Alanis Morissette reflects on ‘Jagged Little Pill’ and the musical it has inspired
When Alanis Morissette first agreed to transform her epochal 1995 album “Jagged Little Pill” into a stage musical, she had to do something that was unusual for her: listen to it.
“I don’t actually listen to my own work, and when I do it’s strange, because it’s like it’s my younger self singing to my current self,” Morissette says in a phone interview with the Globe.
Many of the songs have remained in her live repertoire, but the full album — as both an artistic statement and a collection of recordings she made as a young woman — could have proven an awkward foundation for the musical that will make its world premiere this month at American Repertory Theater.
“I feel grateful that these songs stood the test of time for me to be able to perform them with any kind of conviction as a woman in 2018,” she says. “It continues to boggle my mind that something that felt so urgent and visceral and immediate when I was 19 and 20 still remains, maybe even more so, appropriate for what’s going on — in a microcosmic way for me personally, and also for what’s going on in the world.”
Diane Paulus, the ART’s Tony Award-winning artistic director, is at the helm of “Jagged Little Pill,” the musical. The design team is stacked with other Broadway veterans. Though there has been no announcement of a future engagement to follow this one, the show has all the earmarks of the Cambridge theater’s next big production to make way, soon enough, for New York and beyond. Preview performances at the Loeb Drama Center were to begin Saturday.
The material itself merits intense fan interest: The source album, which was co-written and produced by industry hit-maker Glen Ballard, has sold an estimated 33 million copies. This lands it around 12th (these numbers can be squishy) on the all-time list. But the statistics don’t fully reflect the deeply personal relationship many listeners have with the material.
When “Jagged Little Pill” took over the radio airwaves and MTV, Morissette was just 21. Though already a show-biz veteran — a child actor on the TV series “You Can’t Do That On Television,” author of two pop albums released in her native Canada before her worldwide breakthrough — Morissette was nevertheless operating in a music business that even today can have trouble apprehending women as three-dimensional artists, rather than niche attractions slotted into one of a limited number of familiar personae.
In short, Morissette claimed for herself the space to be complicated, in public. Hits like “You Oughta Know,” “Ironic,” “You Learn,” “Head Over Feet,” and “Hand In My Pocket” sound like the work of an artist who feels, by turns, angry, euphoric, hurt, confident, vulnerable, in control, out of control.
“Just like a real human being! Imagine that,” she says, in good humor.
The emotional density of the material provided ample fodder for the musical’s creative team when they first gathered at Morissette’s Malibu home and sketched out potential themes, story lines, and characters on a whiteboard.
“The more you dig into it, the more it gives you. It’s pop music, but man is it deep,” Paulus says, seated for an interview at the ART’s offices. “We go to the theater to rip open our hearts and our minds and feel our soul go through a transformation. And [Morissette is] doing that in her music.”
Diablo Cody, who won an Academy Award in 2007 for her first stab at a screenplay with “Juno,” makes her musical-theater debut as the book writer, tasked with creating an original story based on Morissette’s music. The show includes two newly written songs, in addition to selections from throughout the singer’s catalog.
“It almost feels like the music was made for theater. The songs are dramatic and theatrical and intense and the lyrics are so colorful,” Cody says, adding that the creative process was nothing like what one might expect with a so-called jukebox musical. “Often you’re trying to shoehorn the artist’s hit songs into a narrative. I never once felt like that. The songs are really of a piece. There is this coherent theme on the album of: Wake up, look around, accept things that are painful, grow. Don’t live your life in denial.”
The artists joining Morissette, Paulus, and Cody in what sounds like a vigorously collaborative creation process include Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winner Tom Kitt (“Next To Normal”) as music supervisor, and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, whose credits include Beyoncé’s memorable performance at the Grammy Awards last year. A cast of five principals led by actress Elizabeth Stanley is complemented by an ensemble that functions like a Greek chorus.
“It never felt to me that this album was going to result in a small, intimate, ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ kind of look at a family,” Paulus says. “This was outward-facing. It was ritualistic. It was going to be cathartic.”
The ART is closely guarding the show’s major plot points, but we do know it centers on a contemporary American family and reflects many of the social issues that have acquired great cultural purchase in the #MeToo era, including sexual trauma.
“There was some fear around how intense some of the topics are,” Morissette says, “but I don’t know any other way. And it seems like Diane and [Diablo Cody] don’t know any other way either. We write where the imperative is. This story just really wants to take on some topics that aren’t for the weak of heart, from the inside out.”
Though Morissette has had some limited experience in professional theater — plus, she adds with a laugh, a role in a high school production of “Oliver!” — she says this process has been entirely different from what she’s used to.
“To be perfectly transparent, when I’m writing my own record, regardless of the incredible geniuses I’ve collaborated with, I’m the one in the driver’s seat, on the front lines, in the virgin snow getting my head cut off,” Morissette says.
“My name and likeness and songs are at the epicenter of this, but at the same time it is a true collaboration. The songs were put in service of the story, and that’s what takes it beyond [the album] in my mind. It’s this whole other entity.”
Jagged Little Pill
At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, May 5-July 15. Tickets: From $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org