Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill,” which just had its 22nd anniversary, is not only one of the landmark albums of the ’90s; it has proved evergreen even as time has left other albums of similar aesthetic and acclaim behind. A musical based on the album — which has been in the works since 2013 — is slated to open at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., in May 2018, with an eye toward Broadway.
The musical that pulls from pop culture is having a moment. Of course, “Hamilton” stands out, but there are other examples: A musical based on the 1991 novel “American Psycho” made its Broadway debut in 2016, along with a musical scored by the pop star Sara Bareilles and based on the 2007 film “Waitress.” The pop-culture musical feels like it is reaching a peak of popularity as a vehicle for both cultural commentary and emotional escape, and so adapting “Jagged Little Pill” into a musical feels smart, though its execution remains up in the air.
Too often, “Jagged Little Pill” is discussed only in terms of its bitterness and aggression – something that, I imagine, wouldn’t be so common if the album had been recorded by a man. The album was acclaimed upon its release — and remains so today — but even the most glowing praise still reduced Ms. Morissette’s work to its harshest emotions, and labeled them surprising. This flattening out of the album’s story does something that is still all too common: It reduces a woman’s emotions to the ones that are easiest for men to dismiss. In 2017, too many Americans still react with confusion and alarm to a woman who steers a conversation on her own terms. During Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, was consistently interrupted and talked over, and Mr. Sessions told her that she was making him nervous while she looked him in the eyes, unmoving.
There are men in the narrative of “Jagged Little Pill,” but what’s thrilling about the album, especially today, is that Ms. Morissette seems so uninterested in bowing to their presence. To label “Pill” a breakup album is shortsighted, despite how it navigates the nuances of closure in a relationship. Ms. Morissette is, largely, not facing an ex, but facing away from him and looking to new endeavors, both romantic and mundane. “Pill” is not only an album of breaking, but also one of rebuilding, of finding a sliver of hope and stretching it beyond its limits. Every emotion is its own moving part that almost becomes a character: The sadness is a breathing, moving thing. The anger is a cloud that sits thick in the sky and then parts just in time for a little joy to leak through, and then the joy dances. It is an album of impeccable balance. I listen to the songs and realize that I have both felt this way and feared making anyone feel this way about me.
Without knowing how the musical will make the album come to life, I’m still excited to see how it will sit in our political and cultural moment. A musical pulled from a ’90s album won’t keep anyone safe or save anyone, beyond offering a small reprieve from the horrors of the outside world. But if it stays true to what I believe the clearest reading of the album is — as a celebration of small joys amid larger heartbreaks — it will resonate mightily. There are juicy and salacious breakup songs on “Pill,” sure. But I’m most drawn, now, to songs like “Head Over Feet” and “Hand In My Pocket” which seem like odes to rediscovering brief and impermanent freedoms. The latter song opens with the lyrics: “I’m broke but I’m happy/ I’m poor but I’m kind.” Simple in language, but layered in its message about life’s balance — the album’s entire ethos distilled down to two lines.
Though I’ve never forgotten what it’s like to have to search for joy along a vast terrain of seemingly endless misery, it has been an especially notable feeling in the past year. The pain, anxiety and anguish many of us feel now, and have felt for months, isn’t attached to a severing of romantic ties. Rather, it is the slow and hovering sadness of a country, and the people in it, some of whom are more afraid than others about the far-reaching ramifications of a Donald Trump presidency. Not everyone is feeling the weight of this sadness and tension, but for those in the thick of it, a small escape is needed — to stand on a corner with a hand in a pocket, briefly unafraid.
The musical that catches on is the one that reflects the moment it is released into, intentionally or unintentionally. Whether “Jagged Little Pill” succeeds on a musical stage remains to be seen. But the album, as it stands, has aged into this time extremely well. Even if men are still not equipped to handle the full spectrum of women’s emotion when it is directed at us, or when it bypasses us altogether. And even if the country is in the throes of a different type of heartbreak. It is possible that when brought to life, Ms. Morissette’s songs will extract something useful out of our shared grief and horror. At best, they will remind us what it is to seek out the small crack in the heaviest clouds. And if they don’t do that, at least they will give some of us a moment of nostalgia — something to look back on for a couple of hours, ignoring everything outside.