How Broadway's 'Jagged Little Pill' Musical Got So Woke

Woke, the modern slang for progressive political engagement, should be a term of praise. But it sometimes comes with an eye roll. When I first saw Jagged Little Pill, as it was being workshopped in Massachusetts in spring 2018, it felt unbalanced, its ideas overshadowing its characters. I heard the term “after-school special” in the post-show lobby, and I thought about the play again when Wesley Morris argued in the Times that politics had come to trump aesthetics in recent art. The version of Jagged Little Pill that’s now playing on Broadway has been refined into a crowdpleaser that lands big emotional punches. Still, reviews have been divided between critics annoyed at and pleased with its style of social commentary. The New Yorker called the show a “topical muddle,” but the Times praised it as “a summation: of our world’s worst ills but also the way song can summon resistance to them.”

“I’m proud of the ‘woke’ designation,” Cody said to me. “I would rather have that than ‘the most tone-deaf, stuffy musical.’ When people say, ‘Wow, there are a lot of issues in the show,’ I say, ‘Thank you. Yes there are. There are also a lot of issues in our lives.’”

To hear Cody and Paulus tell it, the common impression of Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill as one woman’s roar of relationship-related angst is all wrong. They point out that only the smash “You Oughta Know” qualifies as a full-fledged breakup track. “Honestly, most of the songs on the album are more about activism and awareness and learning and philosophy,” Cody said. Paulus noted that on the opener, “All I Really Want,” Morissette makes a wishlist of some high-minded things: “deliverance,” “a common ground,” “some justice,” “peace, man.” In the years following Pill, Morissette’s interest in existential and social matters became even more explicit. The lovably hippy-ish refrain of her 1998 single “Thank U” goes, “Thank you India / Thank you providence / Thank you disillusionment.”

When Cody—the screenwriter behind sardonic, woman-centered dramedies like Juno, Young Adult, and The United States of Tara—first revisited Morissette’s album to work on the play, she found herself gravitating toward one track, “Mary Jane.” “I hear you’re losing weight again, Mary Jane,” Morissette sings on the ballad. “Do you ever wonder who you’re losing it for?” To Cody, the lyrics “conjured a very specific character: this woman who is in a place of self-denial, and is very concerned with her image, and has been starving herself emotionally and literally. I thought, ‘Okay this is the protagonist.’”

Mary Jane Healy (played by Elizabeth Stanley) opens the play by reading the Christmas letter she wrote summarizing her family’s achievements over the previous year. Her younger teenage daughter, Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding), has become the biggest political activist at her school. Her older child, Nick (Derek Klena), has a shot at getting into Harvard. Her husband, Steve (Sean Allan Krill), is billing 60 hours a week at his law firm. And she, herself, is recovering from a car accident with the help of yoga—and, the audience quickly learns, powerful pain medication. That addiction to pills turns out to be one of many problems complicating the idyllic image the family projects.

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