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Why Diane Paulus Was Willing to Do Anything to Direct 'Jagged Little Pill'

By: Jen Gushue
Date: Dec 27, 2019

How the Tony winner helped transform an iconic '90s album into a new Broadway musical


In an industry in which theatre directors are often approached by producers with finalized scripts in hand, Diane Paulus appreciates more of a blank slate. The Tony Award winner (for Pippin) and Broadway vet (Hair, Finding Neverland, Porgy and Bess) enjoys joining projects early on in their development—sometimes before any words have even been written. When she signed on to Waitress, based on the eponymous indie film, Sara Bareilles hadn't yet composed a single song. It was the opposite with Jagged Little Pill: While most of the numbers come from Alanis Morissette's seminal 1995 album of the same name, producer Vivek J. Tiwary had no idea what the story would be when he courted Paulus over breakfast four years ago. She didn't need much convincing to come on board.

"It took me all of 30 seconds to say, 'Yes, I'm in. I'll do anything to work on this!'" recalls Paulus. "I was knocked out by the album when it came out. After our meal, I went home and the first thing I did was relisten to the entire thing."

Like Waitress before it, Jagged Little Pill had its world premiere at Harvard University's American Repertory Theatre, where Paulus serves as artistic director, before transferring to Broadway. But how did Paulus and her collaborators come to transform this Gen X feminist cri de coeur into a timely examination of issues such as opioid addiction and rape culture as one family unravels over the holidays?

From the outset, Morissette had only one stipulation about incorporating her songs into a musical: no bio show. "She didn't want it to be about her life," says Paulus. So they started talking about the intense feelings the album explores: rage, love, confusion. Paulus compared it to Greek theatre. "I just kept saying to Alanis, 'Your album and your music are epic and ritual," she says. "Whatever story we land on, this is going to be a visceral musical."


Paulus enlisted Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a Belgian dance-maker who's worked with Marina Abramovic, The Royal Ballet and Beyoncé, to choreograph the Greek chorus-inspired ensemble, aka the "Conscience" as she calls them. When Paulus reached out, she figured Cherkaoui was a long shot because "he's this international superstar. But, lo and behold, he answered my email and we had a tea together, and I found out he survived his teenage years listening to Jagged Little Pill. So he also cleared his life to do this show."

Screenwriter Diablo Cody, who won an Oscar for Juno, was the last one to join the creative team, and that's when Paulus says "the journey became just so unexpectedly deep." With no playwriting experience, Cody was initially hesitant to pen the book, but Paulus suggested she approach the project as if she were writing a film. A few weeks later, she pitched the opening scene.

"Diablo says to me, 'Okay, there's this mom and she's reading this Christmas letter she's writing, and she's desperately trying to hold on to everything perfect about her life that she's bragging about—but everything starts catching fire around her, and the world is burning and she doesn't even know,'" Paulus recalls. "That unlocked the whole thing for me."

Jagged Little Pill revolves around the Healys, a well-to-do suburban family who aren't as happy as they seem. Mom Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley) is popping pills as she struggles with physical and psychological pain; dad Steve (Sean Allan Krill) is a work and pornaholic; son Nick (Derek Klena) may be Harvard bound but his moral compass is lacking; and daughter Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding) is grappling with identity issues as she attempts to advocate for others.

These are some pretty mature themes to be inspired by songs Morissette wrote when she was just in her late teens. But Paulus, Cody and Morissette were looking at the material through older eyes. "You know, all three of us are moms," Paulus says. "Alanis is 46 now and just had her third baby. Diablo has three kids. I have two kids. So we were all connecting as older women looking into what this music can be and teach us."


Yet the youthful power of the album is still present. As Paulus explains: "Mary Jane's got this trauma from 20 years ago that she's never dealt with, and you see how it's catching up with her. The reason she's finally dealing with it is because her teenage daughter, Frankie, brings it in the house. Frankie is part of the teenage movement that is happening in America that is going to change our country. This new generation is not afraid and won't tolerate injustice."

One song in particular epitomizes Gen Z's sense of we're not going to take it anymore: "You Oughta Know." Belted out by Frankie's jilted girlfriend Jo (Lauren Patten), it reads as an indictment of unfairness of all kinds. Positioned at the center of Act II, it was always slated to be the show's 11 o'clock number due to its iconic pop-culture status. But the creative team didn't anticipate that it would literally stop the show because of standing ovations.

"The first night of previews at American Repertory Theatre, when people started standing up after the song, I turned to my team and was like, 'What is happening?'" Paulus recalls. "We changed the cues to move the show along. The next night, bam, same thing happened. There was nothing we could do to stop people. If people wanted to stand, they were going to stand."

These days, the team embraces the reaction, and Paulus has a theory as to why that song moves audiences to jump up out of their seats. "People are standing because Lauren sings it so unbelievably well," she says. "And people are standing for Alanis. But as they watch the whole chorus facing out, all singing their own 'You Oughta Knows,' the audience wants to do the same. Everyone is standing for their own personal 'You Oughta Know.'"


Jen Gushue is a freelance theatre writer with bylines in American Theatre, HowlRound and Business Insider. Follow her on Twitter at @jengushue. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Lauren Patten and company performing “You Oughta Know” in Jagged Little Pill. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

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Jen Gushue is a freelance theatre writer with bylines in American Theatre, HowlRound and Business Insider. They are also the Senior Product & Reviews Editor at The Good Housekeeping Institute. Follow them on Twitter at @jengushue.