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Bringing Smooth Transitions to “Jagged Little Pill”

Bryan Reesman • Inside TheaterJanuary 2020 • January 12, 2020

Lauren Patten and the chorus perform “You Oughta Know” with truss and lights adding to the rock ‘n’ roll energy. Photos by Matthew Murphy

The latest entry in the jukebox musical phenomenon, Jagged Little Pill, utilizes the approach of last year’s Go-Go’s musical, Head Over Heels. Rather than being used to tell an artist biography, the massive popular Alanis Morissette album from 1995, which has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, becomes the template for a story written by Diablo Cody that includes the album’s hits co-written with producer Glen Ballard, other tracks from the singer/songwriter’s catalog, plus two new songs. The show focuses on a middle-aged mother coping with an opioid addiction and a high school student who has been sexually assaulted. It’s heavy stuff, and the score and performances have connected with many fans.

Mary Jane Healy (Elizabeth Stanley) in a reflective moment shadowed by a chorus bathed in blue light.

‡‡         Moving Parts

Befitting a musical that tackles a number of social and political topics, the show features a lot of moving parts. Literally. The scene and scenery changes are numerous and speedy. There are sliding panels and headers, projections placed on them, major set pieces brought on and offstage via automation, and many lighting changes to accompany all of this activity.

“There were always moving parts from the creation of the piece,” says scenic designer Riccardo Hernández. Following their successful run at Boston’s ART last fall, and once they knew that they were coming to the Broadhurst Theater in New York, the show’s creative team and director Diane Paulus had time to further develop the musical. “We spent the entire summer working on a half-inch model with all the moving pieces, all the details. We did a super detailed storyboard because we knew the piece and how we could make it breathe in and out. It was through that time that we wanted to articulate specifically the four spaces that we have in the world [of the show].”

That first space is literally an empty stage and the back wall of the Broadhurst that greets the audience at the start of the show before the chorus comes on. When the chorus emerges, they create the second space with the band onstage and numerous overhead lights. “They summon what Diane and I called the Dionysian space, which is when we see the energy of the big trusses with all the lighting coming down,” explains Hernández. “That’s the space maximized at full blast [with] the sound of the chorus and the sonic power of the music.”

From there, the show movies into the upper middle-class Connecticut world of the Healy family which, the designer notes, is the environment that has the most kinetic moves. “It’s a suburban space that breathes in and out as needed,” says Hernández. “It’s not so much for the purpose of location. It’s really truly a journey into the psychology of this family and their friends. That’s where the idea of the movement came from.”

The Broadhurst Theatre in NYC smaller but taller than Boston’s ART, where the show had its first run.

‡‡         Rauschenberg House Panels

This third world is defined by what Hernández calls “Rauschenberg moving pieces” (named for the late painter and graphic artist whose mid-20th Century work prefaced the Pop Art movement). The original four “house panels” for the show were made out of glass. Rauschenberg had created acetate images on glass for some of his installations, and that work initially inspired Hernández for the house panels, hence the invoked reference.

There are actually two types of moving panels in the show. There are 10 automated sliders and two headers that emerge from above and on the sides of the stage, often irising into position, and then four smaller “house panels” that help make up that main structure. Those four are specifically moved by the chorus and act as an extension of what they are thinking and feeling. (All of the sliders, headers, panels, and trusses on Broadway have neon LED tubes along their edges, and they can change in intensity and color to delineate the shapes of what they want the audience to see.)

“Diane and I discussed at length how to take the typical iconographic shape of the American home and literally disintegrate it,” elaborates Hernández. “It’s the journey of a family that’s falling apart, people disconnecting, and then eventually accepting the complete collapse in order to heal. That’s the main scenic space that is articulated through the night.”

The fourth and final space is what Hernández calls “the Beckett existential void,” and it is only activated twice during two key moments, including at the end of Act One, “which is a prayer into a void where we see the middle of this nothingness,” he says.

Images by video designer Lucy Mackinnon (and original video designer Finn Ross) are projected onto the four smaller house panels and the larger automated headers to help “paint” certain scenes. When we are inside of the Healy home, the exterior of their house is shown around them on a combination of headers, sliders, and house panels. Inside the church, stained glass images are projected on the four house panels. Many of the images are clear and specific, but at other times, such as during the party where the sexual assault occurs, the images are more abstracted to reflect the emotional turbulence of the scene.

“The premise behind that — and this is pure Diane too — is when we created the pieces, we wanted to follow the psychology and the movement that these characters are taking,” says Hernández. “We did not want to get in the way of location — ‘Oh, here comes another big, plunky piece of scenery.’ We wanted to create something that breathes in and out with complexity. We use the sliders very differently from the way we use the panels. They have more specificity, whereas the house panels are much more intense and denote the psychology of the characters.”

A simple backdrop, props, and LED outline help to shape a school scene from Jagged Little Pill.

‡‡         What Worked in Boston

The advantage that Paulus, Hernández, and the creative team had in doing the show first in Boston was to discover what worked well and what did not. By the time they worked with the half-inch model before moving to Broadway, they analyzed everything in group discussions. They went scene by scene, including the transitions. The Broadway rendition of Jagged Little Pill, which the director scrutinized all the way through previews, is tightly executed.

“I designed a total of 10 sliders and two headers all clad in real clapboard/siding, plus the three massive trusses with the lights,” says Hernández. “There are three bays in the design. The most upstage one is reserved for the band. All the sliders are 29 feet tall. On the first bay there are two sliders on either side, both eight feet wide. On the second bay are two sliders on either side, and all four are 10 feet wide. On the third bay there’s one slider on either side, and both are 10 feet wide.”

The four rolling, trapezoidal house panels are 13.5 feet tall at their peak and approximately six feet, seven and 3/8 inches wide each. “When joined together to form the house shape they are 13 feet, two and ¾ inches wide,” says Hernández. All the measurements were dictated by the Broadhurst itself. They were reduced in width by two feet on each side in the transition from the ART to the Broadhurst, but Hernández says they gained an advantage in terms of height.

“The height is manipulated by the header, so we can come very, very low with the header, which we see in the high school or in the house, or we can go up,” says the designer. “Basically, the shapes are the same, but the dimensions change as needed depending on the situation that we’re in. For example, some of the sliders downstage are eight feet wide for many different reasons. And as we go upstage it is a combination of both, eight feet wide and 10 feet wide. There were visual choices, but a lot was decided because we have a lot of moving props.”

Hernández pinpoints the song “Smiling,” which involves a large number of transitions in a short period of time. “We go into the journey of this woman through the day,” he says. It involves a coffee shop, a dumpster outside of the coffee shop, a pharmacy, Whole Foods, and a gym sequence with multiple on exercise bikes. They each last for a matter of seconds. “All of that happens so quickly and so effortlessly that we literally had to create this movement in order for the actors, the singers, and the chorus to literally move in and out to allow for these mysterious things to appear and disappear. That was extremely complex. We kept rehearsing that moment until the bitter end to get the right time and the right effect as cleanly as possible. The calibration between what I was doing with choreography and lighting and projections was intense. It was a long tech.”

Even more impressive is the fact that most of the “Smiling” sequence takes place backwards, meaning the actors have to move as if they are in a movie that is going in reverse. Proper performer synchronization is essential there.

There are key props in each scene which Hernández also found to be essential and that he and Paulus call “an iconic grounding force” for each location. For example, the Healy house has a big couch and a Christmas tree, like a Norman Rockwell postcard “with a very specific modern edge.” A nostalgic sequence involving youth features a swing set on a playground. The church has several pews. But the scenes are never stuffed with props or set pieces. “Every moment has something that anchors the actors into a specific reality,” stresses Hernández. All the furniture and set pieces that denote a specific location are slid on and off by the chorus.

Despite the fact that the Healy home may look idyllic, there are metaphorical cracks within that facade. “Through the [scenic] aperture that’s created, the opening into the house, what you see outside of that is this make-believe McMansion of a ‘happy American family,’” says Hernández. “Then you go inside and begin to see that things are not okay. I keep making the analogy that as you go deeper and deeper through the piece, it feels a bit like an Ingmar Bergman film within the context of this amazing musical. We wanted to make sure that whatever we created had all the right elements for you to be joyous, for you to go into that dark place and be shocked, and then to literally leap into your feet when that sonic quality of Alanis’ music burst through, like at the beginning of ‘You Oughta Know.’ You’re literally taking a journey with this piece, so we were very conscious when we were working on this design to make sure that we allowed for that kind of surrender from the audience to really feel all these moments.”

It was important for him to not dress the set too extensively with props, especially with so many fast-moving sequences. “It’s like a film in many ways,” notes Hernández. “The dynamics of the space is treated as if it were a film, but still using the means of theater.”

Given how many panels move around throughout the musical, lighting designer Justin Townsend was undoubtedly presented with some challenges. Hernández explains that early on during the ART production, they discovered that by using floor-level, custom-made light troughs at the front of the stage, they could illuminate some things and people “in a mysterious way, up lighting all the siding, all the domestic, suburban Connecticut American homes. At ART, we could only use a few of them, but on Broadway, we were able to line them up on the floor where all the panels are. It helped immensely in terms of creating different perspectives. Say there’s a moment when we are in one of the rooms and you see the chorus upstage. They’re all bathed in this deep blue light, and you know that they are in another psychological space. I would say that what we have in the space is crucial to what the lighting is doing.” The images on the projection surfaces go hand in hand with that aesthetic.

A veteran scenic designer and past Tony Award nominee, Hernández has worked on many myriad musicals in the past, including Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and Caroline, or Change on Broadway, but he feels that Jagged Little Pill was very different because “it was more unapologetically elemental and visceral. We knew that the movement had to be deliberate and precise as opposed to redundant.” Getting to that point required a lot of trial and error during both the ART run and Broadway tech period.

“The process of distillation was as authentic as possible as we could do in theater,” remarks Hernández. “It was quite a journey for me. Sometimes I see the show and go, ‘Oh my God, we all did that.’ I see the audience reaction. I see that they’re connecting to what’s happening on stage. It’s almost a film camera into the mind. That’s new for me. That was quite the experience to live through and learn from.”


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