Jagged Little Pill, Moulin Rouge, Indecent, Dear Evan Hansen
During this holiday season, we revisit and showcase some of our distinguished interviews and award-winning and nominated plays and musicals: Jagged Little Pill, Moulin Rouge, Indecent and Dear Evan Hansen.
>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome toOpen Studio,
WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture
from around the region and the nation.
I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio,
it's a nod to the Tonys as we look at some of this year's
most nominated shows,
starting with Alanis Morisette's Jagged Little Pill.
>> I can still sing it with as much conviction--
perhaps even more-- based on the fact I think there's more
receptivity to some of the topics
that I dive into when I write.
>> BOWEN: Then, the Tony-nominated stars
ofMoulin Rouge! The Musical.
>> It's the most incredibly talented group of individuals
coming together with all of... you know, their different array
of talents for one thing, and one goal
to try to create the show.
And it's, it's really something to see.
>> BOWEN: Plus, we meet the young man
who becameDear Evan Hansen.
>> I really do try and give as much of an authentic performance
as I can every night, and that's really all thanks
to the people around me.
>> BOWEN: And the play that landed its creators on trial.
It's the subject of playwright Paula Vogel's dramaIndecent.
>> The love between women
was seen as a kind of pure and beautiful love story.
>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.
Welcome to this special edition of the show.
When the Tony nominations were recently announced,
we learned two of the most-nominated musicals
started right here, and we spent time with both of them.
First up,Jagged Little Pill tops the list
with 15 nominations, including best musical.
Based on Alanis Morissette's best-selling album,
it debuted at the American Repertory Theater.
>> ♪ I've got one hand in my pocket ♪
♪ And the other one is playing a piano ♪
>> BOWEN: It came out of nowhere.
Released just before summer in 1995,
the albumJagged Little Pill tore into culture
with all the ferocity its title would suggest.
The lyrics were all those of a teenager--
>> I was giving myself permission
to express exactly what was going on
without, without sugarcoating it.
>> BOWEN: Over the next year came a flood of singles
that burned through the sheen of life.
It was the anti-pop.
>> ♪ And I'm here
♪ To remind you
♪ Of the mess you left when you went away ♪
>> There was an urgency to the writing, definitely.
It was, it was almost manic, in a way,
a very channeled experience, super-exhausting,
but really, really gratifying.
>> BOWEN: The record won five Grammys,
went on to sell 33 million copies,
and is now among the best-selling albums of all time.
>> Some of it was, was that there was a movement.
Whether we-- whether it was the feminist movement
or consciousness evolution movement.
And the wave was happening,
and I feel as though I put my hand up and volunteered
to be on the front top of the wave with my surfboard.
>> Let's try this, because it really may not work,
and we're going to go to plan B.
>> Today, under the direction of Tony winner Diane Paulus,
Jagged Little Pill is taking on a new life
as a musical at the American Repertory Theater.
>> ♪ And what I really want
♪ Is some justice
>> BOWEN: The musical centers
on a middle-class family in Connecticut.
Picture-perfect on the outside, they're unraveling from within--
beset by a host of issues plaguing families today,
from opioid addiction to sexual assault.
>> The songs do an incredible amount of heavy, heavy lifting.
>> BOWEN: Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody
makes her theatrical debut withJagged Little Pill,
writing the show's book.
With myriad projects in the works,
including her latest film, Tully,
Cody says she didn't have time for the show.
But as someone whose adolescence was shaped by Morissette,
she couldn't say no, either.
>> I couldn't not do it.
Those are the projects that you can't walk away from,
when you think to yourself,
"I will be consumed with jealousy and rage
if somebody else gets to do this." (laughs)
>> BOWEN: Here, Cody has created the family
and all the issues drowning them
as a metaphor for society writ large,
addiction chief among them.
>> Right now,
we are in a place as a society where a lot of people
are in desperate need of comfort.
And are feeling just kind of disenfranchised,
and so it honestly doesn't surprise me to see this...
the opiate crisis.
It just doesn't-- it, it feels...
sort of grotesquely appropriate to the times.
>> ♪ And what it all boils down to ♪
>> BOWEN: As does Morissette's music--
even though it's now more than 20 years old.
>> It's crazy to me how well it holds up.
There's no song that I hear and think,
"Oh, that's juvenile."
Or, "Oh, I can't believe I thought this was profound
when I was 16."
If anything, it's more profound to me now.
>> I can still sing it with as much conviction--
perhaps even more-- based on the fact
that I think there's more receptivity
to some of the topics that I dive into when I write.
>> BOWEN: Including anger,
a label that's always been synonymous with her work,
and which defines some of the show's younger characters.
>> I love anger, you know?
And if I'm going to be one-dimensionalized as anything,
I'll take anger, I think it's a gorgeous life force.
I think it gets a bad rep
because of how it shows up destructively in the world.
The actings-out of anger in destructive ways
is a big boo for me.
But the actual life force itself,
and the sense in the body of what anger is, and the heat,
and the jaw clench, and the, the forward movement...
I mean, it helps me-- and others I'm assuming--
set boundaries, speak up for oneself, say no.
>> BOWEN: Morissette says when she finished the album,
she had no idea it would be so successful.
The intention was to make the music matter--
a philosophy she now carries to the musical.
>> ♪ It's not fair
♪ To remind me
♪ Of the cross I bear that you gave to me ♪
♪ You, you, you...
>> BOWEN:Moulin Rouge! The Musical racked up
an equally impressive 14 Tony nominations,
including best musical and nods for its stars
Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit.
I sat down with both of them when the show
had its out-of-town tryout
at Boston's historic Emerson Colonial Theatre.
Thank you both for joining us.
>> Of course. >> Thank you.
>> BOWEN: Here in this historic Colonial Theatre.
Tell me about the world of Satine, where she presides.
What is this, this nightclub, this district,
this fusion of people here?
>> It's a group of misfits, really.
Truly talented individuals, unique individuals,
that have all found a home with each other.
Didn't fit in other places,
and now reside in the Moulin Rouge
and create magic every night for regular people.
>> BOWEN: And where is she in that strata?
>> She's the matron of them.
She's like the mama.
Probably the oldest,
and the one who sort of keeps the lion cubs together.
>> BOWEN: And where does Christian enter into this?
I mean, how does, how does he see this world?
>> I think it's beyond my wildest dreams
about what the place could be like.
You know I'm coming over from, you know, a very different place
in the Midwest in America in the turn of the 20th century,
and it's all...
And, you know, I think
about this bleak and Industrial Revolution world,
and I have this artistic soul that's yearning to be somewhere,
and I don't even know if that place exists.
and then I kind of show up at this...
you know, this incredible, incredible place,
and it's beyond my wildest dreams.
>> BOWEN: Is there anything comparable today?
Have you ever witnessed or been in this kind of swirl before?
>> Yeah, I think that the world of theater
is a lot like the world of the Moulin Rouge.
In a sense, we are all people from all different walks of life
that have a common goal.
And then nightly, we come together
and we put all of our forces together
to create this thing that is unimaginable.
>> BOWEN: And what happens when you have this confluence
of artists with different backgrounds
and different sensibilities and talents?
>> It's the most incredibly talented group of individuals
coming together with all of...
you know, their different array of talents
for one thing and one goal-- to try to create the show.
And it's, it's really something to see.
>> BOWEN: I mean, that must be the best part
of being an artist for you,
to be in those moments of discovery
when you're with all of these like-minded people.
I mean, I imagine it draws out something different in you, too.
>> Oh, absolutely.
I mean, I say all the time,
I love singing with Aaron, and there are things about his voice
that really do trigger something in me,
and all of a sudden I'm, like, "Oh, I wonder if I can do this!"
And I start, like...
We sort of spitball while we're singing--
it's really strange.
>> No, you don't get that all the time.
>> It really doesn't happen all the time.
>> No. >> So when it does,
you're, like, "This is, this is magic.
This is something that we really have to sort of hold on to."
>> BOWEN: Give me a sense of what you mean by spitballing.
What freedom do you have all of a sudden?
>> You know, I think all about being alive onstage
is looking for different moments.
And there's, you know...
Things just happen specifically while we're singing, I think,
that are unexpected and, you know, unplanned,
and that's just hopefully going to make other things pop.
And it just, it kind of just goes.
♪ Sing out this song and I'll be there by your side ♪
♪ Storm clouds may gather and stars may collide ♪
>> BOWEN: Well, talking about what you're singing,
we know from the film
that it's a lot of music that we know,
a lot of mash-ups.
How, how is that language suited,
especially for Christian's experience,
to work through these pop songs?
>> Well, what's interesting, that I've had a lot of fun with,
is, it's the idea that I wrote all of these songs.
Not all of them, but a lot of the songs within the show,
at least, that...
You know, that they were kind of my idea.
So it's, like, you know,
a couple of songs in the second act,
Sahr, who plays Lautrec, and I were kind of onstage,
just, you know, on the sideline talking,
and it's, like, a lyric will be happening for a song,
and he'll be, like...
(in French accent): "That is... genius!"
And I'm, like, "Thank you," you know?
So, you know, that's a lot of fun.
But what the music team has done...
Putting pop music on stage is difficult sometimes,
because the lyrics are kind of erroneous
and don't necessarily need to matter in a pop song,
but these songs and these lyrics work so well for this story.
And you, you just, you're going to think,
"Oh, that's that song."
And then, halfway through it, you're going to realize
what it's doing to push the story forward.
And the work that they've done in that way
is really incredible.
>> BOWEN: And how do you see Satine...
How is she receiving this?
She has this suitor who's just enamored,
and how does that relationship flourish?
>> Well, I think Satine...
I'm someone who thinks that she's seen everything,
knows every angle.
That's part of her job.
And then the one thing
that she doesn't count on sweeping her away
is the purity of his lyric and his voice.
And it's the music that sort of, for me as Satine,
opens everything up.
It really changes the way that I see the world.
A room that I've been in my entire life
now suddenly looks different.
>> BOWEN: Have you gone back
to study the real Moulin Rouge and those characters
that dominated that scene,
>> Speaking of Toulouse-Lautrec...
>> Our Toulouse-Lautrec...
>> Our Toulouse-Lautrec is kind of our resident historian.
>> He really is.
>> Sahr would sprinkle in amazing tidbits about the world
and the real people and Lautrec,
and he's been... he's been amazing,
actually leading us through that.
>> I can't fall in love with anyone.
I make men believe what they want to believe.
>> BOWEN: How did you use the film?
I assume that both of you have seen the film.
>> BOWEN: And I've talked to enough people over the years
that, you want to be mindful of it,
but you don't want to mimic.
So how do you use it?
>> Well, I was a huge fan of the film.
I had a huge poster of Satine and Christian kissing,
and it was, like, in the middle of my dining room.
But in a lot of ways, you know, we've done lots of shows.
Like he's doneCompany, I've doneWest Side Story.
There are these shows that you love and you adore,
and you're a fan of.
But then when you get your chance to embody them,
you have to, uh, be respectful of the things that you loved
and then you have to be courageous
to try something different.
>> Baz created this unbelievable world that, um...
You know, we're trying to tell the story in our own way,
but I'm... you know, this world exists.
And so I think we're...
and the creative team has done an amazing job
to put that world into this space,
and then it's our job to find our own way in it.
>> BOWEN: It's interesting
that there are the existing film roles.
You two will be the two to define the theatrical roles.
Is that a lot of pressure?
>> Not until you just said it.
>> We've had the opportunity to do that before.
And I think, you know,
specifically for being a theater actor,
that's what you're...
You know, you live for those moments, because they're...
As you get older, too,
you realize they're few and far between.
>> And so you want to take every opportunity
and give it everything you can
to be involved in these...
you know, in these new productions.
>> The honor's not lost on me at all.
>> Like, I really do wake up every day
and I'm, like, "Oh, I get to do this."
Like, "I'm the person they picked for this moment."
>> Yeah, yeah.
>> Yeah, it's pretty incredible. >> No pressure.
>> Yeah, no pressure... (laughing)
>> BOWEN: And finally, we're in this very historic theater,
where a lot of shows have tried out before.
What is this time like for you,
to be getting a show onto its feet,
and this time of...
everything is changing,
and the audiences who come, come to it here
will know that you're, you're finding it with them?
>> I'm really more excited than I'm anxious, because I...
I trust what we've built is lovely,
and everyone will love.
>> I find, personally,
I lose any kind of perception about what's happening.
And so the audience is such a crucial part of that.
And the fact that this is kind of an...
you know, a thing where we're still learning about the show...
We've never had an audience.
So we're trying to create this world,
and we're working with this tonality of the piece,
and we're not really going to know if it works or not
until the audience is here.
And also, I'm just a big ham,
and I can't wait for the audience to be here.
So that's all, too. >> This is true.
>> BOWEN: All right, well, thank you both.
We look forward to it.
>> Thank you very much. >> Yeah.
>> ♪ Even when the dark comes crashing through ♪
♪ When you need a friend to carry you ♪
♪ When you're broken on the ground ♪
♪ You will be found
>> BOWEN: That was a number fromDear Evan Hansen,
the Broadway show which picked up six Tonys in 2017.
It's the story of a teenager, Evan Hansen,
swept into a family's grief following their son's suicide.
I spoke with its star when the show played the Opera House.
Ben Levi Ross, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much. >> Thanks for having me.
>> BOWEN: So you are Evan Hansen.
And the title is Dear Evan Hansen.
I saw the show in New York, and I understood immediately
that he's such a relatable character.
Whether you were a teenager once,
whether you feel like you have trouble
navigating through society now.
I saw the, the kids around me who were just mesmerized.
What makes this character so relatable to audiences?
>> Well, first of all, I think we have to, like,
give it up for the script.
Steven Levenson is sort of a genius
in the way that he interweaves comedy
into such a serious subject matter,
which I feel like is the first thing
that audiences are immediately drawn in by.
At the beginning of the show, while we're sort of taken aback
by how self-conscious Evan is
and how sort of self-aware in a negative way he is,
we're also rooting for him immediately right off the bat,
because he... we all know an Evan Hansen in our lives.
>> BOWEN: And for audiences who haven't seen the show
or haven't listened to the soundtrack yet,
what... what is his struggle?
What happens to him?
>> So Evan, um, deals with social anxiety in his life.
He feels like an outsider.
He is an outsider.
He's on the fringes of society
in his high school and in his life.
And he gets wrapped up
in this lie, basically, unintentionally,
with a family who has just, uh,
who's dealing with the loss of their son,
who committed suicide very early in the play.
He gets this family to believe
that he and this son were best friends
and it was kept a secret for his whole life.
And so things start coming up where he realizes
that he's being seen, he's getting attention,
he's getting, you know, to spend time
with the boy's sister,
who he's been in love with for years.
And so the real sort, sort of moral question
of the whole piece is, like, "What would you do
to get everything that you've ever wanted?"
>> BOWEN: When I saw it, in New York, again,
I saw how physical this performance is,
even to the physical posture,
and how, so it's physical, and it's also emotionally wrenching.
And I was so struck by the performance I saw.
And to think that you're sitting here in front of me,
and you're going to have to do this
every single night. >> Yeah.
>> BOWEN: What is that experience,
and how far do you take it?
>> Well, so, you know, in the beginning,
it was actually a really big learning curve for me.
It was, it was, you know, "How do you sustain a performance
"where you don't leave the stage for three hours every night,
"you're singing 11 songs a night,
"you are taking on a physicality
"that isn't necessarily the greatest
for your bone structure, you know, every night?"
So for me, you know, vocally,
that's been something that I've had to work on a lot
with, you know, my voice teacher back in New York.
We FaceTime twice a week.
We, we talk about the different ways
that I can place things so that they don't sort of
blow out your voice at the beginning of the week.
You know, I take a lot of baths.
I sort of try and do as little as possible, actually,
leading up to the show every day,
just so that I can put all of the energy and focus
into the performance.
>> ♪ I try to speak, but nobody can hear ♪
♪ So I wait around for an answer to appear ♪
♪ While I'm watch, watch, watching people pass ♪
♪ Waving through a window
♪ Can anybody see?
♪ Is anybody waving back at me? ♪
>> ♪ Oh
>> ♪ Is anybody waving?
♪ Waving, waving
(holding last note)
>> BOWEN: Going back to my experience
sitting in the Broadway theater, I also remember distinctly
how many people around me were crying.
>> BOWEN: Do you hear that onstage?
>> Sometimes; it depends on the size of the theater.
I really feel like audiences are actually taking pleasure
in being able to release into a piece of art like this.
You know, whatever their connection to the story may be,
whether it's, you know,
they're connecting with Heidi, the parent,
and they feel completely seen by her;
whether they are Evan Hansen, you know, in real life;
whatever that may be,
I feel like there's...
The reason this show is such a phenomenon
is because there's something for everyone.
>> BOWEN: Well, finally, you're... after Boston,
you're about to wrap up your, your time
as Evan Hansen. >> Yeah.
>> BOWEN: Given this training ground that you've just been in,
do you feel like you can go off to do anything?
>> I really do; it's funny, I talk
to, you know, my agent and, and other actors,
and they're always, like,
"Well, you just did the hardest job,
"like, your first one was the hardest one--
"going on tour as Evan Hansen,
"like, having to travel and do all of this.
"Now you can do anything.
Everything will be easy compared to this, so..."
>> BOWEN: Well, we look forward to seeing what happens next.
Ben Levi Ross, thank you so much for joining us.
>> Thanks for having me.
>> BOWEN: And finally now, we look back
at the Tony-winningIndecent,
which played the Huntington Theatre after its Broadway run.
It recounts the story of the Yiddish dramaGod of Vengeance.
First performed in the early 20th century,
it was considered a thing of beauty.
By the 1920s, its makers were on trial for obscenity.
The play's legacy was reconsidered
by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel.
>> We have a story we want to tell you
about a play.
A play that changed my life.
>> BOWEN:Indecent is Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel's
new play about an incendiary one.
Written more than a hundred years ago,
God of Vengeance is a Yiddish drama
by Polish playwright Sholem Asch.
It's about a brothel owner
eager to see his daughter move up in society
by marrying a rabbi's son.
>> The only hitch is, the daughter has fallen in love
with a prostitute downstairs.
So imagine this being written in 1906,
the first love presented between two women,
and certainly the first kiss.
>> BOWEN: InIndecent,
Vogel tracks the play from its inception
to its resurrection during World War II.
She's found a kindred spirit
in channeling the youthful, audacious playwright.
>> Once upon a time, I was a young playwright myself,
so I do think that there's a young playwright principle,
where you want to walk into the salon and light the bomb
and throw it into the salon, that...
"Here's my new play!" Boom!
>> BOWEN: Despite its lesbian subject matter,
whenGod of Vengeance first debuted,
it actually wasn't controversial.
>> The love between women was seen
as a kind of pure and beautiful love story
by the men in the Yiddish salon, in the Yiddish Renaissance.
It was seen as something that was beautiful.
It went on tour from 1907 all over Europe.
>> BOWEN: The scandal came
whenGod of Vengeance finally opened on Broadway in 1923.
An anti-immigration sentiment was taking hold in the U.S.
And seeing the play for the first time,
the mainstream, Christian audience was unnerved.
>> And what is happening is that there is a great deal of hatred,
the rise of the KKK,
and the Jew is seen as someone who is invading American soil.
So here... I mean, all of these issues, it's...
When people say, you know, "What isIndecent about?"
yes, it's about a play,
but it's really not about the censorship of the play,
it's really not just all of the multiple love stories.
It's, how do we describe or catch a moment in time
when we as a country-- all of our neighbors,
all of our friends, all of our family--
are in danger?
>> It was a real lightning rod
for tremendously, you know, important issues and questions
>> BOWEN: Rebecca Taichman isIndecent's director.
She discoveredGod of Vengeance as a graduate student at Yale,
which also houses Sholem Asch's papers.
>> He's asking about what...
In a deeply corrupt world,
is there the potential for true love
in a world that conspires so heavily
against the, like, basic principle of love?
>> BOWEN: Shortly after the play opened on Broadway,
it was actually a rabbi who filed a complaint,
concerned over how his community was being portrayed.
In short order, the cast, producer, and theater owner
were put on trial for obscenity.
What was the tone of that trial?
>> Nobody was allowed to get onto the stand.
So the deck was really, really stacked.
>> The writer of world literature,
I couldn't walk into that court.
>> BOWEN: Roughly ten years ago,
Taichman brought the story to Vogel,
who then spent the next seven years writingIndecent.
>> I got to imagine, "Well, what was it like
"when my grandparents came to this country?
"What was it like to walk down the Lower East Side?
"What was it like to speak Yiddish?
What was it like to know all of those songs?"
(cast singing traditional melody)
>> BOWEN: Music is both instrumental
to howIndecent unfolds and how Vogel writes.
She creates soundtracks to guide her through each act.
>> ♪ Of all the boys I've known, and I've known some ♪
>> At my computer, and the music is so, so very beautiful,
it made me weep every night.
>> ♪ My heart grew light
♪ And the old world seemed new to me ♪
>> I feel that music is the most pure art form.
I hope I don't get drummed out of the Dramatists Guild
for saying this.
But I feel that music is pure emotion.
>> BOWEN: When it opened on Broadway in 2017,
Indecent marked the legendary playwright's
long-overdue Broadway debut.
And Taichman won a Tony for her direction.
>> Musically, it feels like we bottom out for too long,
the side... the pause.
I don't know that I see it as a personal validation,
but a real, deep kind of honoring
of the power of this story.
>> BOWEN: The production here is a rare remounting
of the Broadway one,
with nearly the full cast intact.
AsIndecent continues to find life,
its creators say it also continues to find resonance.
>> I'm heartbroken, honestly, to say it feels
more and more relevant than I wished...
You know, I ever could have wished it would.
>> I am done being in a country that laughs at the way I speak!
>> I feel that this is a play
about us knowing, in this moment of time,
who are the immigrants in America?
Who is this happening to now?
What, what side are we on?
Are we paying attention?
>> BOWEN: We are off for the next couple of weeks,
but as always you can catch my latest art news and reviews
every Thursday onMorning Edition with Joe Mathieu,
and regularly with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan
onBoston Public Radio.
We'll be back with a special holiday show on December 18.
Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.
Thanks for joining us.
As always, you can visit us online at GBH.org/OpenStudio.
And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter
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