Here is a content warning. I just want to let you know that Jagged Little Pill includes depictions of sexual violence, and this review will discuss them. Take care of yourself, and skip both the show and this review, if you need to. I still can’t wrap my head around the exploitative nature in which Jagged Little Pill incorporates trauma into the narrative.
I also think it’s important for you to know that there are strobing/flashing lights in the show. This was not information that was readily available before I got to the theater, so just a heads up.
Who is Bella? And why is the only thing we ever really find out about her is her rape?
Jagged Little Pill is about the Healys, a contemporary, suburban family of four: Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley) and Steve (Sean Allan Krill) and their two kids, Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding) and Nick (Derek Klena). Nick is poised as the Healys’ manicured, Harvard-approved son whereas Frankie falls into the general angsty teen category, arguing with her mom about her clothes and her attitude. Frankie is also adopted, and as a bold, young person invested in social politics and justice, she isn’t afraid to stand up for herself and challenge her parents’ implicit biases surrounding her identity as a young, black woman and her bisexuality and how they affect their relationship.
The Healys move throughout their world among a mostly unidentified ensemble of people who transform into classmates and crowds and baristas and doctors. Occasionally, someone will be plucked out and given a name and a function. Jo (Lauren Patten), Frankie’s best friend with benefits. Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano), the new kid at school and Frankie’s new romantic pursuit. Andrew (Logan Hart), Nick’s friend. And Bella.
Played with grace by Kathryn Gallagher, Bella seems to exist in this story for the sole purpose of being assaulted and becoming a martyr for the Healys in order to reckon with their own personal histories, traumas, and prejudices. We don’t find out much about her inner life, her personhood, outside of the events of her assault. She exists, like the aforementioned supporting characters do, in a convenient orbit surrounding the Healys, but she is the only person who is raped at a party and used for dramatic catharsis.
Mary Jane, MJ for short, uses Bella as a conduit to face her own harrowing experience with sexual violence and subsequent opioid addiction and depression. Nick must confront his complicity in Bella’s assault and sacrifice his reputation to become a better person. Frankie and Jo take up Bella’s cross and organize a student demonstration. Bella becomes a voiceless symbol at a protest on her behalf.
When it was out of town in Cambridge at A.R.T. in 2018, Jagged Little Pill was touted, according to The New York Times, as possibly “the most woke musical since Hair.” It was also praised for not only using Alanis Morissette’s revolutionary alt-rock album of the same name (with music in collaboration with Glen Ballard) as the basis of the musical but also having women in the director and librettist positions as well, Diane Paulus and Diablo Cody respectively.
Unfortunately, despite all the care Paulus and her team took to research and acknowledge the challenges of creating a show dealing with addiction, trauma, and sexual violence, it’s disappointing that the show itself not only appears to tokenize the experiences of vulnerable people but capitalizes on it while saying they’re changing the world. It is a dramaturgical disconnect that happens when the table work becomes more important than the staging: having a lot of information without actually making it into an actionable piece of theater renders the research, thus all good intentions, ineffectual.
From the start, it feels like a piece that is only incidentally crafted around Morissette’s album, making one-to-one connections between the songs and scenes and using generalizations to build story rather than develop any complexity in its characters. Following the lead of the Healy Family Christmas letter that begins and ends the show, we learn about our protagonists by being told who they are. There is a literalness about the staging and song placement that feels less like the director and librettist are in on the joke and more like they discovered easy ways to incorporate non-narrative songs into an aesthetically playable scene.
Though “Hand in My Pocket” is a reasonable choice for Jo’s introductory song on paper, noting her uncertainty and her hope for better days, Jo also ceremonially places her hand in her pocket to make sure you understand the connection to the titular gesture because otherwise it doesn’t seem to mean anything to her or the audience. “Ironic” exists in a pedantic literary moment where the conceit is a collective understanding that the song isn’t actually ironic as told through the lens of Frankie and Phoenix’s English class while listening to Frankie’s poem. Tired criticisms of the song’s misuse of irony have existed since the album was first released, so the whole thing feels insincere, like Gen X putting words in Gen Z mouths. This direct approach does work well, however, in Patten’s performance of “You Oughta Know” near the end of Act II. Her vocals are thrilling, complete with the full ensemble screlting and contorting along with her rage choreography (interpretive movement and dance crafted by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui). Jo’s entire subplot is an obvious instance of reverse engineering from this song alone, but it is an exciting, baffling spectacle—a sudden, incongruous rock concert set-up, awash in red and flashing lights—that stops the show.
The inconsistency of dramatic translation is due in part to Cody’s insistence on covering as many timely topics as she could muster in two acts. In an interview with Vulture, Cody explained, “I know there are some people who feel that there might be too many issues in this show, and that’s fine with me. That makes me want to pile on more, because the reality is there are too many issues in the world. I wish we were living in a simpler narrative where we only had one or two things keeping us awake at night. But I have like seven, and they are all represented in this show.”
It’s not so much that there are too many issues or that we crave simplicity where it does not exist. It’s that in its attempt to encompass the world, Cody’s book loses its humanity. Representation alone, especially at this moment in time, is not enough.