Alanis Morissette’s album Jagged Little Pill came out 26 years ago. It represented a landmark for a certain kind of rock music – poppy, confessional, snarly, anguished and feminist – and created a template for many artists to follow, Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry and Avril Lavigne, to name three of the most obviously indebted. Probably too, Natalie Bassingthwaite, who appears in this production. Although it is still beloved, Jagged Little Pill’s mix of grungy 90s guitar and teenage angst might seem a somewhat strange choice to build a musical around. But it is only superficially strange. Morrisette’s choruses are stadium fillers and her lyrics are great Broadway fare – sardonic and self-aware but never cynical. And the musical has been a great success on Broadway, with 15 Tony nominations including a win for Diablo Cody for Best Book. This Sydney season is its first international production.
The musical has the obvious problem that any adaptation of popular music has; namely that the lyrics are locked in and the plot must be made to fit them. As Cody’s Tony Award testifies, she is has done it smoothly. Her plot is relatively straightforward. Mary Jane, played by Bassingthwaite, projects herself as the ideal upper-middle class mother (think Reese Witherspoon in Big Little Lies, who Bassingthwaite seems to be channelling) but, predictably enough, things are not as they seem. Her marriage to workaholic Steve is strained and she is developing a dependency on opioids following a car accident. Her son has just been accepted into Harvard but will face a reckoning when his friend commits sexual assault. Her adopted daughter, Frankie, is in a lesbian relationship with Jo, a character who was originally written as trans, but who was cis in the Broadway production – a change that prompted considerable criticism. Jo is brilliantly played in the Australian production by the trans actor Maggie McKenna.
Each of the characters is open to criticism that they are variations on a cliché but the excellent cast play them with such gusto that the characters do feel like real people. Even Steve, whose obliviousness that he isn’t spending enough time with his family renders him perhaps the most stock-in-trade of the lot, is given real pathos by Tim Draxl. Bassingthwaite and Emily Nkomo, making her professional theatrical debut as Emily, are particularly great and share some of the production’s most affecting moments. The choreography and set design are both excellent. McKenna owns the musical highlight – a stirring rendition of ‘You Oughta Know’ that ignites the second act.
The show covers a lot of hot button issues – sexuality, sexual assault, pornography, drug addiction – and there might have been a temptation to criticise it as cynically co-opting as many causes célèbres as will physically fit in a three-hour musical, but the show is so big-hearted and energetic that it seems to me that it would be quite wrong to impute any cynicism to it all. It is not subtle, but neither is the album it is based on. And it succeeds in the same way, by overpowering the doubters with verve, humour and a shameless, winning earnestness.
Jagged Little Pill, Theatre Royal, Sydney
Lyrics by Alanis Morissette
Music by Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard
Book: Diablo Cody
Music Supervision, Orchestration and arrangements: Tom Kitt
Cast: Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Tim Draxl, Emily Nkomo, Liam Head, Maggie McKenna and ensemble
Tickets (for Sydney show): from $65
Jagged Little Pill is performing in Sydney until 19 December 2021, with a second run from 19 July 2022. It will be touring to Melbourne from 2 January 2022 and Perth from 14 May 2022.