“All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
So wrote Leo Tolstoy on the first page of Anna Karenina back in 1878. But it could easily be a quote from the latest musical to hit Melbourne, Jagged Little Pill – a painfully relatable exposé of “perfectly imperfect people” who don’t know what to say to each other.
Based on the iconic Alanis Morissette album of the same name, co-written with producer Glen Ballard, the show follows the lives of the Healys – a nuclear family struggling to heal (isn’t it ironic?) from their respective personal traumas.
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While initial introduction to our leading family squished together on a plush white couch might make you wonder why you came all the way to the Comedy Theatre on a Friday night when you could have stayed home and watched the Modern Family boxset, the depth of pain each character is experiencing as they live their separate lives together hits much harder than expected.
For the mum (MJ, played by Natalie Bassingthwaighte), it’s an unprocessed sexual assault and now post-traumatic opioid addiction. For the daughter (Frankie, played by newcomer Emily Nkomo), it’s her own transracial adoption and feelings of non-belonging as her ‘colour-blind’ mum tries to force her to conform. The dad (Steve, played by Tim Draxl) may have porn/sex addiction (his personal narrative around that remains largely unexplored), but struggles predominantly from strained ties with his wife who resents him for his workaholism. Meanwhile, the family’s golden boy and future Harvard grad (Nick, played by Liam Head) is struggling under the pressure of his parents’ high expectations.
There’s also Jo (played by Maggie McKenna), who manages to both challenge Broadway norms as the gender non-conforming best friend of Frankie, and steal the status of protagonist as the character you feel most inclined to root for throughout. Perhaps it is the authenticity brought to the role by McKenna, themselves non-binary and adept at playing the complex layperson, having cut their teeth in theatre as the excruciatingly loveable Muriel Heslop in Muriel’s Wedding.
The one thing that all who watch Jagged seem to be able to agree on is that McKenna’s rendition of You Oughta Know is an undoubtable highlight. Oh, and that Frankie should have never ditched Jo for Phoenix (played by AYDAN).
The show’s timelessly resonant themes, combined with surprisingly astute commentary on contemporary issues, leave audiences with such a lengthy checklist of reflections on society and self that it’s hard to believe it’s all stuffed into a mere two-hour performance.
In many ways, its impact is more comparable to cultural phenomena like Big Little Lies and The Corrections for its commentary on “suburban despair”, or White Lotus for its breakdown of archetypes and self-aware nods to “woke culture”, or Girl, Woman, Other for its ability to evoke empathy for (almost) every character’s perspective. Or, yes, even Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (Russian literary die-hards don’t come at me) for its realistic portrayal of the endlessly diverse yet somehow repetitive ways that we relate to each other.
It helps that the story itself was written by Diablo Cody – a screenwriter known for her culturally impactful films like Juno and Jennifer’s Body. As such, despite being technically classed as a ‘jukebox’ musical – based as it is off Alanis’ incredible, generation-defining catalogue of music – Jagged feels much more centred on narrative and themes. The non-specificity of the songs renders them more choral catharsis, less plot-driving or shoehorned.
Each track, perfectly accompanied by an eight-piece band led by Peter Rutherford and Daniel Griffin, arranged by Grammy, Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Kitt, doesn’t so much tell a specific story but a feeling, allowing for the narrative to feel more naturally weaved.
The choreography – led by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui – was also brilliantly emotive, with one particular scene making gorgeous, devastating use of ensemble member Isabella Roberts to play MJ’s younger self as she fights against processing the trauma of her own sexual assault at college. It’s an interesting visual representation of the dissociation many victims adopt as a way of coping with trauma.
All in all, the musical feels both completely true to Morissette’s 1995 album, and totally modern. Like, to-the-minute modern.
It’s fitting, with the entire musical being full of subversions and contradictions. This is no surprise given the CV of Director Diane Paulus (Pippin, Hair, Sleep No More), who is known for her boundary-less approach to theatre, including re-interpreting male characters with female actors, immersive shows and a penchant for breaking the fourth wall, in addition to the superb work of Australian Resident Director Leah Howard.
Teamed up with Morissette, who herself is clearly drawn to contradictions in her lyrics (“I’m sad but I’m laughing, I’m brave but I’m chicken shit”), it’s no wonder Jagged subverts expectations.
Aside from its glittery creds – having been nominated for 15 Tony Awards (the most of any show) and recently won a Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album – it is the show’s surprising lack of cringe, solid narrative, and subversion of my own prior misgivings for which I can confidently recommend Jagged to musical and non-musical lovers alike.
Find more information and book tickets to Jagged Little Pill here.