How Jagged Little Pill clarified Jo’s gender identity

“Jagged Little Pill” was never meant to come across lightly. The jukebox musical was meant to reflect its namesake: Alanis Morissette’s 1995 multi-Grammy winning album, which she launched as a beacon of unabashed honesty and unwavering conviction, especially when singing about difficult subjects. Likewise, the stage show focused on a family facing hot issues including sexual misconduct, substance abuse, mental health and white privilege.

The Broadway production addressed some of these issues more successfully than others. For this was praised his nuanced portrayals of opiate addiction, sexual assault, and viewer interference but received criticism for it Abuse of the teenage character Jo. A pre-Broadway version had numerous lines signaling Jo as gender nonconforming – a rarity for a Broadway musical – but many of those lines were removed when the musical opened on Broadway in late 2019. The production — as well as Lauren Patten, the cisgender woman who created the role — later publicly stated that Jo was never written or conceived as non-binary.

“Rather than offering a non-binary narrative that would offer representation and validation to a particular group of people (who are desperate for such representation and validation on stage), ‘Jagged Little Pill’ instead opts for cheap universalization.” wrote Christian Lewis for the Brooklyn Rail. “They did Jo cis … to make the character more relatable.”

Last year the producers gave a lengthy statement Apologies for the lack of transparency and accountability regarding Jo’s character. “We should have protected and celebrated the fact that non-binary viewers saw in Jo a brave, defiant, complex and vibrant representation of their community,” the statement said. “We are committed to clarity and integrity in telling Jo’s story. The story of a gender non-conforming teenager who finds himself on an open-ended journey in terms of his queerness and gender identity.”

During the pandemic shutdowns, the musical’s creatives made numerous changes on and offstage for its brief Broadway reopening run, as well as its North American tour – currently at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood through October 2 – and a UK production slated for 2023.

“We take on the challenge of making a show that is committed to tackling issues that aren’t easy,” says director Diane Paulus. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue learning to be rigorous in what we present to the world and to prioritize the health and well-being of our cast members as they delve into a storyline that can be taxing, especially when it overlaps.” with their lived experiences. It’s not about ticking boxes; It’s about approaching the piece with more intention to make it safer, more inclusive and better than before.”

Some key lines in the remastered version of Jagged Little Pill bring new weight to Jo’s gender identity journey. While the Broadway version flattened its arc to a disdain for overtly feminine dress, the tour deepens its exploration through a brief conversation with its conservative parent. “You’re only going to make life harder for yourself! Trust me – it’s hard enough as it is,” Jo tells her mother. And a breakup scene has a new sting: Just before she performs the standout song “You Oughta Know,” Jo laments to her friend Frankie, “I thought you were the only person that saw me.”

Book author Diablo Cody modified these scenes, along with others that more specifically address Frankie’s transracial adoption, with the help of playwright MJ Kaufman, poet and professor Lauren Whitehead, and playwright Martine Kei Green-Rogers – a dramaturgical team representing nonbinary, transgender and BIPOC -Stand-in.

“We decided that if we consciously choose to do a show that’s multi-topic and super well-intentioned, we simply have to make sure it remains an accurate reflection of the lived experiences of the people whose.” Stories that we try to tell,” says Cody. “It’s exhausting, but also luxurious – the ultimate privilege to still be able to play with the clay.”

Although Jo uses she/her pronouns throughout production, “the ultimate conclusion of Jo’s gender identity is not certain at the moment the show ends,” says producer Arvind Ethan David. “But we absolutely welcome people to take with them from this journey whatever they need to take with them, and we’re sorry if we ever suggested that you shouldn’t.” Any suggestion we had previously made about who Jo is or isn’t just wasn’t helpful.”

The producers also emphasize that the role of Jo is open to performers of all gender identities going forward. “We’re not being explicit, we’re just asking that you see yourself somewhere within the spectrum of this role,” says producer Eva Price of casting the revamped Jo. “Is this someone who is gender nonconforming, gender questioning, or gender biased? Is this someone who is trans or non-binary? We deliberately left it open.”

Heidi Blickenstaff and the cast of Jagged Little Pill.

(Matthew Murphy)

The tour will play the role of Jade McLeod, a St. Clair College graduate who grew up outside of Toronto and identifies as non-binary. “I knew right away that Jo didn’t fit into any category and I felt so deeply connected to it,” they say. “This was the first time I’ve seen someone like me perform on stage, so it’s quite an honor to be able to expand on that and bring my own joy in my own gender experience.

“On tour of this show, there may be a good portion of our audience that has never in their life seen a non-binary person that they know, let alone laughed, cried, and had a crush on,” they continue . “After a preview in Kentucky, a woman stopped me and said, ‘My kid is just like you, and now I understand.’ I love that when our audience is able to open their hearts and connect with these characters in this shared experience, it impacts how they see people and the world.”

The production has struggled to provide more support for the cast and creative team members, especially given the show’s subject matter and previous complaints. In the past year, Actors’ Equity Assn. commissioned an independent review from the “Jagged Little Pill” job after non-binary former cast member Nora Schell told her had been intimidated into postponing medical treatment during the Broadway run.

Although the investigation, which concluded in January, “found no evidence that the Equity-stage management team pressured any members while they were ill or injured,” says an Equity representative, “the investigator also found that production could have better ensured a safe workplace a variety of ways aligned with industry best practices.”

An actor jumps over a couch towards another actor;  a third actor is kneeling behind the couch.

Heidi Blickenstaff, left, Allison Shepard and Jena VanElslander in Jagged Little Pill.

(Matthew Murphy)

Post-shutdown rehearsals began with a workshop by DEI sensitivity consultant Skyler Cooper, who created space for conversations e.g. B. on how to speak responsibly about the issues raised in the show or what logistical or pastoral care is required to safely fulfill these roles. “I’ve been in this business for 25 years and I’ve never had sensitivity training like this,” says lead actress Heidi Blickenstaff, who plays the matriarch of the family. “I asked questions that were difficult for me to ask because it is very new to discuss these things in a forum like this. But the environment feels incredibly safe to me.”

In addition, the show hired a staff representative and instituted a formal grievance reporting process. “For a hundred years, American theater has not established any of these types of infrastructures for its company members; That’s just not how they created and built shows,” says producer Price.

“But theater works with human capital, so for our ‘product’ to be good the people doing the work have to be in their best place. And the people who come to our place every night need to feel like they’re part of something that’s a good way to spend their money and time that night.

“Ignoring all of that reality and just going on as usual, like it was five or ten years ago, isn’t going to do any show any good, let alone a show like ours,” she continues. “How can we go on stage every night with these stories about caring for people who are going through things like this and then not do everything we can to protect and help those within the company who are also going through things like this.” go through? If we want to talk, we have to walk the path.”

‘Jiggle Little Pill’

Where: Hollywood Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 8pm Tuesday to Friday, 2pm and 8pm Saturday, 1pm and 6.30pm Sunday. Ends October 2nd

Tickets: Starting at $39

Contact: (800) 982-2787 or BroadwayInHollywood.com or Ticketmaster.com

Duration: 2 hours, 40 minutes, with one break

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