The call is coming from inside the closet.
It’s where Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody has sought some privacy in a house currently filled with her parents, her husband’s parents, her three kids and their dogs. This scene of abundant domesticity isn’t one often found in her work, which has included Juno, the story of an outspoken teen confronting an unwanted pregnancy; Young Adult, in which Charlize Theron plays an unhappy 30-something who hasn’t left her irresponsible youth behind, and now the musical Jagged Little Pill, in which Cody has married her own iconoclastic sensibility to that of another boundary-breaker, Alanis Morissette.
Morissette was not the only woman in the 1990s shattering the expectations for feminine behavior with her music. So what made her music so indelible? Cody says it lies in Morissette’s very essence.
“There was an embarrassment of riches in the ’90s with confessional female singer-songwriters — you had Liz Phair, you had Courtney Love. The thing that set her apart is she had this extreme vulnerability and sincerity. She was not afraid to howl and bear her soul and just show her pain to the world. And then she could be so gentle and sincere in other songs. And she’s still like that. She’s still just such an angelic person. She’s a true empath, and she was so suited to this medium of theater. No one understands feelings like Alanis.”
Jagged Little Pill was Morissette’s third album, and its combination of sensitivity and rage spoke to an entire generation of young women, who helped it become one of the best-selling albums of all time. Cody was one of those young women, still a teen in the Chicago suburbs when the album came out.
“I’m sure that when her label released that album, they were like, OK, a 16-year-old Catholic girl in Middle America is going to go bonkers for this,” Cody says. Cody, then known as Brook Busey, related to the pressures of trying to be the “golden child,” she says, “which I was – until I went off the rails. To hear a song like ‘Forgiven,’ I was like, this woman understands what I was going through.”
“Forgiven” is now the Act I closer of a show that began when Cody was approached to write the book for an original musical using Morissette’s songs. The only requirement Morissette imposed was that the show not be her own life story.
“It was actually a very unusual process,” Cody says. “Usually when you’re approached to develop something like this, as the writer, you’re one of the first people to be summoned. There was already a producing team, a director, there was an opening date in Massachusetts. I was the last piece of the puzzle, and it was kind of a high pressure situation. There was a ticking clock. We were about a year away from opening, and there was no story to speak of.”
The story Cody developed was one of a family muddling its way through the 21st century: a mother, Mary Jane, addicted to opioids and trying to present a perfect family to the world; a father addicted to pornography; a son expected to excel at all times, and a daughter struggling with love and sexuality that do not conform to her mother’s expectations. For Cody, the story and the characters sprung from the songs themselves.
“I obviously was a big fan of the album to begin with, otherwise I don’t think I would have said yes. I was an old school Alanis superfan, and I had to reacquaint myself with the album. I very quickly realized that the story was right there in the song. Alanis had created these characters.”
Their stories were written nearly a decade ago, but the issues they face feel breathtakingly of the moment. “I thought, there are some voices that are not being heard in modern theater, and there are some issues that are not being heard. I don’t think all of us predicted that the world would lunge into chaos, but we had a show that didn’t shy away from racism and environmental destruction, and those problems are only getting bigger,” Cody says. “I wish I could say our show wasn’t relevant, that everything was perfect now, but sadly, that’s not the case.”
Jagged Little Pill opened on Broadway on Dec. 5, 2019. It was inauspicious timing, with all of Broadway shuttered just three months later due to Covid. “It had been a multi-year, grueling development and rehearsal process. There was a brief moment of triumph. The show was on Broadway, the show was doing well, our company hit their stride, and then suddenly everything comes to a screeching halt,” Cody recalls.
The musical received 15 nominations for the 2020 Tony Awards, which as a result of the pandemic weren’t held until September of 2021, when Cody won the Tony for best book of a musical. The next month, Jagged Little Pill reopened on Broadway. By December, though, the production was being hammered by Covid. So many cast members fell ill that performances were cancelled over several weeks; on Dec. 20, 2021, the producers announced that the Dec. 17 performance had been the final one.
“There was no closing night,” Cody says. No gathering of family, friends and supporters, no final toast to what had been created.
“Financially, it would have been irresponsible to continue. And that was the case for a lot of shows by the way, it wasn’t just us. It was sudden, it was traumatic. That’s why I think this tour has been so healing for us.”
For Cody, becoming a Broadway creator was a surprising, but fulfilling, twist in her career. “I always loved the theater, and I always specifically loved musical theater,” she says. “I was the kid who would watch Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors every single day. I never thought I would write the book of a musical, and it has been one of the most delightful surprises of my career, because I never saw it coming and I didn’t see where it would go.”
Jagged Little Pill
Aug 16 – 27 • Buell Theatre