The real test for a jukebox musical — those shows that mine a rock artist’s song catalogue and use them to embellish a newly concocted story, often the artist’s own biography — should be whether it works for an audience that doesn’t know the songs. Shows like Jersey Boys, The Cher Show and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical have books of widely varying quality. But the main pleasure is the trip down memory lane, a chance to hear a batch of favorite songs belted out anew.
Jagged Little Pill, the new Broadway musical inspired by Alanis Morrisette’s enormously popular, Grammy-winning 1995 album, faces a different challenge. I suspect that many theatergoers of the Broadway-going generation (myself included) are only casually familiar with Morissette’s oeuvre. This gives the show more of an obligation to stand on its own, to function as something besides a greatest-hits vehicle. And by that measure, Jagged Little Pill succeeds surprisingly well.
Morissette’s songs — wailing, emotional expressions of teen-girl angst, anger and feminist affirmation — are here repurposed to tell the story of a suburban Connecticut family with a houseful of troubling secrets. Mary Jane, the Fitbit-fueled mom, is battling an addiction to opioids. Dad is a distracted workaholic who gets his kicks from online porn. Daughter Frankie is hiding her bisexuality from her parents, and, as an adopted African-American 16-year-old, feeling estranged in her white-bread suburb. High-achieving son Nick has just been accepted at Harvard, but faces his own crisis after witnessing a date-rape at a raucous high school party.
It’s a fairly predictable digest of contempo issues and PC attitudes (how they missed the transgender classmate, I can’t imagine). But Diablo Cody’s patient, intelligent and often witty script makes us care about them as characters, not merely clichés. Elizabeth Stanley, as the drug-addicted mom, is particularly effective as she slides from denial to desperation to back-alley dealing. And though some Morissette fans have complained that her idiosyncratic songs have been diluted by being parceled out willy-nilly to various family members, the seams hardly show: “Perfect” is perfectly apt as a number for golden-boy son Nick, while “You Learn” makes for an fittingly embraceable closing anthem. “You Oughta Know,” the break-up song that is probably Morissette’s best-known single, is handed to Frankie’s just-dumped girlfriend, and Lauren Patten gives a wrenching, pull-out-the-stops performance that justifiably stops the show.
Director Diane Paulus’s sleek, fluid production manages to keep the somewhat unwieldy story lines in balance. An ensemble of slithery dancers who pop up occasionally can seem like mere modernist window dressing, but they also make a dramatic contribution — as in the scene of Mom’s overdose, where a writhing, liquid-limbed doppleganger mirrors her agony on the living-room couch. As a story of a family in crisis, Jagged Little Pill can hold its own with musicals like Dear Evan Hansen and Next to Normal. And as a bonus, you get a rock songbook that, for once, actually seems to belong on Broadway.