Photo: Jenny Anderson
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Lauren Patten On The Timelessness Of "Jagged Little Pill" And Owning Her Identity On The Broadway Stage
Actress and singer Lauren Patten is responsible for one of the most vulnerable performances in recent Broadway history.
She delivered a riveting performance as Jo in "Jagged Little Pill," the Broadway smash inspired by Alanis Morissette's 1995 GRAMMY-winning album of the same name. On top of earning her critical praise and her first Tony nomination, the role landed Patten her first-ever GRAMMY nomination, for Best Musical Theater Album at the upcoming 2021 GRAMMYs Awards show. Her howling rendition of "You Oughta Know," which she unleashes after she's wronged by her partner and best friend, frequently earned her standing ovations. A star was born.
But she isn't just any star. Seeing her grapple with anguish and the process of self-discovery in "Jagged Little Pill" is like seeing an artist grow into themselves, exposing their darkest parts for audiences to witness. As Jo, a teen exploring her gender presentation while in the throes of first love, Patten exercises her voice like a mighty instrument, allowing audiences to witness a performance of unmatched force and nuance whether they've experienced the musical in person or only listened to the cast recording. By the end of "You Oughta Know," Patten is so submerged in Jo's turmoil, it's clear she's emotionally drained. Still, the excitement of witnessing the birth of something greater lingers long after her tears, and those from the audience, have dried.
GRAMMY.com spoke with Lauren Patten about the responsibility she feels as a bisexual queer woman in playing a character like Jo, working on such a resonant musical despite the ongoing, Broadway-shuttering pandemic, and using Alanis Morissette's music to start authentic conversations about identity, sexuality, race and beyond.
(Oh, and did we mention she started a band with some of the musicians from "Jagged Little Pill," too? Because, obviously, that was something we had to discuss.)
What kind of music are you listening to in quarantine? Have you rediscovered anything?
I recently rediscovered Damien Rice. I hadn't listened to any of his albums for years, and then his music appeared on my Spotify. It also happened recently with Glen Hansard. I went through a pretty big Glen Hansard phase and saw him in concert at the Beacon Theatre [in New York], which was amazing for his Didn't He Ramble album; and I hadn't listened to him for a few years and was like, "Wait, he's released new music?" That has been a little bit of a musical joy recently, going back to artists that I know and love and getting comfort from their work.
You performed in "Jagged Live In NYC: A Broadway Reunion Concert." Tell me about encountering "You Oughta Know" and "Hand in My Pocket" after nine months.
It was overwhelming but interesting, too, because we were doing this massive undertaking, creating a concert version of the show and revisiting the story we hadn't told for nine months. We did the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the "Best of Broadway" special. I also performed "Hand in My Pocket" on Zoom, but we hadn't been on a stage telling this story until rehearsals. Of course, we had to limit our time together because of COVID risks, so we didn't have a long rehearsal process.
I initially didn't register how I was feeling because it was like firing on all cylinders so we could do this concert in a way that felt true to the caliber of our show. It didn't hit me until we were doing it. I was like, "Wow, I'm backstage watching my castmates perform. I'm backstage waiting for my cue." We didn't have an audience or a full cast, which felt strange. But I knew many people were on this journey with us. Once it was happening, it was emotionally overwhelming.
You've created a tight-knit group of musicians around you. Damien Bassman, Eric Davis and Marc Schmied have been vital. How has it felt to create that bond and how does that collaboration look like in practice?
Damien and Eric are in our band for "Jagged Little Pill." Damien played our first reading in 2017 and afterward came up to me and said he wanted to start a band with me; I'd never been in a band before. We continued developing "Jagged," and after the out-of-town tryout in Cambridge [in 2018], I asked if he was still interested. At that point, Eric had always been the guitarist for "Jagged," so I knew Eric well, Damian knew Eric well, and they'd been in the original pit for "Next to Normal"; and then Damien brought Marc in.
It started as an outlet, to just be in that joy together and play songs that we liked, whether it was going to lead to a concert or not. It's extremely collaborative, and we know each other so well and know what our strengths are, so we all bring songs to rehearsals and choose the best ones. We primarily work on Broadway, but we have a deep love for many music genres, mainly rock, from childhood, so our sets end up being very diverse and eclectic.
I'm the song interpreter as far as lyrics go and whatever I'm doing vocally, but full credit for the musical arrangements goes to Damien, Eric and Marc. Taking an Amy Winehouse song for this acoustic set and making it into a kind of Spanish-influenced guitar and drum vibe, that's them. I learn from them every time we rehearse because of the different musical worlds I've ever been in, and their knowledge of musical styles is so vast. It's very exciting for me, as a vocalist, to watch them work, where they think it would be interesting to take a song arrangement, and then I can come in with how I can fit into that with my interpretation of the vocals and the lyrics.
I'm such a fan of "I Miss The Mountains." Why did you gravitate toward that song to cover?
That's the only time we've ever done a musical theater song in our sets! [Laughs.] We thought it would be nice to do something that shows our love for and our connection to Tom [Kitt] [musical supervisor, orchestrator and arranger of "Jagged Little Pill" and composer and co-orchestrator of "Next to Normal"] and do something of that genre in our way.
What was it like to adjust your Rockwood Music Hall sets to a virtual setting? What does the future of live music look like for you?
It has definitely been a highlight of my year, being able to be back with my band and play and share live music, because it's an enormous joy in my life and a relatively new one. We use my name, but it's an artistic endeavor among all four of us.
I long for the day [when] we can play Rockwood to a sold-out house, because the energy is irreplaceable. But there's something beautiful about piping live music straight into somebody's house. The number of people who purchased tickets doubled the number of people Stage 2 holds for a concert. People under 21 who usually can't come to Rockwood could watch it, and so could people from all over the world who can't come to New York!
You have great artists and technicians deciding on the sound mix and the camera angles at the moment with you to ensure the stream feels intimate and personal, so it becomes this other artistic endeavor. I don't think that it will replace live music; nothing will. This is teaching us about the possibilities of hybrids and having some concerts that are meant to be live and having some concerts that are tailored to be livestreamed and because there are benefits, mainly the accessibility of it.
Lyrics can be somewhat self-explanatory, but they also mean something different to everyone. What do the lyrics to "You Oughta Know" mean to you?
People have a perception of what that song is, and because of it, they've made a perception of what the entire album of Jagged Little Pill is, which is wildly off-base. There's obviously lots of rage, betrayal, and imagining revenge as a catharsis. But there's something when you interpret the song as a musical theater artist who is telling a character's story through song that you just listen to a song differently. How I would sing "You Oughta Know" with my band is very different from how I've ever sung it.
What strikes me lyrically is that there's something very specific in how these lyrics have been queered for the show, and that adds layers of meaning that weren't in the original song. What does it mean to say, rather than "Would she have your baby?" to say, "And you can have his baby?" It's a very different lyric, and it's very loaded. That also meant losing iconic lyrics like, "I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner."
One of the beautiful things about Alanis is that she's so generous with her work, which is no small feat when you have a song as known as "You Oughta Know." When you look at a song as a musical theater artist, you hear things differently. You look at the first lyric of the chorus and, musically, it's different from how you look at it on a page. When you look at it on a page, it's a sentence. "I'm here to remind you." It's really the full sentence, "I'm here to remind you of the mess you left when you went away." When you sing it, there are no vocals between "I'm here" and "to remind you."
Something about that hit me very deeply! This entire song from this person saying, "I'm here," is very different [from], "It's not fair/To deny me/Of the cross I bear..." This chorus starts with this person screaming, "I'm here," so it's a very different song to me than, "You cheated on me; f* you; you have to look at how you hurt me." "You have to look at me because I'm here, and I need to be seen." It became a song for a character who tries to deflect everything she feels with humor to say what she needs to say for the first time. It became a song that circumstantially came out of a queer person who was betrayed romantically, but that's not what the song is about to me anymore.
As a queer artist, did you feel the pressure of representing this group of humans?
The conversation about representation is so important, and I'm so glad that it's happening. It's also really complicated, because one person cannot represent the entire LGBTQ+ community since it's so diverse and varied in experiences. Still, I'm so happy to be able to represent even one specific person's experience.
You've poured a lot of yourself into Jo, and you've done the same with your music. Has playing Jo played a part in your personal growth at this stage in your life?
I don't think that, as an actor, you can spend the kind of time, energy and soul that you put into developing a character for years and not grow. At the beginning of developing this character, I'd recently come out. Telling this story of this person who doesn't know what that means for her yet and is actively trying to figure it out while I was, too, was a very parallel experience.
It's funny to be years into the show's development, and I'm in a different place than Jo and I've grown up with this baby Jo in my body. [Laughs.] There's a level of freedom to what I've gotten to do on stage as Jo that I haven't had anywhere, and that has changed me as an artist and a person. What I do on stage as Jo was in me; how I connect to Alanis' music was in me. I didn't know that before. As you mentioned, you can see it when I perform with my band, and I don't know if I would've found that if I hadn't had "Jagged."