When COVID first hit almost two years ago, Stephen Atkinson and I compiled a list of albums that gave us comfort throughout quarantine. One of the albums that instantly came to mind was Alanis Morissette’s 1995 hit "Jagged Little Pill," which I then appreciated for how the artist “unapologetically confronts issues that make us uncomfortable, including our fear of silence and the constant need to be distracted. This fearlessness, though — her attempt to understand herself without trying to please others — reminds us of the universality of fear and pain.”
Last week, I fell in love with this album again — except this time, it took the stage in the form of a Broadway musical.
Before the curtains opened, I had no idea what the musical was about (to be completely honest, I thought it might even be a biography of Morissette). I quickly learned the show would instead be the story of the Healys, a well-to-do Connecticut family comprised of their workaholic father Steve, stay-at-home mom Mary Jane (MJ), athletic, Harvard-admitted son Nick and ambitious, artsy daughter Frankie. The musical opens with a picturesque depiction of the Healy family: as MJ pens the family’s annual Christmas letter, the audience sees how perfect the family is— they have money, education and the impressive ability to keep up their image.
But more often than not, an image is only that.
Each family member has their own set of issues. As the musical unfolds, however, their individual issues begin to affect the family as a whole: Steve and MJ’s marriage is slowly falling apart, Frankie is caught cheating on her girlfriend and Nick went to a party where he witnessed a sexual assault and refused to protect the survivor, Bella Fox.
After she hears of Bella’s assault, we learn that Mary Jane was sexually assaulted when she was in college. Although she has two smart kids and the plethora of distractions in suburbia, MJ never opened up about the attack and instead spent decades blaming herself for the violence and not ever fully trusting her husband. “These things happen,” she tells Bella. “You have to protect yourself.”
In facing these issues, MJ has found one coping mechanism, albeit a dangerous one: oxycodone. The caring mother was prescribed the opioid after a car accident but turned to street dealers after multiple doctors refused to continue prescribing her the addictive drug. Ultimately, this results in an overdose that forces the family to reconsider their values and priorities.
I was undoubtedly impressed by the strength and range of the performers’ voices, and even more so by how the writers were able to use this one album to tell such a compelling narrative. Each track was manipulated to fit into the complex story by changing perspectives, often even within the same song.
I was touched by the issues that are unique to our generation — the marches against gun violence and instant spread of damaging information online — as much as I was by the issues that are sadly timeless. MJ and Bella are only two representations of the many women that brush off every grab that makes them uncomfortable out of the fear of being deemed dramatic or dishonest.
What struck me the hardest about this show, however, was how it reminded me of a time not too far in the distant past— a time when I was 16. A time when I, like Frankie, wore bandanas and leather jackets with every outfit, a time when I felt so driven to make a difference in the world. A time when I questioned if I wanted to date other women or just be like them, a time when I thought every issue could be solved with a loud protest and a clever poster. Frankie is unapologetic about who she is and what she stands for— an attitude I wish I had at that age, but have grown too cynical to desire now. It brought me to a time of wanting nothing more than to be out of the house, but it also made me realize how I now appreciate nothing more than the group of people I consider home.
It’s not the first story about being bisexual or a Gen Z activist or questioning your role as a woman and a person in the world. But it is the first time I’ve seen all these stories share the same stage at the same time.
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