Jagged Little Pill musical poster

Alanis Morissette’s 90’s album Jagged Little Pill was a raw howl of anger against the injustices she suffered as a young woman at the hands of men in the music industry (and perhaps a priest or two.)

As a teenager, I loved this album.  Though it touched many girls because it gave voice to their inner turmoil, for me it was just the opposite.  I had never felt that kind of fury, and if I had, I wouldn’t have had the audacity to express it.

There is a vicarious thrill in singing along to her put downs and promises of revenge.

I worked at Circuit City at the time, a now defunct music and electronics store.  Back in the pre-streaming days, we used to have a row of CD players set up with headphones so that customers could listen to albums before they bought them.

I lied and told my manager that the Jagged Little Pill CD was scratched and had stopped working.  Instead of throwing it away I took it home and listened to it until I nearly wore it out.


I have it still, a line sawed into the case to indicate that it was promotional product and not for sale.

Jagged Little Pill CD

So I was excited but also intensely curious when the musical Jagged Little Pill, filled completely with songs written by Morissette finally came to Pittsburgh last weekend.

What would Morissette’s music sound like refashioned for a musical?  And how could the writers stitch together a storyline from such dark material?

This would not be Mama Mia!  Of that I was certain.

I can assure you that if you drew up a list of current hot button cultural issues, Jagged Little Pill touches upon nearly every one—opioid abuse, rape, suburban disenchantment, adoption, bisexuality, non-conforming genders, black culture, and the white savior complex (in the form of a white family that adopts a black girl.)

Conspicuously absent is a storyline tackling an older man in a position of power sexually abusing a much younger woman.  Morissette, who was involved in the production, insisted she did not want the show to be about her personal life, and perhaps this storyline—which echoes through nearly every line of the Jagged Little Pill album—cut too close to the bone.

The story focuses on the problems of the suburban Healy family.  (What’s the matter…) Mary Jane (MJ) is addicted to opioids after a car accident last year.  She’s drifted away from her husband Steve, who spends his time either at the office or watching pornography.  Their son Nick is the golden boy senior headed off to Harvard and crumbling under the weight of being “the one thing she did right” according to his mother.  And adopted daughter Frankie is having a political awakening and chafing against being black and bisexual in a straight white family.

Heavy, I know.  But this is Jagged Little Pill.

The writers cleverly weaved Morissette’s lyrics into the story, including Frankie reading her latest poem in class only to have the students mock it as a piece about irony devoid of irony.  (As people once mocked Morissette’s song Ironic.)  

The show grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until the house lights come up.  The emotion and the vulnerability is as raw as the source material.

If you’re going to make a musical based on Alanis Morissette’s music, you’ve got to nail “You Oughta Know.”  It’s the song that most encapsulates the earned bitterness of Alanis’ early music.  It’s a song of a young woman whose lover has traded her in for a better, older model. 

For the musical to succeed, it needs someone truly wronged to sing it.

At first, I couldn’t see who this would be—certainly MJ and Steve have their problems, but theirs is a marriage slowly going stale, not one cleaved in two by an epic betrayal.

Perhaps Frankie would be wronged by the cute boy she finds herself falling for.  But Frankie’s outrage is primarily political, and “You Oughta Know” is personal.

Could it be Nick’s classmate Bella confronting her rapist? 

At intermission, this was my best guess, and an unsatisfying prospect.  Certainly Bella had been wronged and was entitled to an anthem of vengeance after being raped—and ridiculed online—after she’d gotten drunk and passed out at a party.

But again, “You Oughta Know” is a very specific kind of betrayal—not of a rape, but a girl in love cruelly discarded.

But when Jo (Frankie’s non-gender conforming lover) walks in on Frankie having sex with the new boy at school who charms her out of her clothes, the path to “You Oughta Know” is revealed.

And it was perfect.

Jo and Frankie are outcasts—lesbian lovers and budding activists who can’t get anyone (their parents or the other students) to understand them or their causes.  Frankie has forsaken Jo not just for another, but for a traditional, straight white boy.

It’s a betrayal so much bigger than mere cheating.

It’s an affront worthy of “You Oughta Know.”

At first, Jo stands still as a statue singing the lyrics, reworked and made even more poignant.

An older version of me” becomes “the perfect version of me.”

And “would she have your baby?” becomes “you could have his baby.”

The energy builds and Frankie is unable to avoid facing “the mess she left” when she slept with another and pretended she didn’t realize she and Jo were exclusive.

It crescendos with Jo spitting the lyrical accusations, accompanied by a dancing chorus.

I didn’t know if I was at a musical, a rock concert, or a twisted religious revival.

It brought down the house.

That performance alone was worth the price of admission.

My friend are I were vibrating with emotion as we walked into a bar for a post-show drink.  She told our completely uninterested bartender how much the show had impacted us.

His lack of enthusiasm did nothing to diminish ours.

I spend the whole next day listening to the original Jagged Little Pill.

The musical’s relevance may fade over time, but perhaps not—Jagged Little Pill the album remains razor sharp.

I highly recommend them both.