Cody told me recently that working on the libretto for “Jagged Little Pill” made her fall in love with writing again. She had been going through a rough patch with screenwriting, feeling pushed to produce commercial pablum. “I come from garbage land, where everything exists to sell a toy,” she told me. We were sitting upstairs, on a summer afternoon, at the French restaurant Tout Va Bien in Midtown Manhattan. Cody has short black hair and was wearing a rockabilly-style vintage dress. She was in New York, with Paulus, to present a few numbers from “Jagged Little Pill” to the press. “Being able to work on something where people are talking about trauma and psychoanalytic concepts was very refreshing.”
What Cody liked most was the opportunity to put new ideas into the show in real time, in much the same rapid-fire way that Morissette originally wrote the lyrics for the album. After the 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., for instance, she wrote in a two-second reference about gun violence. “It’s not a show about gun control, and yet that moment is still in the show,” she said. “Because we just thought, This is something else that is [expletive] up.”
Cody connected to “Jagged Little Pill,” the album, almost in spite of herself. She was a fan of riot grrrl music growing up (“I liked the kind of bands that would pull their tampon out and throw it at the audience”) but said that she was instantly drawn to the theatricality of Morissette’s words. “I can actually tell you the very first time I heard it,” she told me. “I specifically remember being in my bedroom, in the suburbs of Chicago.” She was 16 and tuned into Q101. “I remember the D.J. saying, ‘Wow, I am really excited to play this song.’ ”
Cody said she always considered “Jagged Little Pill” to be a “concept album,” with a latent narrative stringing the songs together. It is one of the reasons, she said, that after three years of developing the musical, she is “still not sick of those songs.” From a plot perspective, Cody saw Morissette’s charge to update the album for 2019 as a call to maximalism; the show, she felt, should try to grapple with as many pressing cultural issues as it could in order to mirror Morissette’s own unbridledness. The first character Cody invented, a Connecticut housewife named Mary Jane Healy (played by Elizabeth Stanley), is a stressed-out mother who has become addicted to opioids after a car accident, an incident that triggers her memories of a college sexual assault. She won’t admit her dependency to her family — her husband, whom she no longer sleeps with; her Harvard-bound perfectionist son; her adopted queer black daughter — and she becomes increasingly isolated.
“All I Really Want” is now sung by the whole Healy family at breakfast, as they talk past one another. Frankie, the Healys’ daughter (Celia Rose Gooding), sings: “Do I stress you out? My sweater is on backwards and inside out” as a provocation to her nit-picking mom. Throughout the song, she goads her mother while she makes activist posters to take to school, and then the number swells into a throng of students at a protest holding signs about reproductive rights and gender equality. On the original record, Morissette stops singing for a second in the middle of the song to make a point about how people fill silences with their own anxieties. “Here, can you handle this?” she sings. In the musical, the moment becomes the occasion for the Parkland reference: As Frankie sings these words, she holds up a sign that says “How Many More?” as an image of high school students participating in a lie-in protest is projected behind her.
It’s not exactly understated, but neither is “Jagged Little Pill.” These issues demand in-your-face confrontation, the show seems to say. It’s an argument for abandoning nuance out of necessity. Paulus told me that the show started to come together for her when she realized it was less about razzle-dazzle and more about working through complicated questions in the form of song and dance. This may be why so much of the choreography, from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, is jerky and tortured, as if the dancers are trying to crawl out of their own skins. They are mimicking Morissette’s movements when she first sang the album, those shimmying contortions that made her look as if she was actively sloughing off her demons.
“Jagged Little Pill,” the album, reflects real loneliness and trauma. Morissette wanted me to know this, perhaps because at the time she was derided as a packaged studio creation, someone merely pantomiming a gritty persona. The songs in which she’s seething, she explained, were entirely authentic.