In the first act of “Jagged Little Pill,” the new Broadway musical featuring Alanis Morissette songs, a teenager named Bella sits timidly on a sofa trying to piece together what little she can remember from a party the night before. Passed out from all the alcohol, she momentarily regained consciousness to see a male classmate on top of her.
Bella, who some may think drinks too much, blames and belittles herself. She tries to shrug it off and calls herself an idiot.
But a classmate, Frankie, shakes her head. “That’s rape,” she says. “It could happen to any of us.”
Sexual assault is not usually a topic central to commercial Broadway productions. Movies, sure. TV shows, OK. Both of those industries more explicitly explore such stories onscreen, partly because so many sexual predators within those worlds have been exposed in recent years. Despite some exceptions, the same cannot yet be said of the theater.
It is rare, some would say unprecedented, for the plot of a Broadway musical to be rooted so deeply in the subject (well, in a way that takes it seriously). This is especially true of jukebox musicals, a sub-genre usually stuffed with dance numbers and upbeat medleys of memorable hits.
“I’m aware that we’re taking some risks,” said Diablo Cody, book writer of “Jagged Little Pill.” “People who come to Broadway are looking for a fun night at the theater, and this is heavy stuff.”
But Morissette’s signature songwriting style is thoughtful, unapologetic honesty, paired with a dose of hope. Her lyrics offer straightforward examinations of tough subjects like trauma, depression and suicide — an approach that has earned her seven Grammy Awards. And the Canadian native has spoken about a previous relationship with an exploitative older music executive.
“There was some apprehension to talk about sexual abuse and assault in the show, and my initial thought was, ‘Why would we avoid this?’” Morissette said. “My response was, ‘Look, it’s me. I’ve had this experience in my past, and I’m not afraid of talking about it. I got this. I will be able to support this ongoing conversation in whatever form it shows up.’ Doing this wasn’t daunting to me.”
“Jagged Little Pill” doesn’t just pay lip service to the #MeToo movement. It attempts to start a nuanced and comprehensive dialogue about the issue with its audience of nearly 1,200 people eight times a week at the Broadhurst Theatre. It does so by centering on a suburban Connecticut family as it deals with, among other things, the fallout from the assault.
Nick, the family’s flawless, popular son, witnessed the crime in question and has remained tight-lipped. Frankie, Nick’s adopted sister who is passionate about activism, urges him to corroborate Bella’s testimony, even if the assailant is a close friend of his.
“It shows the kind of insidious nature of sexual assault. It’s actually more common that it’s someone the person already knows [who commits such an act] than a surprise stranger-in-the-alleyway violent rape,” said the show’s intimacy coordinator, Claire Warden. “It can be hard to nail down and point at.”
Matriarch Mary Jane prefers to keep the truth swept under the rug, as she’s done with a similar incident in her own past. Might Bella simply do the same, as not to jeopardize her model son’s Harvard plans or her family’s picture-perfect facade?
“You can’t just go calling the police because a girl got drunk and there’s some he-said-she-said. If someone drinks themselves into oblivion, these things can happen,” Mary Jane tells Frankie, to audience gasps. “A girl got drunk and someone took advantage of her. It’s a shame but it happens all the time.”
Elizabeth Stanley, who plays Mary Jane, wants viewers to understand her character’s harsh words. “When you learn more about her, you understand she’s really acting from a place of pain,” she said. “Like so many people, it’s something she’s pushed down and told, ‘It’s your fault, you should feel ashamed.’”
The musical conducts an authentic conversation about the complex topic, not only through Cody’s insightful book, based on research and interviews with survivors, but also because Morissette has written unambiguous lyrics about sexual assault for decades — sentiments further emphasized by Tom Kitt’s visceral arrangements.
“Wake Up,” with its frenetic string phrasing, becomes a divisive family argument about whether Nick should support Bella. “Forgiven,” full of convicting chants and organ chords, is Mary Jane’s unsettling plea for mercy despite her victim-blaming tendencies.
A Greek chorus often hovers and recites lines from “Hands Clean” — a song for which Morissette has said she was “vilified and shamed and victimized and victim-attacked.” Reclaiming that track in particular, Morissette said, “feels great.”
A new song, “Predator,” returns the audience to that ill-fated night. “It’s about that feeling after you’ve been assaulted, and you think, ‘What is it about me that was a magnet to this person? God, what could I have done differently?’” Morissette said. “This song poured out from thoughts I’ve had on and off over the years, even though it really should be, ‘You were assaulted and you don’t have to blame yourself.’”
Most hauntingly, “Uninvited” — the acclaimed track released with 1998’s romantic-fantasy film “City of Angels” — is a unified cry of self-defense by Bella and Mary Jane. It’s an out-of-body experience, as both characters watch themselves (via contemporary dancers) confronting the horrors that happened to them. The lack of permission, the loss of power, the guilt that’s lingered ever since.
The delicate revisiting illustrates the emotions of the encounter rather than the physicality — an approach that’s less graphic (and therefore less triggering to survivors watching) but, arguably, more powerful.
“It’s a fine line not making it too shocking and vulgar that you want to run out of the room, but also not making it too stylized where you’re actually missing the point, or romanticizing something that’s actually terrible,” said choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. “We want it to be truthful but digestible for the audience to understand what’s happening, as if we were in it with the character, and relate to the suffering of that other person.”
“No,” a bonus track on an international release of Morissette’s 2012 album “Havoc and Bright Lights,” is an anthem about consent. During a scene at a rally, survivors and allies — of different genders, races, ages, sexual orientations — sing the lyrics downstage while holding protest signs. Nick finally joins them in support of Bella.
“Because you said it,” she tells him. “Why wasn’t it enough for me to say it? … Because of who you are, because of what you look like, they believe you.”
The “they” in that sentence might include the audience. “We’ve created moments that engage the viewer — not in a confrontational or accusatory way, but more in a direct manner — and ask: Where do you fit in this story?” said director Diane Paulus, who also directed “Waitress.” “We’ve seen these headlines in the news, but watching these difficult things in a theater with other people helps us process them differently.”
The plot isn’t resolved with Bella’s rapist getting arrested, tried and jailed; Mary Jane isn’t shown confronting her assailant. Instead, what it all comes down to is a subtle shift away from complacency — of a silent witness like Nick to speak up for Bella, of Mary Jane to address what happened decades ago. In real life, this is both a Herculean feat and an immediately implementable takeaway.
“I hope this helps to take the stigma off telling the truth, though understandably fearing any repercussions,” said Morissette. “If there’s any validation, comfort, inspiration or soothing that this musical can offer to anyone dealing with any of the topics within it — even if it’s just one moment of not feeling alone or a little bit of suffering reduced — that would be my dream.”
Despite the seemingly hard sell, Morissette’s dream has been repeatedly coming true. Since its Dec. 5 opening, “Jagged Little Pill” has consistently grossed more than $1 million per week. After each performance, the actors’ stage-door encounters and social media accounts become makeshift audience confessionals. “People thank us and say, ‘That was my story, I saw myself up there,” said Stanley.
“Because it’s a shared experience, it’s given people the freedom to shake off the shame they tend to put on themselves,” said Kathryn Gallagher, who plays Bella.
She added that “it’s not fun for me to go to a dark place, but when I realize this story is actively bringing relief or catharsis, it’s bigger than my individual experience.”
Sexual assault is one of many hot-button topics tackled in “Jagged Little Pill,” along with drug abuse, climate change, gun control and white privilege. Critics have called it “over-stuffed” and “overwrought ... but ultimately affecting.” Paulus agreed, to an extent.
“Our world today is intense, and filled with multiple traumas and pressures that intersect and relate,” she said. “It’s not linear, where one thing connects to the next; it’s vertical, with issues stacked on issues. So a show with one protagonist and one issue is not how I wanted to respond.
“It might not look like the traditional musical, but let’s face it: Alanis Morissette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill’ was not traditional,” she added with a laugh. “It’s an epic album, a ritual with real catharsis. She was way ahead of her time, and we’re all catching up now.”