The problem with most jukebox musicals isn’t the juke, it’s the box. The tunes are fine, but they rarely match the container that someone is trying to jam them into. How could they? Commercial pop and musical theater have different kinds of tales to tell and different tools for telling them.
So it’s easy to imagine all the ways “Jagged Little Pill” could have gone wrong. Based on material from Alanis Morissette’s 1995 megahit album and several of its follow-ups, it could have wound up in a bio-musical straitjacket or with a story either too light for the songs’ furious intelligence or too broad for Broadway.
When I saw “Jagged Little Pill” last year at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., I worried that it was falling into the “too broad” category. The script by the “Juno” screenwriter Diablo Cody deliberately aimed to incorporate as many pressing concerns as it could. Rape culture, racism, addiction, adoption, homophobia, global warming, overparenting and underparenting were but a few of the themes dramatized, or at least put (sometimes literally) on placards.
Fair enough: We want certain musicals to do serious work. But in the show’s first incarnation it was often difficult to discern the central story in a plot so over-tangled with issues that it came to seem like a cantata of discontent.
The great news for “Jagged Little Pill,” and for us, is that its creative team, led by the director Diane Paulus, did more than just fiddle with a show that, though blurry, was already entertaining. The overhauled version that opened on Thursday at the Broadhurst Theater is fully in focus: clear in its priorities, rich in character, sincere without syrup, rousing and real. It easily clears the low bar of jukebox success to stand alongside the dark original musicals that have been sustaining the best hopes of Broadway in recent years.
And despite its pre-existing songs — beautifully arranged for the stage by Tom Kitt — it certainly is original. At the center of Cody’s story is a wealthy Connecticut family aptly named Healy: They have a lot of healing to do.
Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley) is a brittle tiger mom suppressing secret trauma; she and her workaholic husband, Steve (Sean Allan Krill), have grown peevishly distant. Son Nick (Derek Klena) is a high school senior bound for Harvard if the myth of his own godliness doesn’t derail him; daughter Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding) is a 16-year-old firebrand whose sense of alienation — as a black adoptee in a blindingly white community — is not just personal but political.
In the course of “Jagged Little Pill,” the Healys’ habits of denial are tested and ultimately shattered by two developments. One is external: When Nick’s snobby friend Andrew (Logan Hart) rapes wrong-side-of-the-tracks Bella (Kathryn Gallagher) at a drunken high school rager, Nick’s and Frankie’s polar responses to the assault help split the family.
Also helping is the internal pressure of Mary Jane’s worsening addiction to Oxycodone, prescribed for pain from a car accident months before the action. How her secret, which hides another one, intersects with those of her household and community is the big burden of the ambitious story. And yet there’s more: A third stand of narrative puts Frankie at the apex of a romantic triangle with Jo (Lauren Patten) — a classmate she claims as her girlfriend — and Phoenix (Antonio Cipriani), the cute new boy she hooks up with.
Yes, that’s eight principal characters, and the main problem with “Jagged Little Pill” in Cambridge was that, until too late, too many of them were given nearly equal weight. But thanks to heavy restructuring of the first act, there’s now no question that this is Mary Jane’s story; we learn of her addiction much sooner and are never allowed to lose sight of her for long. This not only provides a spine for the show’s various pointy ribs but allows Stanley, making the most of her meatiest role to date, to show how a fine singing actor can deepen pop into drama.
Though the 22 songs — all of them with lyrics by Morissette, most of them with music by Morissette and Glenn Ballard — are as catchy and crunchy as ever, that’s no easy job. To allow them to serve the story, Cody is forced to make further metaphors out of material that was highly metaphorical in the first place.
This works straightforwardly enough when rebellious Frankie (in “All I Really Want”) sings, “My sweater is on backwards and inside out, and you say, ‘How appropriate’” — even if she’s not wearing a sweater. Or when Jo, betrayed in love, sings (in the showstopping “You Oughta Know”), “It’s not fair to deny me of the cross I bear that you gave to me.”
It’s no surprise that such lyrics, even in their awkwardness, sound natural in these smart teenage characters’ mouths, as do the arch phrasings of “Ironic” and “That I Would Be Good”; Morissette was just 19 herself when she started writing the songs that eventually became the epochal album. (All 13 are used here, including “Your House,” the hidden track; seven numbers are from later releases and two are newly written.)
But when the match isn’t perfect — as when older characters are forced to appropriate the same kind of language to describe problems of an entirely different life stage — a slight fog rises between us and their emotions. Luckily, it’s a fog the performers (especially Stanley, Patten and the heartbreaking Gallagher) are generally able to disperse with their heat; if I never quite understood what Mary Jane’s stupendous Act I closer “Forgiven” meant, I sure knew what she was feeling.
Paulus’s staging — and especially the yearning, fitful choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui — helps too. The show moves swiftly despite its heavy burdens, with Justin Townsend’s lighting (and the tireless dancers) doing much of the atmospheric work. The reorganization of scenes and songs, along with strong cuts taken to secondary characters, has not resulted in the bald patches that afflict so many jukebox musicals; “Jagged Little Pill” never feels like a coy concert or a greatest hits medley as it threatened to in Cambridge.
Rather, it feels like a summation: of our world’s worst ills but also the way song can summon resistance to them. That may make “Jagged Little Pill” the first jukebox musical to truly make sense of its genre. Joyful and redemptive as it is at times, the show’s strength comes from the dead seriousness of its one presiding voice, filtered through characters who are more alike than their shame lets them know.
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