Alanis Morissette talks about the new Broadway musical ‘Jagged Little Pill’
“WHEN I LISTEN to songs that are too perfect, I feel uncomfortable,” says Alanis Morissette. “I love imperfection so much.” Although the multi-platinum recording star has been discussing the ubiquity of Auto-Tune and its ilk in pop music, she might be talking about the beauty of human imperfection. Morissette has built a career on portraying brokenness in myriad forms: sexual obsession, body dysmorphia, or the toll that sexism takes on a woman’s psyche. Remember: The title of her best-known album, 1995’s “Jagged Little Pill,” conjures up the image that medicine may slash our throats as it goes down.
Now that seminal album is on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre and poised to be the hit of the season. Directed by Diane Paulus (“Waitress”), with a book by savvy screenwriter Diablo Cody (“Juno”), the stage version of “Jagged Little Pill” is decidedly not a jukebox musical. Instead, its songs (and a couple from other releases) have been woven into an original story about a suburban family beset by depression and dysfunction. An adopted African American daughter feels alienated in her white environment. A stressed-out mother turns to prescription drugs. A father is hooked on Internet porn. Through Morissette’s defiant, hard-rocking anthems, these ordinary people express their longing for freedom and healing. IN New York caught Morissette on the phone from San Francisco to talk about her Broadway debut.
I went back and listened to “Jagged Little Pill,” and kept thinking, “This rage and eloquent anger is lacking in today’s rock.” Would you agree?
To me, there are different archetypes of songwriting. Some people write to perform and entertain. We have a plethora of that. And some are philosophers, with an existential imperative to write those kinds of philosophical songs. For me, I love linguistic wordsmith-isms, and malapropisms. I love philosophy, psychology, the human condition. I love to sing my guts out. So, I happen to have that combination of things, and I love to serve, so this activist fire imbues everything that I do. But I still appreciate music that is there to entertain, because if every song in the world was an intense expression of activism, it might get a little much.
How much Broadway or theater was in your background growing up in Canada?
I used to do a theater a lot as a kid; it was the one environment where I felt regulated because it’s such a communal experience. Being a solo artist is fantastic, but there is an isolation to it. Whereas when I did theater as a kid, it was so communal, such a built-in village with a bunch of “fellow unusuals.” In some ways, all roads have led back to theater and the deep collaborative joy it begets. Because as much as I love writing alone, there’s nothing like being in a room with 35 people going forward towards the same intention.
Have you been to many Broadway shows?
Everything from “Spring Awakening” to “Spamalot.” I watched the whole range. “South Park,” “Jane Eyre.” I love every genre.
When the producers approached you to make a musical out of “Jagged Little Pill,” you told them you didn’t want a biographical show. Why was that?
It’s not unlike my relationship with writing my quote-unquote memoir right now. I wasn’t really up for telling the whole story because, first of all, even if someone writes a book that’s the length of “War and Peace,” they’re never going to be able to really capture a lifetime. I didn’t want it to be a jukebox musical either. I personally wouldn’t show up to see that. I wanted it to be a musical that I would be dying to see myself.
How was it working with Diablo Cody?
When the producers mentioned Diablo, and we met in front of a whiteboard in Malibu years ago, brainstorming and throwing ideas around, I thought, “Wow. This is one plus one equals fifty over here,” and I got really excited because Diablo has the ability to write from a broken heart combined with acerbic, hilarious comedy. She’s got those sensibilities down. It was so beautiful and fortuitous that [she] heard the characters, as she told me. She heard each character through each one of the narratives of my songs. I thought that would be daunting, but she found it to be quite inspiring and it seemed effortless for her—although I know she’s working her ass off. But the characters were born through the lyrics of my songs, and so in that sense, they seem inextricably linked, the story and the lyrics, they really feed each other.
For those familiar with the album, what has music supervisor Tom Kitt done with your sound?
If there were about 11 colors on my record, Tom added 15 more. He also tied them together in ways that I could never do. He surprised me at many turns, and he rendered them really cohesive. At the tail end of the musical, without giving anything away, he blends a few songs. It’s not exactly a medley. He just blends them together seamlessly in a way that requires a kind of ear that I don’t have, and that I bow down to.
The hit song “You Oughta Know” plays out a little different in the musical. Back in 1995, it was a breakup song from you to a man. But now it’s from one teenager—Jo—to another young woman, Frankie. Can you talk about that?
When I moved from Canada to America and wrote “You Oughta Know,” my survival strategy was to tend and befriend, to play nice, and underneath that was this bubbling sense of devastation and rage, and songwriting enabled me to do that. So, the character onstage, Jo, she rolls with it. She plays it cool. And then at this point where she’s reached her limit, she loses it. And her devastation and pain come out in this song, because the relationship she’s in she thought was going one direction, and it wasn’t. It’s a similar devastation/rage. They’re usually bedfellows. And the actress who plays Jo, Lauren Patten, blends the devastation and the rage so beautifully.
Other musicians have stepped into their own shows on Broadway: Billie Joe Armstrong in “American Idiot” and Sara Bareilles in “Waitress.” Would you ever join the cast?
If I were, it would probably be in the role of the therapist. How could there not be a therapist in the show? It’s me.
But does that character sing?
She sings her ass off the whole musical in the chorus, but she doesn’t have her own song. We would make her sing.
You’re based in San Francisco, but when in New York, what do you like to do?
Joe’s Pizza is always the place to go, whether it’s two in the morning or otherwise. I eat my way through the city and find the new places. I’m a highly sensitive person through and through, so sensual activities, perfumes, food, walks in nature, which basically is Central Park. I used to live there very briefly, and I would roller blade by the Hudson, and do people watching, which is basically my favorite thing to do. I lived in New York for about a year, but I was really lonely, so I moved back to the West Coast.