Jagged Little Pill, the new Broadway musical featuring the music of Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard and a book by Diablo Cody, is the perfect show to usher us into a new decade. It tackles nearly every topic that affects Americans today—from opioid addiction and sexual assault to gender identity and social activism, but it’s not just an “issues” show, according to actor Derek Klena, who plays Nick Healy.
“There are lots of topical elements socially and politically, but Diablo has really just written in everything that we’re dealing with in our world today,” Klena said. “These are all super relevant topics that we need to be addressing and Diablo has done an incredible job of streamlining them all into one cohesive plotline.”
The show features every song from the groundbreaking 1995 album Jagged Little Pill, plus other songs from Morissette’s catalog and two original tunes, all cleverly woven into an original story about the Healy family, set in the modern day in an upper-middle class suburb in Connecticut. Wife and mother Mary Jane, or MJ (Elizabeth Stanley), hides a dependence on opioids, husband Steve (Sean Allan Krill) is a workaholic, adopted daughter Frankie (Celia Gooding) deals with identity and relationship issues and son Nick tries to live up to his parents’ high expectations.
“Nick is the seemingly golden boy son who is kind of at that crossroads between adolescence and adulthood,” said Klena. “He’s graduating from high school, he’s just gotten into Harvard, he seemingly has everything going for him, but he’s at that point where he’s discovering who he wants to be. He knows what his parents image of him, he knows who he is in his parents’ eyes, but he’s kind of discovering who Nick wants to be as he takes this next step into adulthood and comes into his own.”
Klena, who is best known for his roles in Dogfight, Wicked and Anastasia, has been involved in the show and developing the character of Nick for the past two-and-a-half years. He played Nick at the out-of-town production at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, last year, which enjoyed a record-breaking run and positive reviews. A few changes were made before opening night on Broadway, all beneficial for plot clarity and character development.
“For Nick specifically, a big change that happened was Alanis’ iconic song ‘Perfect’ used to be in act two after Nick gets into a confrontation with his mother,” Klena explained. “Now that it’s in the first act and earlier in Nick’s story, it is helpful for me as an actor and for the audience to understand Nick’s point of view before delving into his major conflict.”
With the lyrics “Be a good boy / Try a little harder / You’ve got to measure up / Make me prouder,” it’s clear where Nick is coming from in this story, feeling pressure from his parents to be perfect. Klena said once the song was moved up, it was less emotionally driven and more about self-reflection and discovery.
“When he realizes he worked his whole life for this very moment to get into Harvard…and to still be feeling this yearning for something, it’s kind of a big shock to him,” Klena said. “’Perfect’ acts as this bridge between him being this cookie cutter image of himself and taking a step out of the box and slowly becoming the man he wants to be.”
He added that Morissette has called it an illuminating experience seeing her songs—“Perfect” and “Mary Jane,” which is sung by Steve—performed by men.
“Everybody on our creative team, especially Diablo and Alanis, are so brilliant, so I feel like working on this project has been an embarrassment of riches, getting to work alongside all of them,” Klena said.
Cody, who earned many accolades for her film Juno and has created television shows including United States of Tara and One Mississippi, was there “every step of the way,” Klena said.
“We would just sit at the table and read through scenes with her and [director] Diane Paulus to hash out the story,” Klena said. “Alanis’ songs, in this piece, we try to honor them and shed light on them and do them justice through this original story that Diablo has crafted. Part of the development process was figuring out all those puzzle pieces in the story line that are really going to let the songs shine.”
He continued, “She was super open to change…and she loved this process and experience of working on a play because you get to go back and fiddle with things and you have a preview process [as opposed to] writing a film, there’s a draft and once you shoot it, there’s really no going back and reshooting because it’s just too expensive…She said it has been an amazing experience. To be able to be part of that and watch how happy she’s been with the process and to watch how ecstatic Alanis has been with how we’ve interpreted her material—it’s been a dream.”
Like many of us, Klena grew up listening to Alanis Morissette songs on the radio.
“I was quite little when this album first came out, but growing up in Southern California, I spent a lot of hours in the car with my mom and I have distinct memories of driving by the beach and having ‘You Oughta Know’ playing or ‘Hand In My Pocket’ playing,” Klena said. “It wasn’t until getting involved in this project that I realized they are all on the same album. Now I’m even more of a fan after getting to work with her and seeing how brilliant she is in the flesh.”
“Uninvited,” a 1998 single, is put to use exquisitely in the musical and stands out to Klena as a favorite in the show.
“It’s just such a powerful number listening to Elizabeth Stanley and Kathryn Gallagher sing it every night and how it’s staged,” Klena said, referring to the balletic exorcism with her inner demons Mary Jane and her alter ego (dancer Heather Lang) experience during that that number. “And Tom Kitt’s arrangements—Alanis has even said that she wants to sing Tom’s arrangements in her concerts now, she’s like, ‘I can’t get these arrangements out of my head. I love them.’”
While every cast member is consistently excellent, a real highlight is Lauren Patten’s intense performance of “You Oughta Know,” which brings down the house every night.
“Lauren is incredible,” Klena said. “A combination between her incredible performance and Alanis’ iconic song, I think it’s just the perfect apex of everything. It’s been exciting for audiences to lose it in that moment. Lauren Patten has gotten many a standing ovation.”
The original two songs created for the musical—“Smiling” and “Predator”—fit right into the mix. “Smiling” lends itself to another uniquely staged scene featuring Mary Jane. Another strong addition, “Predator” is extremely effective putting into words something women experience all the time. In a similar vein, “No,” a 2012 B-side resurrected for the musical, is an anthem with lyrics “What part of no do you not understand?” tackles the topic of consent and calls out rape culture.
“[The sexual assault] storyline has been involved in the musical for a while, before the Kavanagh hearings and before the Me Too movement,” Klena said. “Those relevant events that have taken place over the past couple of years have only reinforced the team’s objective in wanting to take a stand and move it to the forefront.”
“This show obviously connects with most of our audience members on some level because of how relatable it is,” Klena added. “We’re just trying to open up the conversation and have people see it in a different light and take it seriously. It’s my job tackling Nick to try to address that—that we can’t just be bystanders. It’s important that we take responsibility for our actions and also stand up for what’s right—not stand by and watch injustice happen.”
See Jagged Little Pill at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W 44th St., NYC. For tickets, visit jaggedlittlepill.com.