We need to talk about Jagged Little Pill

A poster for Jagged Little Pill that looks like it was made with Microsoft Paint in 2013. Vimegr via Wikimedia

Musical receives Tony Award accolades despite transphobia, glaring mistreatment of cast

Content warning: substance abuse, transphobia, and sexual assault.

In what seems to be a recurring series of mine, we need to talk about the Broadway musical Jagged Little Pill (JLP) and transphobia.

Jagged Little Pill is a jukebox musical using the music of Alanis Morissette. It premiered on Broadway in 2019 and received 15 nominations during the most recent Tony Awards. The story follows the Healy family as each character deals with their own struggles, including opium addiction, trauma from a past rape, and discovering their sexuality.

In the original pre-Broadway run of Jagged Little Pill in 2018, one of the characters, Jo, was non-binary. They were played by Lauren Patten, a cis woman. In this early edition, Jo’s gender was evident. They were referred to with they/them pronouns; there was an entire scene of Jo and their mother talking about them being non-binary, and more. They never said outright that Jo was non-binary, but they never needed to: it was clear and noted by critics in early reviews.

But, by the time JLP made it to Broadway, things had changed. The creators of the show entirely erased the fact that Jo was nonbinary. It was just gone. And not only was it erased from the musical, Patten herself was erasing the nonbinary representation by denying Jo’s gender in the 2018 run. When Patten was asked about Jo using they/them pronouns in early versions of the show, she denied it, saying “Jo never was written as anything other than cis.”[1] Furthermore, she deleted everything she had previously posted on social media about Jo being nonbinary and her support of it.

In mid-September 2021, despite the issue being brought up as early as April 2021, JLP issued a statement and apology. But, back in April when the initial discussion was being brought up, Jagged Little Pill tweeted “Jo wasn’t written as non-binary,” in part of a larger statement about the development of Jo as a character. We know that this isn’t true, because it’s textually clear that they were originally written as non-binary. This made people upset, as it should.

During this time in April, JLP created a four-part series called “Wake Up: Why Social Responsibility in Theatre Matters.” In the second episode, they talk about gender expression and sexuality in the show. In this episode, they double down on Jo not being written as a non-binary character. Moreover, Patten continues to erase Jo’s being non-binary in the original run, saying that it was her choice to refer to Jo with they/them pronouns and that she wasn’t confirming that Jo was non-binary when she was doing that. Freelance theatre critic Christian Lewis wrote about the episode, “JLP is perpetuating nonbinary erasure, an act which not only denies needed trans representation but can have dire consequences. Lack of representation has a direct relationship to violence against trans people.”[2]

The newer statement from September was met with negative reviews from the queer theatre community. Many believed they only put out this apology because the Tony Awards were right about to happen. This statement included actions they were going to take in the future. Lewis stated, “JLP had so long to apologize + make positive changes, but they stayed silent, erased the nonbinary character, and gaslit us. Here they offer a slight apology *only when forced*, continue gaslighting, and make no promises to change anything. Not good enough,”[3]

Iris Menas, a nonbinary actor who understudied for Jo, had been calling out JLP since April. Zie[1] [HE2] [AD3]  had been tweeting about the issues, stating at one point in a tweet that zie had PTSD from working at JLP. Zie has been reposting tweets onto hir Instagram about the situation and how JLP shouldn’t have cast a cis person for the role of Jo and then denied their trans-ness. Zie has been fighting for trans rights on Broadway and said that zie was gaslighted while working at JLP. In September, at the time of the JLP’s second statement, Menas posted on hir Instagram story, saying “trans people are still being used & abused. Don’t let an empty “apology” fool you.”[4]

The story doesn’t end there.

At the 74th Annual Tony Awards on September 26, 2021, Lauren Patten won the Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical. A cis woman was given an award for telling a non-binary story and then denying that story. In regard to this, Menas said “cis actors coopting trans identities for awards & clout = violence against the *very community* you claim to support.”[5]

Additionally, just before the Tony Awards, on September 24, 2021, a statement was posted by nonbinary actor Nora Schell about their treatment while at JLP. In their statement on Twitter, Schell said “I was heavily pressured and eventually asked to wait to get NECESSARY surgery to remove polyps from my vagina. I was told the show couldn’t afford such a blow, it would be too much of a detriment to the preview process if I took the 3-4 days I needed for the surgery.”[6] They shared with stage management that they were diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome experiencing anemia from blood loss due to the PCOS, all to no avail.

Schell tried to get an emergency appointment with their doctor, and the higher-ups told them “to push through.”[7] In September of 2019, Schell collapsed while at JLP. After collapsing, Schell spoke to their doctor who told them they needed emergency surgery, and when they spoke with the creative team, the creative team had no idea about Schell’s medical emergency or the previously given information about their PCOS. Schell was told to wait and got the surgery a month later. Immediately after the surgery, management told Schell that they needed to start working again and stop taking personal days. It hit a point where Schell’s doctor “could not ethically continue to operate on me if I remained in a work environment that would ask me negate my medical needs.”[8]

JLP let a Black non-binary cast member come close to death before allowing them to get surgery. The consequences of this have been lasting and Schell still deals with them two years later. Jagged Little Pill has a history of mistreating non-binary actors, non-binary characters, and gaslighting people when things don’t go their way. Despite all that, they won two Tony Awards and most recently a Grammy. Broadway has a history of erasing non-binary and trans characters and experiences, and JLP is no different.

  1. https://www.vulture.com/2020/06/jagged-little-pills-lauren-patten-steals-the-show.html
  2. https://twitter.com/clewisreviews/status/1382106840951971844?s=20
  3. https://twitter.com/clewisreviews/status/1382090035713822721?s=20
  4. https://www.instagram.com/stories/highlights/18171121798113759/
  5. https://twitter.com/hi__im__iris/status/1442233740848209925?s=20
  6. https://twitter.com/noritachiquita/status/1441409296906870795?s=20

[1] “Jagged Little Pill’s Lauren Patten Will Not Admit That She Steals the Show.” Vulture, online, 13 June 2020.

[2] @clewisreviews on Twitter, 13 April 2021, 5:02 p.m.

[3] @clewisreviews on Twitter, 13 April 2021, 3:55 p.m.

[4] @hi__im__iris__ on Instagram, “bway” highlight.

[5] @hi__im__iris__on Twitter, 26 September 2021, 3:04 p.m.

[6] @noritachiquita on Twitter, 24 September 2016, 8:28 a.m.

[7] As above.

[8] As above.


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