“Performing ‘You Oughta Know’ is like making friends with a wild animal”: A Q&A with the breakout star of Jagged Little Pill
Toronto performer Jade McLeod on getting advice from Alanis Morissette, receiving mid-show standing ovations and trans visibility on Broadway
If the Alanis Morissette musical Jagged Little Pill has a show-stopper, it’s Jade McLeod’s performance of ’90s anthem “You Oughta Know,” which has earned the Toronto performer mid-show standing ovations. Since landing the role last spring, McLeod has toured the show across the United States, and now it’s running through the end of November at the Princess of Wales Theatre in their home city. Here, they talk about being a role model for queer kids and the invaluable advice that came straight from Morissette herself.
I understand that playing Jo in Jagged Little Pill is a dream come true for you. How did that dream begin?
A friend of mine went to see the show in previews on Broadway in 2018. We were doing Mamma Mia! together in Calgary at the time. When he got back, he said, Oh my god, you have to be in this show. I was like, Okay, but I’m from Canada, and nobody’s ever heard of me. I’m not going to make it to Broadway. But I did some research, and I understood what he meant. This Jo character really is me: funny, loves rock music and is openly trans and non-binary, which isn’t common in musical theatre. I told my agent that it would be my dream role, even if it felt very out of reach. And then the pandemic happened and Broadway closed and reopened and closed again. I don’t think I’d ever even considered that there might be a touring show. I can still remember the moment I got an email from my agent saying that they were doing an open casting call. I was standing in a Tim Hortons in the east end, and I just started screaming, like, Oh my god!
How did you go from freaking out in a Timmies to landing the part?
It was a long and drawn-out process. The short version is that I sent a few tapes over a series of months. In spring of last year, I got called to come to New York for a live audition. I was doing Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in Calgary at the time, and I had to beg for one night off. I took a red-eye on a Thursday night. The next day I was at the audition, surrounded by these huge industry legends. There were like a million Tony Award winners in the room, and I was running on no sleep and a Booster Juice. A total impulse machine.
Maybe that worked to your advantage.
I think it did. The day started with six of us, and then it was three, and the whole time I was so excited but I also had to be on a plane to get back to Calgary, so it was stressful on several levels. By the time it was over, I was pretty confident that I would get the role. They asked me to sing for a final round and nobody else. My cell at the time didn’t get service in the States, so I couldn’t text anyone. I was on the way to the airport, and I told my Uber driver just because I had to tell someone. He could not have cared less, which was so New York. I got the official confirmation a couple of weeks later, and we started rehearsals in July.
You were born two years after the release of Jagged Little Pill. Were you a fan of Alanis before the show?
I definitely knew her big songs growing up—I can remember dissecting the definition of ironic. When I was a bit older, a dance teacher of mine choreographed something to the acoustic version of “Mary Jane,” and it was so good, so that was the beginning of my deep dive, starting with the acoustic album.
Alanis had creative input into the musical. Have you had a chance to meet her?
We met her for the first time in LA on opening night. She was there to walk the carpet and gave a speech to the audience during curtain call. She also gave the whole cast white roses, which was very sweet. It was a chaotic day, though. The first time we actually got to hang out with her was a few weeks later in San Francisco. I think she lives nearby, so she came to the show with friends. Afterward, she took the time to field all of our questions. She has this way of answering in a way that starts off simple, and then suddenly she’s in this really philosophical place. It’s no surprise that she wrote Jagged Little Pill at 19.
Your character, Jo, performs “You Oughta Know,” arguably the most iconic song off of her most iconic album. Did she offer any feedback?
Yes! What she said was, “The song is so powerful. It’s like they’re in the palm of my hand. I don’t have to do so much or try so hard to win them over—they’re already mine.” That was definitely helpful and something I have incorporated in my performances since. For me, performing “You Oughta Know” is like making friends with a wild animal. I’m not really in control, just holding on and trying not to let it kill me. It’s so visceral, so intense. I let it feed on my own emotions. Whatever I’m feeling that day can come out through her music, which sounds cheesy, but it’s true.
Sounds like an emotional exorcism.
Right. Some days I’m not feeling particularly upset about anything, and I think, Where is this going to come from? But it always comes. I will do just that first line—”I want you to know”—and I can feel the audience’s collective gasp.
No pressure, right?
Ha—yeah. Before we did our first preview performance in Kentucky, everyone was talking about how Lauren Patten, who played Jo on Broadway, had received mid-show standing ovations. That is not a normal thing, and the media made a big deal of it. I was like, Guys, this is not Broadway. It’s probably not going to happen, and that’s okay. Just stop talking about it! And then it did happen, on the first night, and I started sobbing onstage.
You’ve done the show all over the US now. Is there anywhere that audiences have been most enthusiastic?
LA was the official premiere, and the audiences there were amazing. Also DC, I think because our show is quite political. People were really lit up there.
Lit up in a good way?
Mostly, yes. I think most of the people buying tickets to our show know what they’re getting into. Of course there are exceptions. There are people who walk out. Our show deals with topics like sexual assault, drug addiction and queer identity. People will say, I don’t come to the theatre to watch real life; I want to escape. Which is their prerogative, but the whole point of the show is that people need to face the things that they want to turn away from. We did the show in states where a lot of people don’t believe trans people like me should exist. At one point, our cast had 10 trans people in it.
What does this kind of visibility in such a big show mean to you?
It has been the absolute privilege of my life to be able to embody that kind of representation that trans children and adults are starving for. It’s not something I take lightly. I want to be an example for my community, for people who are being told both in the US and in Canada that they don’t have autonomy. Their governments, their schools and maybe even their parents are telling them that who they are is wrong. At the same time, I feel this other responsibility to people in the audience who may never have knowingly shared space with a trans person in their entire life, and I’m like, “Buckle up—I’m about to make you fall in love with me.” It’s impossible not to because the character is so well created.
I’m sure you’ve gotten a lot of fan feedback. Does anything stick out?
I had a person reach out on Instagram to say that they came to see the show with their family and they came out to them the next day. I’ve had kids make me fan art and tell me that they see themselves in Jo.
You mentioned that queer characters are still a rarity in musical theatre. Do you see improvement?
Absolutely. At the end of the day, theatre is still a commercial business, and for a long time there has been this belief that the average theatregoer won’t connect with a character who is trans or non-binary. But the success of shows like Jagged Little Pill or Shucked, which is currently on Broadway, proves that that is simply not true. These characters are universal, and audiences want to see them. It’s not the big risk everyone thinks it is.
You are the only Canadian in the touring cast. Does that make you the unofficial tour guide now that you’re in Toronto for a while?
It totally does. When we arrive in a new city, we will get “city sheets” from the management with things like the closest grocery store, etc. I’ve written my own “Jade’s City Sheet” for Toronto: go to Kensington Market, check out these dance studios, check out Crews and Tangos in the Village.
I guess you had a lot of friends and family in the audience on opening night. Was it awkward to belt out lines like “Would she go down on you in a theatre?” in front of your loved ones?
My friends and family did come, and they were all very proud. A lot of them haven’t seen me perform in years, though, so I’m sure there were parts that were a bit shocking.
I don’t suppose you asked Alanis about the rumour that she wrote that song about her ex Dave Coulier, a.k.a. Uncle Joey from Full House?
No. I have heard the rumour, but we definitely didn’t have that kind of clearance.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.