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Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill Went From Inspiring Audiences to Gaslighting Them

The hit Alanis Morissette musical, Jagged Little Pill, opened on Broadway in December 2019 to rave reviews from critics and theater fans alike. The show touched on a number of current and pressing issues in America, such as opioid addiction, sexual assault, bi-racial adoption, and freedom of gender expression and sexuality. 

However, audiences who saw the show in its original previews in Cambridge, MA would recognize a change in one of the featured roles’ gender identity. The character of Jo was originally written to be a gender non-conforming teenager who had fights with their mom over their gender identity. They had an unapologetic expression of gender fluidity, a storyline many other gender non-conforming or non-binary teenagers can relate to. But, when the show opened on Broadway, it portrayed a Jo who was cis-gender and used she/her pronouns.

Audiences questioned this decision, but when the JLP team answered, they denied Jo having ever been gender non-conforming or non-binary. In an interview with Vulture, the actress playing Jo, Lauren Patten (she/her), said:

Jo never was written as anything other than cis. I know the creative team did a lot of work with GLAAD and the New York City Anti-Violence Project in between the run in Cambridge and now. I think it’s the most clear iteration of what Diablo [Cody] and Diane [Paulus] and I always worked with and intended.

This tension around the lack of acknowledgment of Jo’s character changes continued until September, 2021, when the lead producers of JLP finally released a statement, apologizing for and acknowledging the harm done by denying Jo was ever anything other than cis. They said they were hiring a new dramaturgical team in an effort to revisit and rewrite the script before the show returned to Broadway, including rewriting Jo to be a “gender nonconforming teen who is on an open-ended journey with regard to their queerness and gender identity.”

“I think it’s important for everyone to understand that shows change a lot throughout the creative process from out of town to Broadway, and with a show as massive and a show that was trying to do as much as JLP was trying to do, it’s only natural that things change,” said Thani Brant (they/them), a non-binary, New York based actor. Thani recently graduated from the University of Michigan’s musical theatre program where they focused their senior showcase on being in Jagged Little Pill.

Thani said in the original script, it was exciting and meaningful to see a character like Jo on such a mainstream stage. “It was more so that Jo could be non-binary, but she could also just be a queer woman. That was something that made Jo speak to a larger group of people in different ways, and I think that was really exciting.” In the rewrite for the Broadway production, that was taken away, along with a lot of room for Jo to be an aspiration to queer actors and actresses of all gender expression. 

As far as Lauren Patten is concerned, queer actors from all different gender identities and sexual orientations looked up to her as an inspiration. 

Kennedy Durfy (she/her), a musical theatre student at NYU, said she was really inspired by Patten’s performance before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down production. “When the story came out, it was so upsetting because she knows what it’s like to be marginalized – [Patten is] bisexual – but for her and the creative team to erase non-binary experiences because it’s ‘easier’ is so stupid.”

“Lauren’s statement was ultimately the thing that broke me,” said Thani. “I cried all day.”

Patten released a video with Shakina Nayfack (she/they), a trans activist and writer, discussing her role in the situation. From the start, Nayfack said, “The intention is to, as Lauren said, be transparent, and to offer Lauren the chance to be accountable for her relationship to the show, the fans, the material, and the character. And, we are only going to speak about Lauren’s experience, so we’re not going to bring anyone else or anything else into the conversation.”

“How is that taking accountability?” Thani asked. 

When asked why she wouldn’t be stepping down from her role, Patten said she wanted closure with the show and with this role because it means so much to her. “That really struck me as [Patten] having no thought, what-so-ever for the fact that people don’t have closure, yet they left the show that gave them their Broadway debut because [those people] were harmed by the show,” Thani said. 

They said Patten’s position in the industry as an established actress gave her plenty of room to step-down as a statement of solidarity with the trans and non-binary community. Many young and new actors such as Nora Schell (a member of the ensemble), Antonio Cipriano (originated the role of Phoenix), and Iris (was the understudy for Jo) left the show due to the harm they received or felt they were a part of. 

Actions like these are what are opening up conversations in the theater industry about the general treatment and acknowledgment of trans and non-binary actors and their experiences. Jagged Little Pill tried to be intentional about the difficult issues in their show; they had advisors and dramaturgs throughout the process on biracial adoption, BIPOC representation, addiction, and queer representation. It seems they were successful in their depictions of these other difficult topics, but that can’t make up for the erasure of the trans and non-binary experience.

“It brings to the table a lot of issues that are so much broader than harming the non-binary community or gaslighting: it’s about who is left behind when shows are changed,” Thani said. 
Many other actors in Jagged Little Pill discussed leaving the show when it came back to Broadway on October 21, but instead decided that the best course of action was stay and do better next time. They, and many actors in other professional productions, are working with their shows’ teams to guarantee a safe and inviting space for trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming actors.

Maya Gengozian is a sophomore at New York University double-majoring in Vocal Performance: Music Theatre and Journalism. She is a lover of astrology, boba tea, theatre, Taylor Swift, and all things music, as well as a big advocate for women's and LGBTQIA+ rights. Maya is so happy to be a part of the team at Her Campus! To learn more about her, visit her website at mayagengozian.com.
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