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The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2021

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APRIL 2021 Issue
Theater

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Broadway’s Jagged Little Journey Toward Nonbinary Inclusion

The cast of <em>Jagged Little Pill</em>. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The cast of Jagged Little Pill. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Take a second and try to make a list of all the nonbinary characters in musical theater.

It won’t take long to realize there isn’t much of a list. While there have been a few nonbinary performers on Broadway and several roles have been played by actors whose gender does not match their characters’, there’s only been one character I know of explicitly written as nonbinary: Pythio in Head Over Heels. That radically queer show sadly had a very short Broadway run in 2018; after opening, it received a transphobic review in the New York Times that mocked the nonbinary character’s gender and pronouns. The same year, Jagged Little Pill was having its pre-Broadway run in Cambridge at the A.R.T. At the time, Jagged Little Pill included a nonbinary character, Jo, played by Lauren Patten (she/her), a cis woman. This version of the musical featured numerous references to Jo’s nonbinary gender: the character used they/them pronouns, they had a fight with their mother about their gender, they were deadnamed, and they were invalidated by their girlfriend. While the musical never directly said Jo is nonbinary, it was clear enough that many of the Boston critics mentioned it in their reviews (in which the character was variously referred to as “gender fluid,” “gender-exploring,” and “exploring gender identity”).

However, by the time the show got to Broadway, several tweaks to the musical had been made, including a major one: Jo was no longer nonbinary. Just like that, the second-ever nonbinary character in a Broadway musical was gone. The change oddly went unaddressed for the most part. The show’s marketing, which listed the themes it dealt with like addiction, race, and sexual assault, removed “gender identity” from the list for the Broadway publicity materials. In an interview with Vulture, Lauren Patten was asked about Jo’s usage of they/them pronouns in the A.R.T. version of the musical, to which Patten replied: “Jo never was written as anything other than cis.”

This alarming response is nothing short of erasure—Patten’s attempt to remove all traces of the character ever being nonbinary. While it was ultimately the musical’s book writer, Diablo Cody (she/her) and the director, Diane Paulus (she/her) who chose to alter the character, it is upsetting that the team, most clearly Patten, is denying the history of the character. This is particularly surprising given that previously Patten had been rather vocal online about Jo being nonbinary. She supportively retweeted a thread of someone calling out critics for using she/her pronouns for Jo and referring to Jo as the protagonist’s girlfriend. The original tweet notes that the A.R.T. production made it “clear that Jo is nonbinary,” to which Patten added, “Thank you for seeing what I hoped to do with Jo.” Patten elsewhere tweeted, “This is my greatest hope for my part in #JaggedLittlePillART, to do my best to be a conduit for the beautiful voices of my GNC/NB/trans/queer/questioning fellows.” (Patten has since deleted many social media posts, including these tweets, from the period prior to the Broadway transfer, as has the show’s official accounts on Twitter and Instagram.)

Sometime between Cambridge and Broadway, Cody and Paulus made the decision to make Jo cis, possibly because of negative feedback about the way they wrote the character but also perhaps due to concern about potential backlash over Patten, a cis woman, playing a nonbinary role. From early on Patten was always billed as the powerhouse of the show; her performance of “You Oughta Know” is widely known to be a standing-ovation showstopper, and even before COVID-19 shut down Broadway, she was a shoe-in to earn a Tony nomination (and perhaps even win) for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. With all this in mind, the team maybe didn’t want a controversy over Patten playing a nonbinary role to ruin her chances at a Tony. In short, they didn’t want someone like me to write a piece like I did about Tootsie.

Well, too bad. Just as I wrote with Tootsie, transphobia has no place on Broadway. The situation here, however, is quite different: Jagged Little Pill, as a musical, is not transphobic. The problems are the changes Cody and Paulus made, which took away nonbinary representation, and the ways Patten has publically denied it. Jagged Little Pill had a chance to normalize nonbinary roles and to give an opportunity to a nonbinary performer, but instead the role was given to a cis woman and the character’s nonbinary gender was erased.

One of the most painful elements is the fact that Patten’s understudy, Ezra Menas (they/zie/hir), is trans and nonbinary. Menas got to perform the role on Broadway once, which was a night of deep significance for many trans and nonbinary musical theater fans who finally got to see themselves onstage in Jagged Little Pill. With Menas playing Jo, for just one night at least, Jo was once authentically nonbinary. Menas, who “spent so much time helping develop and create [Jo]” said in an interview that the role “is so closely related to my own experience” and that there’s not a whole lot of separation between me and this character.” While Patten’s official version of Jo may be cis, Menas seems to embrace the original, nonbinary version of the character.

Even in the Broadway script, there is some remaining evidence of Jo’s gender journey. Despite making cuts and alterations, Cody and Paulus kept an argument between Jo and Jo’s mother about gender presentation and clothes. Jo’s mother forces Jo to wear a dress and calls Jo “Joanne”—both of which make Jo upset and lead Jo to sing, “Why won’t you accept who I need to be … I need to know that I would be loved, even when I am my true self.” It seems as if the writers kept as much as they could without having to commit to Jo being nonbinary, instead hiding under the “queer” label (something Patten in press and on social media has also done). However, there is a silver lining about this leftover bit of gender conflict: it makes it possible if a nonbinary actor, like Menas, plays the role, the nonbinary representation can feel genuine, even if the gender conversation is never made explicit.

In an interview with the New York Times, Patten said, “An unreal amount of people relate to Jo. Because everybody knows what it feels like to feel unheard, to feel unseen, to feel disregarded as a person.” Instead of offering a nonbinary narrative that would provide representation and validation to a specific group of people (who are desperately seeking such representation and validation on stage), Jagged Little Pill instead opts for cheap universalization. They made Jo cis not only to avoid a controversy for Patten, but also to make the character more relatable. This choice speaks volumes, and makes it clear that the team does not care about nonbinary people, they care about getting awards and convincing people to buy tickets.

The erasure at play with Jagged Little Pill is both deeply specific and also indicative of larger problems within the industry. To once again return to the ever-looming Tony Awards, the performance award categories are gendered, offering only “Best Actor” and “Best Actress.” Inherently, these categories exclude nonbinary performers. By extension, they act as barriers, telling production teams and casting directors that nonbinary performers, no matter how great, will likely not receive awards because they don’t fit the existing categories. This, in turn, massively limits the employment opportunities for nonbinary actors. Gendered awards present a message that Broadway does not care about nonbinary people or nonbinary representation. This might explain why Jo, even when nonbinary, was cast as a cis woman and then eventually reconceptualized as a cis character.

With so few trans and nonbinary roles in the American musical theater canon, it is essential they are always played by trans and nonbinary actors. Having more trans and nonbinary roles and having them played by trans and nonbinary actors would not only provide some much needed representation, but also would pave the way for nonbinary stories having a place on Broadway. Taking this a step further, trans and nonbinary people should be the ones telling the stories; we should be prioritizing work by trans and nonbinary people about trans and nonbinary people. Put simply, trans and nonbinary people deserve agency over how they are represented on stage.

Unlike Tootsie, the problems of Jagged Little Pill can be fixed. It is my hope that the team will realize the harm behind their erasure of Jo as nonbinary in the musical’s text, in its publicity, and in the casting of Patten. I hope they will learn from their mistakes, listen to nonbinary people, and re-cast the role when Broadway opens up again (after all, Menas already knows the part). Broadway is currently shut down; now is the time to reflect and to make changes. In so many ways, Broadway cannot and should not go back to business as usual. When it returns, I hope that Jagged Little Pill, instead of being an emblem of nonbinary erasure, becomes a beacon of representation for nonbinary people. Instead of joining the transphobic ranks of Tootsie and the upcoming Mrs. Doubtfire and Some Like It Hot , Jagged Little Pill has the chance to stand beside Head Over Heels, and to add one more name to the too-short list of nonbinary characters in musical theater.

Special thanks to @robbedsettos on Twitter, whose helpful thread details many of the events written about in this piece.

Contributor

Christian Lewis

Christian Lewis (they/them) is a nonbinary freelance theater critic with bylines in American Theatre, HuffPost, Broadway World, Medium, and Out. They are also a PhD candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. Twitter: @clewisreviews.

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The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2021

All Issues