“The show is about family, it’s about relationships, it’s about swallowing the jagged little pill, dealing with the tough stuff in life, and facing each other in that struggle,” director Diane Paulus says. Paulus refers to Jagged Little Pill, the new Broadway musical she directed at the Broadhurst Theatre based on the eponymous Grammy-winning 1995 Alanis Morissette album.
“One of the key songs on that album,” Paulus says, “is ‘You Learn.’ That was such a gift, that song. ‘You live, you learn, you love, you learn, you cry, you learn, you lose, you learn, you bleed, you learn, you scream, you learn.’ You go through all that—and you learn.”
The show features the songs from the album, which sold more than 33 million copies-selling album, and includes such hits as “You Oughta Know,” “Hand in My Pocket,” “Ironic,” “All I Really Want,” and “You Learn.” The book by Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) tells of the Healy family, mother, father, son, and adopted daughter, whose sunny suburban life masks deep inner troubles redolent of America today.
Paulus, 53, won a best-director Tony Award in 2013 for her revival of Pippin and was nominated for Tonys in 2009 and 2012 for directing revivals of Hair and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Her other Broadway directing credits include Waitress and Finding Neverland. She recently directed Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World, which played Off-Broadway at MTC. She helmed the Second Stage Off-Broadway production of Invisible Thread. She has directed operas such as Cosi Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, and Le Nozze Di Figaro at the Chicago Opera Theater. Earlier in her career, she was a co-creator of The Donkey Show, an Off-Broadway disco version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Since 2008, she has been artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Here, Paulus pulls back the curtain on how she became a director, how she works best, and why she was dying to create the stage adaptation of Jagged Little Pill.
Why she became a director:
“I started out as an actor. I always loved the theatre. But I realized that I loved the theatre because I loved the group experience. I loved working in an environment where you were part of something larger than yourself and that together with other people you could make the impossible possible. And then I realized that as a director I could actually make those experiences happen, whereas as an actor—as much as I loved being an actor—I always felt I was not in the driver’s seat. I would have to wait for the audition or wait to get the job, where as a director I could actually be the catalyst; I could gather people, I could create the conditions for something unexpected to happen, for something creative to be born. For people to surpass what they thought they were capable of. That’s why I moved from being an actor to being a director. Truly, at its heart, I love that experience, of getting out of your own ego and facilitating something.”
Her directing principles:
“I believe in asking questions and not knowing the answer. I believe you have to keep pushing yourself to ask the biggest possible questions. I believe in the importance of creating space where everybody feels creative. What do I mean by that? It’s never about what’s the right thing to do. It’s never about what do you want me to do. When an actor says I’ll do whatever you want, it’s not about what I want. I believe that we’re all in pursuit of something else, something great, some big question.
“And it’s the job of the director—I’ve identified this mountaintop in the distance that I know we want to climb. My job is to get everybody up the mountain no matter how difficult it is, no matter how scary it is, no matter what falls in our way. That to me is the job of the director, to sense the potential. It’s not to know the answer, it’s to sense the potential. And then you have to do everything you can to unlock and create conditions that will give you the most rich and rewarding and creative space to hit that potential.”
In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“Every actor is different. I’ve learned over the years that you have to really tune in to what that actor needs. Some actors are super intellectual, and they want to understand things. Other actors need to be pushed, need to be challenged. For me, it’s like I’m a coach, and I’m trying to analyze what I need to do to get that actor to a place they’ve never been. That’s my mission – how do I get the most extraordinary performance out of this person?”
A mistake she made that she learned from:
“When I was a graduate student at Columbia University, I was doing a production of King Lear for my thesis. I remember it wasn’t a very good production. There were the stormy scenes on the heath, and we had the sound effect of thunder, and my stage manager was a fellow graduate student, and he was in the control booth, and I remember feeling like the only way to fix the show was more thunder, more thunder. I think I was madly gesticulating outside the control booth in the middle of the show. And that is just the wrong thing to do. I learned my lesson then. I could not do any good in the moment there, born of any kind of passion, that might be understandable. That was not the right way to go about it. Everybody has a process.
“I’ve learned that when the show’s running it’s in other people’s hands. I watch, and I’m there if I’m needed. But a show has to grow on its own. I’ve also learned that. You have to see things happen that maybe you know are not right or need to be fixed but you have to find the right time to fix them.”
Some thoughts about Jagged Little Pill:
“It was the album, and everything that Alanis Morissette stood for when that album came out in the 1990s, that made me want to direct this musical. It was my memory of the experience of that album back in the ’90s that made me think, in 30 seconds, I wanted to be on this project and devote whatever it took to see this happen. I had an immediate reaction to wanting to live inside that music and devote what I knew would be several years of my life to it.
“And, of course, it became so much more than that when I got to actually meet her and work with her, and listen to the music again, now, 25 years later. It quickly grew to such a deeper understanding of that music than I remembered. The first thing I did when I came home after the project was brought to me was to listen to the music again, and I was overwhelmed by the range of emotion in the songs.
“Everybody thinks of Alanis Morissette and thinks of ‘You Oughta Know,’ her unleashed rage, which certainly she channeled, but she also touches so many other vulnerable feelings and so much interest in feeling and dealing with trauma. It’s been a very intense journey of growing and achieving a much deeper appreciation of what that music was and what it still means today.
“Alanis just broke the mold in so many ways. She was this young woman who was unafraid to express herself. She did it not only through her songwriting, and her incredible lyrics, but also the way she performed. Everybody has an impression of not only listening to the music but experiencing her. I think part of my interest in working on this was wanting to tap into that energy. Immediately, I started thinking about the Greek theatre. I just felt there was something about Alanis that was Dionysian. It was just explosive, it was epic, it was visceral, and it made me think that whatever show I was going to make, not knowing anything about what I was going to do yet, this was going to be an epic piece of theatre, and this was going to break the fourth wall, and this was going to be a ritual in the theatre.
“The one thing that came with the project was the fact that Alanis did not want it to be a biopic. She didn’t want this musical to tell her story, her personal biography. That was it. I was happy to move forward knowing that that was her request, but what it meant was you have to find a writer, a person who’s going to help give these songs an organic, original story. I just feel we found the best possible person in Diablo Cody. Who also, like me, was obsessed with the album and wanting to live inside it and make something out of it.
“The process became one of listening over and over to the songs and understanding what were the themes, what were the characters that were emerging organically from the songs, discussing that among ourselves—Tom Kitt, our musical arranger, and Diablo and Alanis—and then ultimately Diablo coming forward with this story about a family. She zoomed in on this one family and the kind of picture-perfect world they’re upholding in how they present themselves on the outside, when on the inside there’s a lot of pain, suffering, a lot of trauma, a lot of tension—which is what we’re all feeling. That’s probably closer to real life than any happy-ever-after family. That felt correct, to go into that kind of storytelling.
“So the show is about one family and their dynamics, and the [relationship] between a mother and a daughter, which I also thought was really smart and appropriate, because Alanis and Diablo and Tom Kitt and myself, we’re all parents. Dealing with all the challenges.
“There’s that mother character, the core of it, and yet, you couldn’t do an Alanis Morissette musical of Jagged Little Pill without having that teenage energy in it. Diablo very smartly brought this daughter as the other major dynamic in the show—the character of Frankie, a trans-racial adoptee. So you have this intergenerational thing going on—someone who’s a mature person living in the world, and a young person, who’s experiencing the world in a different way. Diablo said to me early on that she always felt that the mother represented the America of the past and Frankie represented America now and in the future. And that interested me because I feel we’re living that tension right now in the country. That change is real, it’s happening, and it’s terrifying. And how do you experience it as a society, or how do you experience it inside one’s family? This show is about facing each other and committing to the next steps.”
“I did a production [Off-Broadway] about Gloria Steinem called Gloria: A Life, and I’m bringing that to American Repertory Theatre. I go into rehearsal right after the New Year. [Performances begin January 24.] And then I’m doing a revival of 1776, the musical, in May at A.R.T. That’s my next big musical project. It’s going from A.R.T. on a short tour, to the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, and then to various cities around the country, and then we’ll be at the Roundabout in [April] 2021.”