‘You Oughta Know’: How Lauren Patten Helped Save Alanis Morissette’s Song From Itself

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Diane Paulus, director of the new rock musical based on Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, always knew “You Oughta Know” would be an elephant in the room.

The fiery breakup anthem was the biggest hit from Alanis Morissette’s diamond-certified 1995 album. And it’s been embedded in our brains ever since, from the moment we heard acerbic turns of phrase like “Did you forget about me, Mr. Duplicity?/I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner.” Although it’s something of an anomaly on the album — tracks like “Ironic,” “One Hand in My Pocket,” and “Forgiven” are light and fun, not angry kiss-offs — it remains Morissette’s signature song.

The idea of a Jagged Little Pill musical seemed riddled with potential landmines when it was announced nearly seven years ago. At the helm was Paulus, who’d won a Tony Award for her 2013 revival of Pippin and worked with singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles on adapting Waitress into a successful production that also boasted the first all-female creative team for a Broadway musical. Arranging the songs was Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Kitt (Next to Normal), who’d shepherded Green Day’s American Idiot to the stage to huge acclaim. And Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody was there to create a clever story that wouldn’t just be a rote retelling of Morissette’s life.

But she sensed early on that finding the right treatment for “You Oughta Know” would be critical to the show’s success. “Ultimately, I wanted people to feel ‘You Oughta Know’ was as epic as their memory of it was,” Paulus says. “I wanted it to be micro and macro. I wanted it to open up and every person in the audience to say, ‘Yes, I understand; I recognize it; and I share it.’”

At the center of this maelstrom of expectations is Lauren Patten, the young woman playing heartbroken Jo, who sings the song with such strength that she manages to force audiences onto their feet into a cathartic frenzy of emotions night after night.

The 27-year-old is no stranger to baring her soul onstage. Her last major role was as Medium Alison in Fun Home, in which she belted out a song about love for a woman while dressed in nothing but her underwear. She’s been grappling with finding the right balance for “You Oughta Know” since the first table reads and is aware of all the cultural baggage that comes with it.

“From that one song, Alanis got sort of dismissed as an ‘angry woman’ and got distilled into that one thing that was just one facet of her,” Patten says when we meet at a coffee shop a few blocks from the theater on a chilly Saturday in December. “I do think the song became a cultural thing: oh, yeah, screaming at the ex. That’s what I love about how we do it in the show; we found this sweet spot. For me, what the song is actually about is that it’s the first time in Jo’s life that she really demands to be seen and heard. So I think we’re doing it justice, and people who have deep emotional attachments to the song get what we’re doing and get what they wanted from it — but also get more than they expected.”

Patten helped create the character of Jo, a queer high school student who’s experimenting with her gender expression and in love with Frankie, the transracial adopted daughter of the main character, Mary Jane.

When Patten auditioned for the role, Paulus was blown away.

“She opened her mouth, and my jaw dropped,” the director explains. “The power of her voice is shocking, and you don’t expect that sound to be coming from her. But what’s so incredible about Lauren is that she has a natural gift of a voice, but she’s also an incredible actress and is an example of a performer who really can work with a team to unlock something together.”

One thing that was paramount to Patten as she and Paulus developed the character was that Jo wasn’t just “the angry lesbian” who’s mad at being jilted. “I wanted to make sure that it’s clear that it hit a nerve in Jo around being seen as a valid person. That transcends the trope of it being a breakup song or a ‘you cheated on me, screw you’ song. It becomes a song about needing to say, ‘I’m here.’ I think that’s what people aren’t expecting to get from it, and that’s why the emotional response is so deep.”

Kitt, who had already dealt with plenty of opinionated Green Day fans when working on American Idiot, understands why fans — and detractors — might be skeptical about how the songs of Jagged Little Pill would play on Broadway. But he was particularly nervous about audiences coming to this musical with inflated expectations about “You Oughta Know.” As Kitt explains, his nagging question was: “How are we going to do it justice? How are we going to take something that already is a ball of fire and truth and emotion and try to not only equal it, but have it stake its own claim in the musical?”

Photo by Matthew Murphy

The idea that he and his collaborators settled on was to start smaller. Patten begins singing quietly, unplugged and acoustic. It’s a “kind of slow burn,” according to Kitt, with sparse chords leading into swelling strings. “Then discovering that first guitar rhythmic line in the first pre-chorus.” That’s when the lighting changes, and a breathtaking red roof of light settles over the stage as the room begins to vibrate. Kitt kept amping up the song’s presentation, adding in drums and guitars in a whirlwind of sound. They bring the ensemble in, and the full band is swiftly moved onstage so that it becomes a full-blown rock show. By the end, Jo sings a parallel melody, allowing Patten to go one step higher than the rest. That’s when she really wails. And the crowd goes wild.

“The reason I do theater is because there’s an audience,” Paulus explains. “Theater should be closer to rock concerts than the naturalistic type that we mostly know. We wanted to take advantage of that visceral rock & roll effect. That’s why we go to rock concerts: You’re in the presence of the shaman and the artist, and you want to feel like you’re in communion with it. And now people [in the audience] are standing and being seen.”

Patten echoes that sentiment and explains that she also takes pride in the fact that the cast and crew are working on something that she feels is directly addressing issues — everything from opioid addiction and rape to sexual identity, depression, and anxiety disorders — in a way that she believes in.

She recalls a pivotal moment during the out-of-town try out at A.R.T in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when Senator Elizabeth Warren came to see the show in 2018. “[She told us] all we have is our voices, so we have to talk about it, and that’s what we’re doing.… It feels like a blessing.”

It’s a couple of hours before she’ll be onstage belting her guts out, but Patten seems calm and centered, far from the teen angst she’ll soon channel — much like Morissette these days, who has transformed into an inspirational mother-goddess figure to many.

“Not to get too spiritual on you,” Patten says of her Jagged Little Pill experience as a whole, “but I do believe that we’re given gifts for a reason, and this is what I’m able to do. And it impacts people. It makes a lot of people feel heard when a lot of people don’t feel heard right now.”

Originally published at https://www.rollingstone.com on January 24, 2020.



Former Digital Editorial Director of Rolling Stone, Exec Editor of Out magazine and EIC of New York Press

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Jerry Portwood

Former Digital Editorial Director of Rolling Stone, Exec Editor of Out magazine and EIC of New York Press