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‘Jagged Little Pill’ fumbled a character’s gender identity. The tour vows to do better

A group of actors singing emotionally onstage.
Jade McLeod and the cast of “Jagged Little Pill,” which features the music of Alanis Morissette.
(Matthew Murphy)
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“Jagged Little Pill” was never supposed to go down easy. The jukebox musical was intended to echo its namesake: Alanis Morissette’s multi-Grammy-winning 1995 album, which launched her as a beacon of unapologetic honesty and unwavering conviction, especially when singing about tough subjects. So, likewise, the stage show centered on a family as they faced hot-button issues like sexual misconduct, drug abuse, mental health and white privilege.

The Broadway production tackled some of these topics more successfully than others. It was lauded for its nuanced renderings of opiate addiction, sexual assault and bystander intervention but received criticism for its mishandling of the teen character Jo. A pre-Broadway version had numerous lines that signaled Jo as gender-nonconforming — a rarity for a Broadway musical — but many of these lines were removed when the musical opened on Broadway in late 2019. The production — as well as Lauren Patten, the cisgender woman who originated the role — later stated publicly that Jo was never written or conceived as nonbinary.

“Instead of offering a non-binary narrative that would provide representation and validation to a specific group of people (who are desperately seeking such representation and validation on stage), ‘Jagged Little Pill’ instead opts for cheap universalization,” wrote Christian Lewis for the Brooklyn Rail. “They made Jo cis ... to make the character more relatable.”

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Last year, the producers issued a lengthy statement apologizing for the lack of transparency and accountability regarding the character of Jo. “We should have protected and celebrated the fact that the non-binary audience members saw in Jo a bold, defiant, complex, and vibrant representation of their community,” the statement read. “We commit to clarity and integrity in the telling of Jo’s story. The story of a gender nonconforming teen who is on an open-ended journey with regard to their queerness and gender identity.”

During the pandemic shutdowns, the musical’s creatives implemented numerous on- and offstage changes for its brief Broadway reopening run, as well as its North American tour — currently at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre through Oct. 2 — and a U.K. production planned for 2023.

“We are rising to the challenge of making a show that is committed to taking on subject matter that is not easy,” says director Diane Paulus. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue to learn, to be rigorous about what we’re presenting to the world, and to prioritize the health and wellness of our cast, who put themselves inside a storyline that can be taxing, especially when it intersects with their lived experiences. It’s not about checking boxes; it’s about coming to the piece with a greater intentionality to make it safer and more inclusive and better than it was before.”

A few key lines in the revised “Jagged Little Pill” bring a newfound weight to Jo’s gender-identity journey. While the Broadway version flattened her arc to a disdain for overtly feminine clothing, the tour deepens her exploration via a quick conversation with her conservative parent. “You’re just going to make your life harder! Trust me — it’s hard enough as is,” Jo is told by her mother. And a breakup scene has a newfound sting: Right before performing the standout song “You Oughta Know,” Jo laments to her girlfriend Frankie, “I thought you were the one person who saw me.”

Book writer Diablo Cody modified these scenes, along with others that address Frankie’s transracial adoption with more specificity, with the help of playwright MJ Kaufman, poet and professor Lauren Whitehead and dramaturg Martine Kei Green-Rogers — a dramaturgical team that includes nonbinary, transgender and BIPOC representation.

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“We decided that if we consciously choose to have a show that’s about a lot of issues and is super well-intentioned, then we’re just gonna have to be committed to keeping it as an accurate reflection of the lived experiences of the people whose stories that we’re trying to tell,” says Cody. “It’s effortful, but it’s also luxurious — the ultimate privilege to be able to still play with the clay.”

Though Jo uses she/her pronouns throughout the production, “The ultimate conclusion of Jo’s gender identity is not certain at the moment the show ends,” says producer Arvind Ethan David. “But we absolutely welcome people to take from that journey all the things they need to take, and we’re sorry we ever suggested you shouldn’t. Any suggestion we had previously made about who Jo is or isn’t was just unhelpful.”

Producers also stress that, moving forward, casting the role of Jo is open to performers of all gender identities. “We’re not explicit, we just ask that you see yourself somewhere within the spectrum of this role,” says producer Eva Price of casting the revised Jo. “Is that someone who is gender-nonconforming, gender-questioning or genderqueer? Is that someone who’s trans or nonbinary? We intentionally left it open.”

A woman in a down coat kneels in a spotlight, with a row of actors kneeling behind her.
Heidi Blickenstaff and the cast of “Jagged Little Pill.”
(Matthew Murphy)

On tour, the role is played by Jade McLeod, a St. Clair College graduate who grew up outside Toronto and identifies as nonbinary. “It was immediately clear to me that Jo didn’t fit into any box, and I felt so deeply connected to that,” they say. “That was the first time I saw somebody like me onstage, so to have that be expanded on, and to be able to bring my own joy in my own gender experience to this, is already such an honor.

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“Touring this show, there may be a good chunk of our audience who have never seen a nonbinary person in their life that they know, let alone laughed with and cried with and rooted for,” they continue. “After a preview performance in Kentucky, a woman stopped me and said, ‘My kid is exactly like you, and I understand them now.’ I love that if our audiences are able to open their hearts and connect with these characters in this shared experience, it will affect how they see people and how they see the world.”

The production has made efforts to supply more support for its cast and creative team members, especially given the show’s subject matter and past complaints. Last year, Actors’ Equity Assn. commissioned an independent review of the “Jagged Little Pill” workplace after nonbinary former cast member Nora Schell said they had been intimidated into postponing medical attention during the Broadway run.

Though the investigation, which wrapped in January, “found no evidence that Equity stage management team pressured any members to perform while sick or injured,” says an Equity representative, “the investigator also found that the production could have better ensured a safe workplace in a variety of ways that align with industry best practices.”

One actor leaps over a couch toward another actor; a third actor is visible kneeling behind the couch.
Heidi Blickenstaff, left, Allison Sheppard and Jena VanElslander in “Jagged Little Pill.”
(Matthew Murphy)

Post-shutdown rehearsals began with a workshop by DEI sensitivity consultant Skyler Cooper, who created space for conversations like how to responsibly talk about the topics addressed in the show or what logistical or pastoral care is needed to safely perform these roles. “I’ve been in this business for 25 years, and I’ve never had this kind of sensitivity training,” says lead actor Heidi Blickenstaff, who plays the family’s matriarch. “I’ve asked questions that were difficult for me to ask, because discussing these things in a forum like this is very new. But the environment feels, to me, incredibly safe.”

“Jagged Little Pill” is a bold musical for #MeToo times. Says Morissette: “I’ve had this experience ... and I’m not afraid of talking about it.”

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Additionally, the show hired a human resources representative and instated a formal procedure for reporting grievances. “For a hundred years, the American theater didn’t put any of these types of infrastructures into place for their company members; that’s just not how they created and built shows,” says producer Price.

“But theater works with human capital, so for our ‘product’ to be good, the human beings who make the work have to be at their best place. And the humans coming to us every night again have to feel that they’re part of something that is the right way to spend their money and time on that evening.

“Ignoring all of that reality and just doing business as usual, as if it were five or 10 years ago, isn’t going to be good for any show, and most certainly not a show like ours,” she continues. “How can we go onstage each night with these stories about caring for people who are going through things, and then not do all we can to protect and benefit those within the company who also are going through such things? If we’re gonna talk the talk, we’ve got to walk the walk.”

'Jagged Little Pill'

Where: Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 2

Tickets: Starting at $39

Contact: (800) 982-2787 or BroadwayInHollywood.com or Ticketmaster.com

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes, with one intermission

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