Jade McLeod knew the role would change their life.
The 26-year-old performer knew it when the first details of the Jagged Little Pill musical came out, knew it on the red-eye flight from Calgary to New York to audition between performances of another production, and definitely knew it the first time they sang Alanis Morissette’s music in the same room as Alanis herself.
But more than the potential impacts all this would have on their future, what was most surprising to McLeod was remembering how they felt in the past, when they first heard about the role.
“I just knew if I could get in the room, I was like, ‘I will book this. This is so meant for me,'” they explained in an interview with CBC News. “It was like this weird lightning feeling.”
McLeod, who is both non-binary and the show’s sole Canadian performer, felt that lightning when Morissette’s legendary 1995 album was turned into a family drama touching on everything from sexual assault to opioid abuse to LGBTQ+ rights to white privilege.
The musical, which debuted in Toronto late last month, gave McLeod the opportunity to debut their character, Jo, as non-binary — a change from how the show was originally written when it was on Broadway. That brought the possibility of seeing someone like themselves finally make it into a space that has — even more than film and TV — struggled to showcase non-binary performers and their stories.
Back when they were waiting for a final callback and the eventual news that they landed the part, McLeod had carried a complete surety it would somehow happen.
That surety was rooted in an almost eerie connection McLeod felt with Jo, a non-binary teen whose rakish, easy charm is contrasted with a community unwilling to accept and unable to understand them. Jade saw themself.
“I felt like it was just me — like someone had taken me as a person and wrote a story about it, which had never happened to me before,” McLeod said.
Heading to Canada
Since then, it’s been a long and sometimes difficult road to bring that story back to their home city of Toronto.
The original Broadway run debuted in 2019 with a different cast. The Canadian production began in Mirvish’s off-season in 2022.
Despite being a professional actor and singer, McLeod still experiences what they call “horrific stage fright,” which only recently started to improve. That fear reached its highest point in delivering the play’s show-stopping number, You Oughta Know, to Morissette herself the very first time the two met, during rehearsals.
McLeod sang to her before they had exchanged literally any words.
“It was maybe the most brave I’ve had to be, which sounds extreme, because people do much braver things in their lives than that,” they said, laughing. “Now if I’m facing something hard, I’m like, ‘I sang You Oughta Know in front of Alanis Morissette, I’m OK actually, I’ll be fine. I’ll figure it out.'”
That mantra has proven useful. Because heading toward its opening in Toronto, a certain stink followed Jagged Little Pill and the character McLeod was playing.
A pre-Broadway preview of the musical in Massachusetts in 2018 included lines that hinted Jo (played then by Lauren Patten) was gender non-conforming, and led to reviews that lauded the musical’s “gender-fluid teen.” A non-binary character on stage, let alone as a central role, is a rarity. To McLeod, this was exciting.
But when the Broadway version of Jagged Little Pill debuted in 2019, all references to Jo’s non-binary identity had been scrubbed. When interviewed by Vulture, Patten stated “Jo never was written as anything other than cis.” After complaints (like in Christian Lewis’s article for The Brooklyn Rail, claiming non-binary aspects were removed “to make the character more relatable”), the show’s producers issued a lengthy apology and committed to rewrites.
Those efforts culminated in the new show, where McLeod was tasked with bringing Jo back as an outwardly — and canonically confirmed — non-binary member of the cast. Being the face of that change, the physical representation of a controversy not that far in the past, wasn’t easy for McLeod.
“It was tough. I knew what I was getting myself into, so that was helpful,” they said. But along with the challenge of shouldering that responsibility, it offered an opportunity.
“It felt like I could bring a new layer to this, of my own gender journey and my own gender expression. And show people across America, and now across Canada, that it’s OK for them to be who they are — even if their government and other people are telling them they can’t be, or they shouldn’t be.”
Performing You Oughta Know commonly leads to at least a few standing ovations. And even though McLeod says that wildly exciting experience has “permanently altered [their] brain,” standing up on stage as themself is bigger.
“I get to go up there and — if I’ve done my job correctly — get people to laugh with me, cry with me and root for me and experience heartbreak with me,” they said. “I think it taps into our empathy, it taps into humanity in a way that forces people to see me as a person and not this thing to be afraid of.”