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Maggie McKenna and Tim Draxl for Jagged Little Pill
Photograph: Supplied/Stuart Miller

The Aussie cast of ‘Jagged Little Pill’ on Alanis Morissette’s “epic beast” of a musical

Maggie McKenna and Tim Draxl cannot wait to return to the stage

Stephen A Russell
Written by
Stephen A Russell

When Alanis Morissette unleashed her third studio album Jagged Little Pill in 1995 with a guttural wail of righteous fury, it seemed like the entire world stopped to listen. Tracks like the barnstorming ‘You Oughta Know’ arrived like a gift, custom made for anyone who had ever been betrayed and was ready to take back the power. It catapulted an artist relatively unknown outside of Canada into a global record-smashing position, becoming an instant household name.

So huge was the album’s influence that even a 15-year-old, almost exclusively jazz-loving Tim Draxl took notice. “Until then, I’d been listening to Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand,” he recalls.

Jagged Little Pill was his first pop album purchase. “I had this antique glass case that I used to store all my CDs and this was the first album I got that was kind of cool, so I used to display it on top.”

It’s not your average musical theatre... it’s quite heavy and serious, though there are moments of light and colour and humour

He’d play it on repeat in the car so many times while driving the five hours from his hometown of Jindabyne to Sydney. But little did the future cabaret performer and star of shows like A Place to Call Home, who also appeared in the 2021 hit ABC series The Newsreader, and realise that he’d one day lead a jukebox musical inspired by the tracks. Created by Morissette working with Juno writer Diablo Cody, rather than dramatise the singer’s life, it channels the spirit of her lyrics to tell the story of an everyday American family, the Healys, who are falling apart at the seams. Draxl stars opposite Natalie Bassingthwaighte as troubled married couple Mary Jane and Steve Healy. “It’s not your average musical theatre,” he says. “It’s quite heavy and serious, though there are moments of light and colour and humour. There’s a great journey for this family to live better and more truthful lives together.”

Bassingthwaighte handles many of the rockier tracks, while Draxl gets to sing ballads ‘So Unsexy’ and ‘Mary Jane’. “It’s getting me out of my comfort zone, though those two songs lend themselves a little bit more to my vocal range and style,” he says. “The thing that blows my mind about this show is how ingeniously the songs are turned into the story of this family. It really does feel as though they’ve been written specifically for this show itself, rather than it being an adaptation from the original album and squeezed it into a jukebox musical.”

Playing dad to younger cast members – Emily Nkomo in her mainstage debut as Frankie Healy and Liam Head as her brother Liam – was also an eye-opener for Draxl. “Nat and I are very much the senior cast members, and it’s strange,” he laughs. “I’ve only just turned 40, so to get my head around having an 18-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter took a bit of time to get used to. It’s been somewhat of a jagged little pill to swallow. But they’re both such beautiful human beings, it’s been a really joyful experience.”

The Australian cast of Jagged Little Pill the MusicalPhotograph: Supplied/Stuart Miller

Recentering the story 

Joy has been the overriding experience of fellow cast member Maggie McKenna on stepping into the role of Jo, Frankie’s best friend. The Muriel’s Wedding and Fun Home star wasn’t born when the Jagged Little Pill album first blew up the charts, but says it’s been a major presence in their life regardless. Friends would pop it on in the car and they’d sing along. But the game-changer came when they were in New York while playing Zoe Murphy in the US tour cast of Dear Evan Hansen.

McKenna bought a ticket to see the first preview of Jagged Little Pill on Broadway. “I hadn’t read anything about it, but I just loved Alanis’ music,” they say. “I was blown away, because I expected it to be about her life, but it was telling a really cool story that I hadn’t seen done in a musical, with some really interesting parts for young people.”

I was just incredibly excited seeing a badass queer person take over the stage

Jo leapt out. The character was initially portrayed as non-binary. McKenna also identifies as non-binary, and uses they/them pronouns. “Jo was really the main focus of the show for me,” they recall. “I was just incredibly excited seeing a badass queer person take over the stage, represented in a very cool way that you don’t see a lot in commercial theatre.”

There has been some controversy around the character's original gender identity being written out of the Broadway run, and the treatment of trans and non-binary US cast members. For McKenna’s part, they fully intend to honour that aspect of Jo on Australian stages. “There has definitely been talk of Jo as an open-ended character in a lot of ways, so that lots of different people can play it. I’m non-binary, so my Jo is going to be very gender fluid. I feel like I can connect that to a lot of the story.”

McKenna tells us that they are not alone in being a non-binary person on this cast, there are several non-binary actors in the Australian ensemble. “Even if we’re not all playing non-binary roles, that is still representation and young people are going to come see the show and see themselves, and see a place for themselves in this industry and the world,” McKenna says. “Representation saves lives. It’s really powerful.”

Jo gets a show-stopping moment, McKenna says. “Jo’s defence mechanism is humour, so they often hide a lot of pain through that. They’re openly queer and in love with their best friend, which causes some issues later on. Which means that I get to sing one of the best songs in the show, ‘You Oughta Know’, which is a pretty fucking cool moment.”

McKenna says working closely with Nkomo has been a dream. “This is her first production and she’s such a boss. Like, she’s more professional than I am. We’ve found a really nice friendship outside of the stage, which means we’re really comfortable with each other. We get to sing ‘Hand in My Pocket’ together early in the show, and it’s such a joyous moment. She’s just the perfect person to do this epic beast with.”

Jagged Little Pill opens at Theatre Royal Sydney December 2-19 before transferring to the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne from January 2. Get your tickets for Sydney here and Melbourne here.

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