Ever since Alanis Morissette’s blistering song “You Oughta Know” from Jagged Little Pill first hit the airwaves in 1995, music has never been the same. Now, the American Repertory Theater is gearing up to expand the scope of the iconic album with a world premiere musical adaptation, directed by Diane Paulus and with the book written by Academy Award-winning writer Diablo Cody. We chatted with Cody about what you oughta know before the musical’s premiere on May 5 at the Loeb Drama Center.
What made you want to write a musical based on the album? The producers actually came to me with the idea. And so I’m very lucky in this regard because usually musicals languish in development hell for years. In my case, I had the producers come to me. They said, “Diane Paulus is attached to direct this,” which was thrilling to me because she’s the best. And when I heard a Jagged Little Pill musical—you know, it had never really occurred to me to write a musical before. I mean, I’ve never even worked in theater until now—at all. [Laughs.] So it was a terrifying idea, but I was like, “I’m willing to step out of my comfort zone for Alanis because I’m that big of a fan.” And it just sounded like it would be fun. And it was.
Was there a plot already fleshed out? Not at all. No. That was the scary part. … So I just listened to the album a lot, and I realized that even though Alanis has never explicitly called it a concept album, it felt like a concept album to me because so many of the songs are about this specific theme of living your life in denial and then opening your eyes, allowing yourself to experience the pain of acknowledging reality and then being better for it. It really is an album about making yourself uncomfortable and ultimately evolving because of that. That is the jagged little pill, so to speak.
Is there one song that you were really excited to work on? Oh yeah, “Ironic.” I was so excited to tackle that song because people have debated the lyrics for years, and they’ve busted Alanis’ chops about how it’s not really irony. And the song itself just has such vivid lyrics that I remember that was the first one I tackled because I was like, “This is going to be a challenge, but this is also going to be a blast.”
What kind of new material is in the show? New songs? There’s new music, yes. I’m pretty sure I’m allowed to say that. And it’s really something else.
Is there a message you hope people will take away from the show? Yeah. I think it’s tempting in these troubled times to just try and numb yourself and escape from reality. And this show is about facing your problems. It’s about self-acceptance. It’s about not leading your life in denial, and I need to take that advice as well. [Laughs.] Writing is like therapy for me. …There’s a song on the album called “Wake Up.” To me that sums it all up. Wake up, look around, acknowledge.
How involved was Alanis when you were writing the book? She was involved from the beginning and has been the most incredible fairy godmother. Tom Kitt, who’s the musical director, and I were fortunate enough to go to her home in Malibu for a few days and work with her, which was incredible. So eye-opening. And it improved the script to such a dramatic degree because we had her guidance and were able to really talk to her about what she was feeling when she wrote these songs. She was 19 when she wrote the album with Glen Ballard. A lot of time has passed, and her perspective has changed. And the new material that she wrote for the show is so unbelievable. I mean, for me as a fan to get to sit with her and listen to that music with her was just amazing. And she’s also just, like, so accessible. Anytime I need help, she’s there. I was so nervous about having to potentially rewrite some of her lyrics to fit the show, and she’s been so incredibly cool about, and I’ve been very lucky.
Did you find that a plot arose from the songs, or did you come up with the plot and weave the songs into it? What made my job so fun is that the cool thing about Alanis’ music is that it is narrative in a lot of ways. You know, she tells stories in those songs. If you listen to “Mary Jane,” that’s a story. “Head Over Feet” is a story. I don’t envy the people who write a lot of other Broadway books of this type because—and I’m not gonna call out specific artists—there are some artists that I think it would be difficult to write a show around their music. Because the songs aren’t really saying anything. So what you’re really doing is just shoehorning the hits into a script. And in this case, it was the exact opposite, where I could listen to a song like “Mary Jane” and go, ‘Oh my god, I know who this woman is.’ And this is a character in the show. Or I could listen to a song like “All I Really Want” and be like, ‘Oh, that’s our “I want number,”’ which is a staple of musical theater. So I felt very blessed to have that material to work off of.
Do you remember the first time you heard one of the songs from the Jagged Little Pill album? I have a very vivid memory of being in my bedroom when I was a teenager and I was listening to Q101, which was the alternative station in Chicago, and I remember the DJ—normally they just play the music they don’t editorialize. And the DJ was like, “I’m about to play something that’s gonna blow everybody’s mind.” And I remember sitting there listening to [“You Oughta Know”] going, “Damn!” I mean, I think everyone remembers the moment that song exploded because it was just so raw and so exciting. And her voice is just such a distinctive instrument.
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