‘You Oughta Know’: The Road to Making a ’90s Anthem a Broadway Hit

Alanis Morissette wrote “ You Oughta Know,” the first single from “Jagged Little Pill,” her breakthrough 1995 album, “because I needed to...

Alanis Morissette wrote “You Oughta Know,” the first single from “Jagged Little Pill,” her breakthrough 1995 album, “because I needed to get it out of my body,” she said.

In the song, a woman, in a voice that a New York Times critic likened to that of an “avenging banshee,” lays into a former lover. Sample lyrics: “And every time I scratch my nails/ Down someone else’s back I hope you feel it/ Well, can you feel it?”

The song came from a place of rage, Ms. Morissette, 45, said with heroic coherence in a telephone interview a few days after the birth of her third child with her husband, the rapper Mario Treadway.

“Super rage, rage from playing nice, rage from pretending to be ‘Stepford’-y,” she said, referring to “The Stepford Wives,” the novel about husbands who replace their spouses with compliant robots. “Rage from trying to create harmony in a room, when really there’s a part of me that just wanted to lose it and get really upset.”

Twenty-five years later, that rage feels very of the moment. “You Oughta Know,” a longtime karaoke staple and the stimulus for a flawless scene in this summer’s indie film “Booksmart,” is coming to Broadway. In “Jagged Little Pill,” the rock musical inspired by the album, which begins previews on Nov. 3, this anthem looks likely to bring down the Broadhurst Theater.

Directed by Diane Paulus (“Waitress”), with a book by Diablo Cody (“Juno”), the show centers on the Healy family, an upper-middle-class clan with a shiny surface and gaping wounds — addiction, sexual assault, racism, misogyny — just underneath it. Last year, when it played at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., Jesse Green, The Times’s co-chief theater critic, wrote that the show “takes on the good work we are always asking new musicals to do: the work of singing about real things.”

Late in the second act, Jo (Lauren Patten), a young woman who has suffered a romantic betrayal, stands at the lip of the stage, her small body engulfed by a hoodie and clenched in fury. Through the first verse, she is barely moving, barely singing, almost inaudible. Then she explodes.

Jo, the sardonic friend and sometime girlfriend of the Healys’ daughter, isn’t a major character. She’s mostly a source of comic relief. But in Ms. Patten’s hands, “You Oughta Know,” a song Ms. Morisette described as 100 percent autobiographical, becomes the music of Jo’s anguish.

In the earlier production, Ms. Patten’s take on the song, backed by an ensemble performing Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography, catapulted audience members to their feet and sent light board operators scrambling to hold cues until the show could continue.

To understand how a hit single became an 11 o’clock showstopper, I spoke to Ms. Morissette; her producer and co-writer, Glen Ballard; Ms. Patten; and the musical’s other creators. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Glen Ballard, songwriter It was written in one day in November of 1994, sitting in my studio, just the two of us. The music and the lyrics happened exactly at the same time. Her words were flowing out of her. It was just this magic, unpremeditated thing.

Alanis Morissette, songwriter It was probably written in about 20 to 30 minutes, really, really quickly. I hate to use birth references, but this one was just fast and painful, a horrifying labor and then this beautiful little jewel of rage. Underneath the rage is devastation.

Ballard Even though the song has anger informing it, she wasn’t angry when we wrote it. She was 19 and laughing like crazy the whole time.

Morissette I remember at one point, I turned to Glen and I said, “We’re probably going to have to change some lyrics, because there’s a lot of potentially offensive moments in here.” And he said: “Why would you change anything? Is this your experience?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “So why change it?” God bless him for that.

Morissette When the [“Jagged Little Pill” musical] producers came to me, years ago, I was piqued and flattered and charmed. I didn’t want a bio-musical, but I also didn’t want a story that seemed disconnected from the music. So it took us about seven years. And I was fully prepared to have it not exist.

Diablo Cody, book writer I was a teenage girl in the ’90s. Alanis loomed large in my life. I blasted those songs in my Ford Escort, sang them with all my friends. My No. 1 objective going into this was for her to love it and give her blessing. I wanted that so badly.

Diane Paulus, director “You Oughta Know” is such a seminal song. We all agreed, you can’t give that away too soon, because everybody’s waiting for that song. It’s got to come in a way that you don’t expect.

Cody I didn’t initially know who was going to sing it, because there are several characters that wind up feeling betrayed. But I had really latched on to Jo, who defuses everything with humor. For that character, who’s been shrugging things off, to suddenly explode, it’s powerful.

Lauren Patten, performer It was a pretty last-minute audition. I came in with “So What” by Pink and sang that, and then they were like, “Do you know ‘You Oughta Know’?” And I was like, “Yes?”

Paulus There was something about the way she wrapped herself around that song, singing it like she was jumping off a cliff and making it her own.

Patten I remember Bryan Perri, our musical director asking me, “Does that hurt your voice?” Because I sing with a pretty heavy rock grit. And I was like, “No, this is just how I sing.”

Cody “You Oughta Know” paints a very specific picture of a confrontation. There were some details that didn’t match up with our story. We had to change a couplet, gracefully, without the audience going, “Those aren’t the words!”

Tom Kitt, music supervisor I wanted to deconstruct it, to keep the listener not quite getting what they’re familiar with. I wanted to find the progression of the emotion.

Paulus The way Tom Kitt orchestrated it, it doesn’t hit its groove right away. The release of energy is contained.

Patten Alanis basically starts at a 10 with the whole song. And that’s extremely exciting and really cool. But that, to me, would feel intimidating if I had to blow up at the top of the song.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, choreographer It starts from a place of real introspection, so that there’s nothing to distract you from what she’s actually trying to describe.

Paulus It just starts to reverberate and churn and get bigger and bigger and include us all, psychologically, emotionally.

Kitt We added the ensemble, a vocal arrangement from the bridge. They become a part of Jo.

Cherkaoui It was all very individual. Each person in the ensemble had to find their own anger or disappointment.

Cody The first time I saw it staged, I remember thinking, ‘She’s just going to stand there?” And then when it builds, it’s an inferno.

Ballard What they found in the heart of the song is the first half is about betrayal, but then, catharsis, liberation.

Patten The first preview [in Cambridge], that was the first time I got genuinely really nervous. There were literally hundreds of Alanis fans who flew in from around the world. It was insane. And so I was like, “These people have been listening to Alanis’s version of this song for decades, and I am about to sing it to them in a very different way.

Paulus That audience went crazy. They stood up in the middle of the show. I remember thinking, “Oh my God, what is happening here?” The next day, we went back into tech rehearsal, and I actually deliberately changed the lighting cues to try to kill this moment a bit. It didn’t matter. It just happened. It just happened every show.

Cody It was like an exorcism, every night. When that song was about to start, I would hear the employees from the theater come out of the back office to see it. Because it was unmissable.

Ballard I had chills. And I was crying the whole time. Really, I could barely get through my tears of joy.

Patten Jo really experiences this moment as the dismissal of her person — a queer person who doesn’t exactly know how she identifies. An unreal amount of people relate to Jo. Because everybody knows what it feels like to feel unheard, to feel unseen, to feel disregarded as a person. It becomes an extremely cathartic moment for everyone in the audience to experience somebody really, really demanding to be heard.

Morissette This is what it looks like when you give a roomful of people permission to be with you. There’s a jubilance from the emancipation from having to sublimate and “Stepford” it up. When I saw it in Cambridge, I was like, [expletive], yeah.

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Newsrust: ‘You Oughta Know’: The Road to Making a ’90s Anthem a Broadway Hit
‘You Oughta Know’: The Road to Making a ’90s Anthem a Broadway Hit
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