Jonathan Deans Talks Jagged Little Pill, Part One

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(Matthew Murphy)

Those of us of a certain age can credit Alanis Morissette’s 1995 seminal album Jagged Little Pill for legitimizing our collective insecurity, heartbreak, and rage. Songs like “You Oughta Know” and “Hand in Pocket” were intensely personal, yet somehow, we could all relate, and they became anthems for a disaffected generation.

Nearly a quarter-century later, those songs take on new context in the #MeToo era in the form of Jagged Little Pill the musical, which opened at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre on Dec 5. Directed by Diane Paulus (Hair, Waitress, Pippin) with orchestration by Pulitzer-winning composer Tom Kitt, the show is based on an original story by Oscar winner Diablo Cody (Juno, Tully, United States of Tara) that explores contemporary issues surrounding race, gender identity, addiction, sexual assault, and gun violence.

I sat down with Tony-nominated sound designer Jonathan Deans to dig into the inspiration behind his immersive soundscapes that help reimagine the songs of Jagged Little Pill for a new generation; check out Part One of our interview below (and Part Two here!).

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Sarah Jones: What kind of collaborative relationship do you have with the director, Diane Paulus?

Jonathan Deans: I've worked with Diane Paulus on her recent musicals over the last five or six years, since Pippin. She and I get on extremely well, and I just have huge respect for her and her work. She involves all departments in her collaboration; she highly respects her designers and listens to everyone's points of views.

Many times you have an idea of a sound design, and you either don't get the time or you don't get the support. Sound design is not something different from the production itself; it actually helps tell a story in a sonic way, and she supports that.

SJ: Do you find directors like her emphasizing sound design more in jukebox musicals?

JD: I don't really see Jagged Little Pill as being a jukebox musical. It's funny because a jukebox musical is something where there is a song, or even worse, a partial song, and that song has been fit into a story, but it often comes out of nowhere, and it doesn't support the book.

Jagged Little Pill was the Number One album in 1995, in 13 countries. A lot of people know the music. But the way that Diablo Cody has written the book, if you were to write new music for her story, you couldn't do any better than the songs of Jagged Little Pill. It's so now; it looks at so many subjects, from opioid addiction to diversity to sexual assault.

SJ: The story centers on a family with some deep issues at its core.

JD: The family that on the outside is just the perfect family. It's what goes on inside that family, the family's problems. The son, for example, is under the incredible strain of trying to be the perfect son who gets accepted into Harvard. Having a son who is 17 applying for colleges right now and having a daughter who's at university, it's really pretty profound to watch a show like this.

It might sound a little soppy but I get so caught up in those stories and the songs—but not the songs in the context of being Alanis Morissette songs; it's songs that the characters are singing, of the character's journey.

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SJ: What kind of aesthetic are you striving for with this sound design?

JD: If you've ever had a chance to stand on a stage or among a group of people singing—the word now is “immersive,” this really means that you're surrounded or in it—you're part of the vibration that is going on between individuals and the energy that they are putting out vocally. I want to be able to give that intensity, that pulse, the excitement of these actors performing and creating a live sound together to the audience, as if they were onstage with them.

My approach is a very full, immersive sound for the singing, and when the times are correct, the orchestra as well. I'm saying that because you can't just make something immersive for no reason. It has to be part of the storyline, part of the idea or language, so it doesn't just become a toy.

It works because it's what you see and it's how you’d like to hear it. Or, in this case, how I would like to hear it—as if I'm standing on stage among our ensemble singing. To be able to translate that to the entire audience so they're encapsulated, it's like a warm blanket around the audience. You've got everything except the hot chocolate, the marshmallows, to make you feel wrapped and cozy.

Hopefully, all of what I'm describing is something that the audience aren’t too aware of, but they are aware that they are having a different experience. When you are enveloping people in an immersive, surround soundscape, sounds actually have to belong to the images and to the storyline for the audience to buy into it, and for you to be able to then take them on that journey. When it doesn't fit, it becomes very wrong and very obvious.

It's a bit like a fly that buzzes around while you're having a picnic. Everything's fine; it belongs, because you're outside. If you're in a restaurant and there's a fly going around your table, it doesn't belong and it's a problem.

Immersive is not something I'm doing just because I can—and I've designed immersive sound for years, notably for the Cirque du Soleil productions that I've done. It's something that I just think is perfect for the storytelling. It's an introduction to say, "Hey, this is what it sounds like when you're standing on stage in the middle of an ensemble; this is how it feels." We're now going to make that happen for you in this Broadway theater.

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SJ: You're working with these iconic pop songs that are of an era; are you aiming to evoke that aesthetic?

JD: Being around when the album was released, like all the people who bought the album and admired the album, it was something that you listened to over and over again, and it took you on your own personal journey. I'm not trying to evoke that memory; the songs do that by themselves.

Those people who know the album get totally rewarded for knowing the album. Those people who don't know the album should be, and are, rewarded for having heard these songs being done in a musical in a slightly different way, and with different arrangements.

The intention is a little different here because we're in a musical theater, and there is a different take. Yes, it is a number of years later. Several decades later, where things are different but the core root of the composed song should evoke a memory or create a new one.  

It's like when I did Cirque’s Beatles Love show. Not a single additional sound was used except for what The Beatles had recorded. That way I had to at least meet expectations of The Beatles' fans. You then have that pressure. On Jagged Little Pill, it is all live, re-thought, as every one of the musicians and actors are creating the sound, that is a different pressure to produce this kind of sonic experience.

I'm really not trying to recreate Alanis. I don't have that pressure; I don't have her singing on stage. My pressure is to evoke emotional sonic interactions between what the audience is seeing and hearing on stage and being able to put that in our orchestra and mezzanine seating areas across two floors. Being able to make sure that all those areas are fully connected and have a great experience.

I'm not trying to make all the different areas in the theater sound the same because when you look at a theater, when you look at a stage, if you're sitting fourth-row center, you're going to have a different experience than sitting at the back on the side. The visual experience is different. If you're fourth-row center or fourth row extreme side, it's a different experience than it would it be if you're in the mezzanine.

Sonically, I'm one of those people who say, "Yes, it should sound good in all the areas. But it shouldn't necessarily sound the same, because visually it's not the same." It has to belong.

I'm not saying you're hearing different sounds; it's just how you as a human being resonate with the production via what you see and what you hear. As we know, most people don't really take too much notice of what they hear, because it just happens. How many prescriptions are there for different forms of eyeglasses? Millions. Hearing is, can you hear or can't you hear?

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SJ: Just turn it up or turn it down.

JD: Yeah. There's something terribly wrong with how we have come to use our hearing. It's not thought of in the same way as visual sense. Most people don't pay attention to what is around them. If they did start paying attention, I think the world would be a much quieter place. A much more interesting space.

SJ: Right. That's a whole other conversation.

JD: For me, it affects the intention of what I'm doing, knowing that. Sometimes I call it the “sonic baseball bat” theory: Every now and then you've got to hit an audience with a sound to let them know something is happening in a spatial sense. They're paying no attention to anything that's around them; they're looking at the stage and everything needs to come from that place. Not sure that theaters would sell crinkling packets of candy if the audience really focused and listened. I've learned this a lot from putting speakers in seats, researching how to make that work. How to make an audience listen to what's around them as opposed to just listening to what's in front of them. I'm going to come back to that fly story again now.

Read Part Two, to learn about the technology supporting Jonathan Deans’ sound design for Jagged Little Pill.

Sarah Jones is a writer, editor, and content producer with more than 20 years' experience in pro audio, including as editor-in-chief of three leading audio magazines: MixEQ, and Electronic Musician. She is a lifelong musician and committed to arts advocacy and learning, including acting as education chair of the San Francisco chapter of the Recording Academy, where she helps develop event programming that cultivates the careers of Bay Area music makers.

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