On June 13 Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill will turn twenty-five years old, and although Morisette will tour this summer to celebrate her groundbreaking, generation-defining debut record, there’s another perspective of the album currently playing on Broadway. Jagged Little Pill, the musical, opened in December at the Broadhurst Theatre, and I saw it with a priest friend while I was home for Christmas break, mostly for the sake of nostalgia.
I was nineteen when Jagged Little Pill was released, having just finished my first semester of college seminary, and even saw Morisette play her first show in Cleveland back in August of 1995, so I assumed the new musical would be a good trip down memory lane. It was, but in a way significantly better than anything I could have anticipated.
Although the show includes all the music from Jagged Little Pill (plus other songs by Morisette, including two written specifically for the musical), the storyline is not about Morisette, but about the Healeys, a fictional upper-class family from Connecticut who seem to be living the American suburban dream. The show opens with the Healey family sitting on their living room couch in front of a finely decorated Christmas tree, writing their annual Christmas letter, listing their many envy-inducing accomplishments and then taking a flawless family photo. This opening scene is a presentation of what the Italians call the bella figura, the beautiful figure, and although there is something to be said for looking good and presenting a positive image of one’s self in public, the bella figura poses a real danger to the Christian life, and human living in general.
Diablo Cody wrote the script (a book, actually) for Jagged Little Pill the musical, and there are a few things to know about Cody before we go any further. First, her real name is Brook Bussey-Maurio, and she was raised Catholic and spent all of her youth in Catholic schools. Second, after graduating from the University of Iowa she started a blog under the penname Diablo Cody, and spent a year as a stripper and wrote about it. Someone recognized her writing talent and invited her to Hollywood, where she provided the script for Juno (2007) and won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Today she is happily married to Dan Maurio and they have three children together.
Although she may not be a practicing Catholic, Diablo Cody is not anti-Catholic, nor an atheist. She told The Daily Beast: “I certainly don’t see myself as this repressed Catholic who had to break away and run off to Vegas, or anything like that. . . . I went to Mass every single day as a child. Not just a Sunday thing. So I know what it’s like to be raised with a lot of religion.” In the “Who’s Who in the Cast” section of Playbill for Jagged Little Pill, there are eighty-seven entries. Only two of them mention God; one of them is Diablo Cody’s. The very last line of her bio reads, “Thank you, God.” Not too long ago she was interviewed by OC Weekly and confessed, “I still believe in God, and I get mocked by my friends for this.”
Cody’s experience of Catholicism is similar to that of other artists like Bruce Springsteen, who insists that the reason he writes the way he does is because of his Catholic upbringing. And do you know who else was raised Catholic? Alanis Morisette. A few years back she told The Star: “I owe the Catholic Church my singing career. Honestly. I used to sing around the house and my brothers always told me I couldn’t sing to save my life. Then one day I was singing in church and a woman turned to me and said I had a beautiful voice. That changed everything for me. I loved the music. I loved the esthetic. I loved Jesus. I wanted to be Mary.”
I’ve focused attention on these biographies to make a point: whether one believes in God or not is of enormous consequence, especially for artists. The reason Jagged Little Pill is described by The New York Times as “joyful and redemptive, rousing and real,” is due in no small part to Cody Diablo’s faith. Because Cody believes in God, she also believes in the power of redemption and in the right ordering of things, including the human soul. She may not use these exact terms in her screenplay, but there is no mistaking that Jagged Little Pill is a story of sin and redemption, of brokenness and healing, of sickness and health, of the physical and the metaphysical.
Jagged Little Pill is not a Catholic masterpiece, and I’m not arguing otherwise, but it gets a lot right on the human, psychological, sociological, and even the theological level. Without giving too much away, the bella figura of the Healy family is slowly exposed to reveal the reality of brokenness—adult and teenage brokenness, alike—hiding behind an image of perfection. The family must do the hard and humiliating work of seeing themselves as they are before they can become who they are supposed to be. One notable and intense scene is set in a church, where MJ (Mrs. Healy), in a moment of desperation, cries out to God for help for the first time in many years, and finds her prayer eventually answered.
Jagged Little Pill addresses a lot of heavy and timely issues head-on, not glorifying them, but treating them as Catholics do, as the sins they are: racism, internet pornography, gossip, infidelity, drug abuse, drunkenness, and sexual assault. Of course, it is Broadway, so there are some scenes that aren’t very Catholic at all, but the overarching theme of the show comes through clearly: we are all broken, and the only way to true healing is to admit that we are sick, and then to entrust ourselves to a good doctor and a supportive community to make ourselves better, knowing that the road to healing takes time.
In other words, we are all sinners in need of a Savior and a Church to bring us salvation. (But, given the times, if you put it that plainly in a Broadway show it wouldn’t last a week!)
Hearing Morrisette’s album sung by Broadway actors is a real treat, and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has created two exceptional scenes in which characters battle with their own souls, consciences, and addictions in hauntingly beautiful dance. Another scene impressively and revealingly moves through time in reverse. The set design is also fantastic, and it would not be surprising to see this show and its leads nominated for Tony Awards.
Jagged Little Pill isn’t for everybody, and it’s definitely not for children or most teens, but I found it to be some good medicine for a world that is pretty sick. If it accomplishes nothing more than helping its audience to realize that healing begins with the humbling admission that we are all sick, that’s pretty good for Broadway, because that’s the perfect starting point to the life of grace.
Pro tip: Buy tickets for 50% off the day of the show at the TKTS booth in Times Square.