Elizabeth Stanley is getting a crash course in suburban motherhood, courtesy of the new Alanis Morissette musical “Jagged Little Pill.”
The hotly anticipated Broadway production, inspired by Grammy Award winner Morissette’s seminal 1995 album of the same name, opens at the Broadhurst Theatre Dec. 5. Directed by Diane Paulus, with music by Morissette and Glen Ballard and a book by “Juno” screenwriter Diablo Cody, the show offers a searing look at the pressures of suburbia as experienced by the Healy family — the uptight, appearance-obsessed Mary Jane (Stanley), her workaholic husband (Sean Allan Krill), straight-arrow son (Derek Klena) and rebellious, adopted African-American daughter (Celia Rose Gooding).
The story opens with Mary Jane composing one of those well-intentioned but wearisome Christmas card letters detailing their oh-so-Instagrammable lives, from typical teen angst to Trader Joe’s, SoulCycle victories to sexual assault. Wait … what? Things take an unexpected turn when a high school student (Kathryn Gallagher) is assaulted at a teen party, and we soon learn everyone has secrets you wouldn’t want to share in that Christmas card.
This is all new territory for Stanley, who is in her forties and grew up in small towns in rural Iowa and Illinois before moving to New York, where she’s appeared on Broadway in “Company” and “On the Town.” She spoke by phone with Newsday.
Your character spends much of the musical stressed and competing with her fellow moms. What parts of her do you identify with?
I think the feeling of, at times in my life, struggling with certain problems, and not feeling comfortable talking about that with people. It’s painful to experience sadness or depression or disappointment and not feel like you can be open about it. Like when people say, “How are you doing?” We all do it — we’re like, “OH, FINE!” (She blurts it out, then chuckles.) And you’re really not. So I get that. There’s another thing, that feeling of “I have to keep up, I have to make sure I’m just as good as everyone else seems to be doing.”
Have you ever sent one of those Christmas card form letters?
No. I send cards. I watercolor and I’m crafty, so I enjoy making cards. Growing up, my family sent a card with a Christmas letter. In my parents’ defense, it was in the days before social media, and a lot of it was genuine. But … I definitely think anything like that is a slippery slope.
And Alanis, how much was she involved in the making of the musical?
She’s been very involved. She just had her third baby a few months ago, so now they send her videos of the show and she sends back detailed notes — mostly about the characters, less about the music.
So you can interpret songs your own way?
Yes. She said it’s been a wonderful gift to receive the songs, because she’s always been the giver of them. It was important to her that the story deal with sexual assault. She feels really passionate about bringing that to the collective consciousness.
Not many musicals tackle this subject. “Man of La Mancha …”
And “Spring Awakening” — it’s sort of in there.
Are you worried it may put some people off?
(She pauses.) Of course … you want everyone to love everything. I don’t think it’s a show there will be neutral ground about. I kind of love that. If it’s a conversation starter, that’s pretty exciting. The hope is that people won’t be deterred from coming to see the show because there is so much more to it than that. Ultimately, that’s one of the special things that art allows us to do — it allows us to talk about things that are difficult to talk about.
One of your lines really struck me. You say, “Most people don’t know their parents till it’s too late.”
Yeaaaah, that line hits so many people. I feel just old enough to really feel the depths of that. I still have both my parents, but a lot of my friends don’t. I’ve witnessed that.
When you’re a kid, you’re growing, and can’t see your parents as real people. Then you’re older, and you forget they keep growing and changing, too. My parents are older now, friends are dying and they’re facing a host of new issues.
Yeah. It’s such a deep part of the life experience, that feeling of loss and decline, and how we all deal with that. It teaches you a lot about a person. My parents are in a similar state. Some of the conversations we’ve had in recent years are things I would never have imagined them saying to me, back when I was in my 20s.
I guess the moral is, “Keep having the conversations?”