‘Jagged Little Pill’: Tony-Winning Director Diane Paulus on Crafting a Musical Inspired by Alanis Morissette’s Classic Album

Jagged Little Pill

Jade McLeod and Teralin Jones perform on the North American tour of 'Jagged Little Pill.' Photo: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2023

Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus (Hair, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Waitress,Pippin, 1776) was entering her 30s when Alanis Morissette released her now-classic breakthrough album, Jagged Little Pill, in 1995 at just 21. 

The impactful, empowering album — especially for any young or youngish female of that time became a soundtrack to so many lives with songs like You Oughta Know, You Learn, Hand In My Pocket, Ironic, All I Really Want and Head Over Feet and went on to sell 33 million copies worldwide. 

It is no wonder, then, that Paulus, now 57, jumped at the chance to direct a Broadway musical inspired by — and using the songs from — the album. Premiering in 2018, with a book written by Tony and Academy Award-winning writer Diablo Cody (Juno), Jagged Little Pill the musical focusses on the secret struggles of a seemingly perfect family, including addiction issues as well as questions around sexuality, racial identity and abuse. It went on to earn 15 Tony Award nominations and win two — including one for Best Musical — as well as a Grammy for Best Musical Theatre album.

After a COVID-impacted run on Broadway in 2019 and a reopening in late 2021, touring productions travelled to Australia and throughout North America. And now it finally arrives in Toronto, the Mirvish production opening Oct. 26 and running through Nov. 26 at the Princess of Wales Theatre.

Paulus spoke with Zoomer about directing the musical, Morissette’s input and the important topical threads from marriage to sexual assault. 

KAREN BLISS: What impact did the album Jagged Little Pill make on you when it first came out?  

DIANE PAULUS: This album was seminal for me. I remember being in awe of Alanis, not just her music, but who she was as a performer, her unbelievable power as a woman, unafraid to express her emotional life on stage, her rage. But, what I will say, is once I started working on the show and I went back to the album, what I was struck by was the range of emotion. 

I remembered Alanis as iconic angry rocker, the woman who paved the way for so many artists after her. But, going back and listening to songs like Perfect, which is now one of my favourite songs from the album, what I was struck by was the emotional range of Jagged Little Pill, the album. I mean, sure, there are songs like You Oughta Know, but what I appreciate about Alanis is her emotional vulnerability and the quiet moments that are embedded into that album.

KB: Back then, based on some of her lyrics and delivery, and seeing her perform flailing that long hair, the media pegged her “angry young woman.”

DP: Angry young woman. I know. And what was behind it was just her truth. I think about it now, it’s less anger and more about that she was a prophetess of truth pouring out of her.


KB: Musicals are normally buoyant and happy and fun, even if they have some darkness. As I understand it, Alanis didn’t want it to be biographical. You’ve got these songs, we know them by heart. Was it easy to thread them together into a a narrative with Diablo?

DP: Well, the album was always our bible, and we kept going back to the album. For all of the creatives involved, we were all super impacted by that album. So in a sense, it was the Holy Grail. And, I think, why it became such a powerful musical is because each song tells a story, conveys character, and that leapt off the page for all of us. 

Having said, that Diablo knocked it out of the park in terms of, again, responding to the album and looking for the characters and the emotional life and the themes in the lyrics. I had asked her originally to just respond to the album as if she were writing a screenplay because she was asking me about ‘How do I turn this into a musical? And I said, ‘Don’t worry about that. Just go to your psyche and your gut and your intuition. Write it like a screenplay. The first thing she pitched was this idea of this mother character who was Mary Jane, which made sense based on that song. She’s a woman struggling with trying to hold up the appearance of everything being perfect in her life and she is reading one of these braggy Christmas letters, and while she’s reading a letter, her couch catches on fire, and next thing you know her house is on fire and the whole world’s on fire around her. But she keeps on reading this Christmas letter, and Diablo said, ‘I don’t know how you’re gonna put that on stage.’ I was like, ‘I got it. (laughs). Don’t worry about that.’ Because what I got about that was, it was specific and about a family. 

By the way, it was about a mother, which I think is really interesting because Alanis and Diablo and I, when we came together working on the show, we were all moms, dealing with marriage and life and family. So that’s really powerful that you had three women crafting this musical and thinking about, not just what it means to be 17, but what it means to be in your 40s and dealing with life. I feel like making Jagged Little Pill into a musical all those years after Alanis wrote it, in a way, we were able to benefit from everything Alanis has gone on to do in her life and talk about and think about and write about. 

Jagged Little Pill
Canadian Jade McLeod performing with the North American touring company of Jagged Little Pill. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022


KB: Benefit how?

DP: You know, when I had one of my first meetings with her, she was talking to me about family systems therapy and sending me books to read. That was the kind of depth of conversation around the show. It wasn’t just, Oh, let’s just stitch these songs together. It was: what is trauma and what is healing and how do we heal in relation to each other? That’s really what Alanis taught me along with many things. 


KB: What were some of the tweaks or suggestions that were really important to Alanis to get across in the musical? 

DP: First of all, she was very interested in how everything was connected and interconnected. We went to her house in California early on, and she had a dry erase board, and we put all the characters up, and she started drawing arrows between all of them. She was so interested in this family and, like I said, the family therapy, how everything was connected. A marriage in trouble is related to the relationship between the mother and the son, and this daughter, who is the transracial adoptee, what is she bringing into the family that provokes the journey, which is, at the core — which Alanis has been public about — is sexual assault and the trauma for sexual assault. So sexual assault is this secret cause in the musical; it’s at the core, but, really, it’s about healing. The musical is about healing and how to heal in relation to other human beings. That’s really important to her.

And, at the time, we talked about this marriage in trouble. And, I’ll never forget the conversation when Alanis said, ‘How radical would it be if in our musical, this couple decides to give it a go, tries to do the work, to get beyond their problems?’ That’s not to say there shouldn’t be stories where they end in a break. I mean, I did Waitress that culminates into a woman getting out of an abusive relationship. But, I’ll never forget when Alanis said that. And I remember, Diablo and Alanis and I all discussing that and saying, ‘Yeah, let’s tell that story.’


DIane Paulus
Diane Paulus attends The Waitress, The Musical – Live On Broadway!, June 12, 2023, New York City. Photo: Jason Mendez/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival


KB: What can an older generation that didn’t relate to Jagged Little Pill in the 90s, and a younger generation that wasn’t yet born, get out of the musical adaptation?

DP: This is a story about a family right now, trying to navigate the world we’re living in, in America. It’s deeply human. It’s deeply funny and it’s cathartic, which was one of the first things I thought about when I considered, should this become a musical? And my answer was a whole-hearted yes because we talked about musicals being fun, right? The reputation of a musical. So, it’s really important that the audience knows this is a musical that is contemporary and funny and human, and it’s going to take you through the ringer, but it’s cathartic … And for people who don’t know the music, a younger generation, just you wait (laughs). My college daughter plays Forgiven on a loop, on her Spotify, because she can’t get enough of that song. 

And when we first premiered this up at the A.R.T. [American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA in May, 2018] I thought, ‘What is this gonna be for an older generation?’ And I’ll never forget the 80-year-old woman who stopped me on the street corner in Cambridge, and said, ‘Thank you for Jagged Little Pill.’ So many people took their mothers to see it. You know, older moms, in their 80s, said, ‘We love the show’ because I think it’s so human. We’re living in a world where there are a lot of challenges that are thrown at us personally, emotionally, societally, and this is a musical about how this one family navigates it and you go through that. As I said, in the catharsis, the music gives you a passage into that.


KB: What are you working on now?

DP: Oh my goodness, I’m currently working on about eight projects that are in development. And, also, I’m about to direct Carmen, for an opera festival the UK.  So excited about all things, but super-excited I’m coming to Toronto this week. I can’t wait to be there for the opening.