The nonbinary actor.plays a nonbinary character in the tour of the Alanis Morissette jukebox musical
By Sharon Eberson
When Jagged Little Pill was in its early days, the role Jade McLeod had been waiting for seemed to finally be headed for a Broadway stage.
The wait took quite a bit longer than expected.
After blaring headlines about mistakes made and apologies from the show’s producers, the tour has re-established the character of teenager Jo as nonbinary. That aspect of Jo had been dropped as the Alanis Morissette jukebox musical made its way to Broadway.
McLeod – whose program bio includes “love to … every nonbinary human that’s ever existed” – is over the moon to have won the role of Jo in the national tour that touches down in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
The Canadian actor who describes themselves as “oddball” in their tastes was given some freedom in reimagining the role that had been played by Tony-winner Lauren Patten.
“To have the team be open to my interpretation of it was such a gift,” they recall, noting a rehearsal where they were wearing a backwards baseball cap, a sort of place-holder for the wool hat that Patten wore in the role. Then McLeod tried on hats similar to the originals for director Diane Paulus.
“And we tried and we tried, and she goes, ‘Can you put your hat back on? I was like, ‘Absolutely!’ And I put this backwards baseball cap back on, and she said, ‘That, I want that. That’s your joke.’ And it’s such a small difference, but to this day, it is my personal hat that I wear.”
McLeod was speaking by phone from Providence, R.I., the stop before Pittsburgh. They said the tour had not yet run into any of the wild weather that has been plaguing much of the country. The sturm and drang has been reserved for the stage, where members of the Healy family are in crisis mode. If you know the songs on the massive best-selling Jagged Little Pill album of 1995, you can imagine some of their struggles.
Teen Jo is the “best friend with benefits” of Frankie Healy, an artsy rebel and the adopted African-American daughter of MJ (Heidi Blickenstaff), who is addicted to painkillers, and workaholic Steve (Chris Hoch, a Carnegie Mellon alum) … Everyone has their issues in Jagged Little Pill.
McLeod as Jo gets to sing You Oughta Know, which often gets any stragglers in the audience to wake up and take notice. Morissette’s first single off the album was the Grammy winner for Best Rock Song and Best Female Rock Vocal Performance.
Click here for an interview with CMU alum Chris Hoch,
who plays Steve in ‘Jagged Little Pill.‘
Anyone who had heard Patten’s Tony Awards acceptance speech, as featured actress in a musical, would know the stakes as the character evolved. “We are in the middle of a reckoning in our industry,” the cisgender actress said. “And first and foremost I want to thank my trans and nonbinary friends and colleagues who have engaged with me in difficult conversations that have joined me in dialogue about my character Jo.”
The role isn’t turned on its head by being nonbinary, with a nonbinary actor playing Jo. There are a few line changes here and there, and in many ways, the transition of what actor to another, from Broadway to tour, is just as it always has been.
Except, in this case, there also is the general feeling of righting a wrong.
“So often, when things move from Broadway to tour, they want to re-create what works so well on Broadway. And it did work really well. Lauren Patten is such a genius,” McLeod says. “But because of this specific situation, I got to take everything that she’d done that was so brilliant and then put my own kind of spin on it in a way that most people don’t get to do on a tour. And it was glorious – maybe the most liberating and exciting opportunity I’ve had in my career to date.”
Auditions for Jo brough McLeod from a theater job in Calgary to New York, and thrust them into the sensation of a room filled with nonbinary actors, all with the knowledge of what the role could mean for the LGBTQ+ community.
“I felt like I could just bring my whole self to the table,” McLeod said of the audition process. “It’s funny because, you know, we talk a lot about types in this industry and when you go into a room, most of the time, you’re with a bunch of other people that look a lot like you. … In this room, people were very different.”
Instead of seeing a lot of clones of Patten’s Jo, “I was like, well, in this room, in this group of kind of, for lack of a better word, oddballs, I am the oddball, which is hilarious. And I guess what I thought was, how things were gonna go really well for me, or it’s not gonna go well at all. … It went well,” they concluded.
Both McLeod and Jo are examples of “what’s different about you makes you special.” It’s what makes the character universal.
“There are people who think they are on the outside and they just want to be seen, to be understood, and they see themselves in Jo,” McLeod says, noting that Jagged Little Pill is an ultimately hopeful story.
There also are the people who line up after the show to express their appreciation McLeod says many patrons have reached out to say Jo “helped them embrace their identity in a queer way, but also just people that have felt, felt like the odd person out all the time.”
Some people have said this is their first encounter with a nonbinary person or character, “and then all of a sudden they’re laughing with me, they’re crying with me, they’re rooting for me, and they leave that theater a little bit changed.”
McLeod speaks with ease about difficult times, when they conformed to what they thought was expected of the other theater girls in school, dressing a certain way; navigating the world in high heels.
A revelation came, appropriately, during a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“I dyed my hair red for the first time and I said, ‘Oh, this is this different. This feels different. This feels right. ‘And I know it’s so silly, it’s a hair color, but it was the beginning of something. Before, I was supposed to be this blonde soprano. So now I’m like, ‘Oh, this is just not the best about me. The most interesting thing about me is this kind of edgy perspective, of rock subculture and all of these things.”
McLeod became part of what they describe as the metal and punk scenes and began asking the question, “Now how do I translate this and this whole gender journey I’m going on into my career?”
A nonbinary actor filling a nonbinary musical theater role in cities around the country remains a rarity, and that is not lost on McLeod. Their personal transition and winning over others did not happen overnight.
In other words, “Oh God no,” McLeod says, when asked if acceptance came quickly.
There have been many nonbelievers along the way who insisted McLeod would have to conform to certain norms if they wanted to have a career in theater.
“It took many years of getting cast in like, quote unquote, the girly roles,” McLeod says. “To eventually have a show like Jagged say, bring exactly who you are. And I was like, that is me – I am Joe. Please just see me for this. And they did, and now we’re here.”
PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh presents “Jagged Little Pill” is at the Benedum Center, January 24-29. Tickets and details https://trustarts.org/production/81541/jagged-little-pill
Categories: Arts and Ideas