut, dealing with connecting with each other and with simply being alive. It’s very raw; it’s very open, and it’s very powerful.
With me so far? Okay, so here’s the part where you say, “It’s another drama about a struggling family. So what?” If you’ve gotten this far into this post, however, it means you’re a least a little curious. So hear me out as to why this play, to me, is groundbreaking. For one:
Jagged Little Pill is a Musical for People Who Don’t Like Musicals
Everyone knows Hamilton is the kind of play that has something for everyone, what with its contemporary take on a story about Old White Dudes and its seemingly effortless take-back of America on behalf of the immigrants who founded it and who make it up today. Jagged Little Pill (JLP going forward when I’m lazy) may not be that play, but it’s got a really unique way of pairing the experience of a concert with that of live theatre.
Specifically, JLP puts less pressure on those who feel uncomfortable with discerning lyrics to understand plot. You hear a few chords of an Alanis hit that you probably rocked out to before you knew what love or pain was, and you’re instantly comfortable. Instead of trying to find the story in the song, you find the song in the story.
The show weaves powerful lyrics written by a well-known artist into a story while letting them exist as separate entities in the piece. It’s something that the Moulin Rouge movie tried to do, and for the most part succeeded, but there’s something so different about a live experience.
This play combines the feeling of being connected to a group of people at a concert–singing along, knowing exactly the words that come next–with developing a connection to characters whose lives are playing out before your eyes. Both of those experiences are extremely important ones to me, and I’ve realized that’s the principal component that I love about musical theatre. It creates empathy in a room full of people you’ve never met. It creates a connection between the audience and the performers that is almost electric. You can’t find that anywhere else.
It’s Exactly as Woke as it Needs to Be
Without giving too much away, I’d go so far as to say that this is the musical for 2018. It speaks to the #MeToo movement, to drug addiction, abuse, the plights of people of color and non-binary people in America, familial dynamics, issues of self-worth, and mental health … even in the subtlest of ways, JLP does not hold back on addressing these, all within the context of the Healy family’s personal struggles.
More broadly, it’s a story about humans figuring themselves out. That’s all we’re really doing in the end, right? Regardless of where we come from, we’re all just bumbling around on this same weird planet with our same weird emotions and all the things that makes us who we are.
At one point in the play, one of our two main protagonists, Frankie, asks her recent love interest, Phoenix, “Do you ever wish you were a part of a different family?”
He says, “No. I love them. It’s more like I wish I was a different…person.” It’s a very simple line, but it stuck with me.
In this way, JLP is very much a character study. It takes both the strengths and the insecurities of each main character and puts them entirely on blast, and the beautiful thing about it is that not everything is resolved or wrapped up in a little bow at the end. No character looks to the audience and says, “I get it now. This is what I need to do. This is what I need to be and how I need to act to be successful.” As Alanis writes, “you live, you learn, you love, you learn…” Life is a process. It’s a game we probably don’t ever win. But the experiences you have along the way make it a worthwhile venture.
The Cast is Insanely F*cking Talented
I’m staring at my English degree from across the room, and I’m a little annoyed, because for all the great education I received, I can’t seem to find the words to describe the cast of this musical other than those aforementioned: insanely f*cking talented.
The two lead protagonists are mother and daughter Mary Jane (MJ) and Frankie Healy, played by Elizabeth Stanley and Celia Gooding respectively, and I can’t imagine this show being as powerful as it is without these two leading women. On the outset, one thinks MJ will be the stereotypical stay-at-home housewife, but the complex nature of her psyche; the conflicting dynamics she has with her husband and children; and the pressures of society and her community weighing on her make her a complex character to which Stanley brings even more layers. Her performance is visceral; and I’m in awe each time I see her. Celia Gooding is a rockstar at 18, bringing maturity and grace to a complicated character. Frankie is everything I wanted to be as a teen, and Gooding doesn’t hold back in executing a quiet vulnerability under her character’s open badassery that makes her performance so captivating.
Then there’s Lauren Patten of Fun Home fame, who plays Frankie’s best friend and sort-of-partner, Jo.
What can I say about Lauren Patten? She’s a powerhouse. I have never felt so connected to a character, and I’m sure that’s because of the unadulterated emotion she pours into each performance. Though I’m a cis woman, and therefore can’t possibly understand Jo’s struggles as a non-binary person, I can understand how they relate to the world. I can understand how much love they put into Frankie, into their mom, into the people they care for, and being so deathly afraid of getting nothing in return.
And the choreography. Where do I even start with dance captain, Ebony Williams? The ensemble in this production is probably the most talented group of dancers I’ve ever seen, and each time I’ve seen the play I’ve been blown away as a dancer myself. The ensemble is unique in this production as it functions as the “conscience” of each character, and the choreo is completely reflective of each character’s state of mind.
Basically, everyone in this cast deserves 6 Tony’s each. Maybe 7 for two-show days.
All I Really Want (Is This Play to Go to Broadway)
If the lines for standing room tickets starting at 8:30 every morning are any indication, Jagged Little Pill is definitely going somewhere after it wraps up its Boston run on July 15th. The A.R.T. is, of course, also known for sending a little play called Waitress to Broadway. So, I’m looking forward to seeing this again on a bigger stage (you can’t see it, but I’m knocking on wood right now).
And to be honest, there’s not really much I would change. In fact, knowing that most plays go through many rounds of changes before they hit the Great White Way is sort of alarming to me in the context of Jagged. While I think a few storylines could be further fleshed out (Jo’s and Bella’s, in particular), I very much enjoy the open-ended nature of the play’s end, as I mentioned before. The show is as imperfect as life is, and I sort of love that.
Who knows what the future holds for this little play? Honestly, I just feel lucky to have experienced it.
Jagged Little Pill is why I love musicals
It’s as simple as that. The writers, producers, actors, musicians…everyone involved with this play is committed to telling a powerful story through art. This is a play that not only makes you feel, but it makes you think; it inspires you to take action regarding what’s going on in today’s world.
I see live theatre again and again because it inspires me to be better. To do better. It’s the epitome of making a difference through art. It’s why I sit down and write, or why I go onstage and dance.
I love musicals because they make me feel more connected to the world around me. They create an environment that is just fictional enough for me to feel comfortable stepping away from my own problems for a while–but just realistic enough that each song, each soliloquy, is an opportunity for emotional catharsis and unparalleled human connection.
Thanks, Jagged Little Pill, for the reminder that important stories are being told all around us, all the time, through so many different mediums. Maybe they’re being sung, or danced, or read aloud. No matter the method, they should be heard. I think we’d all be better for it.