Why you should care
Because Lauren Patten’s singing brought theater audiences to their feet — in the middle of the show.
Lauren Patten doesn’t get stage fright. The 25-year-old actor began working professionally when other kids were transitioning from tricycles to bikes. And yet, backstage on the first night of previews for the American Repertory Theater’s Jagged Little Pill, Patten felt an unfamiliar flutter in the pit of her stomach.
An adaptation of Alanis Morissette’s 1995 blockbuster album of the same name, Jagged Little Pill featured Patten as Jo, the best friend and love interest of protagonist Frankie. The teenage Jo spends much of their time disguising their pain with humor — a family argument about gender identity leads them to quip, “First of all, if I got to decide what I was, I’d be a koala.” The character also delivers the album’s defining song: “You Oughta Know.”
“Even when I sang the song for the first time for Alanis, I didn’t get nervous,” Patten says. “But we had a ton of fans who had flown in from all over the world to see the first preview. Backstage I was thinking, ‘This will be the first time people will hear this extremely iconic song like this. What will they think?’”
The audience didn’t think. Its reaction was visceral.
Watching Jo metaphorically open a vein and bleed rage after being abandoned by Frankie, several audience members leaped to their feet at the end of “You Oughta Know,” with the rest of the sold-out house quickly joining in. Patten received a standing ovation — virtually unheard of in the middle of a show.
The American Repertory Theater (ART), in Cambridge, Massachusetts, pulled together a creative dream team for this summer’s production of Jagged Little Pill: In addition to Morissette’s lyrics and music, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody was brought on to write the book, and Tony Award-winning ART artistic director Diane Paulus directed the show. Still, it was Patten’s performance that lifted the audience to its feet at each of the sold-out 79 performances in the theater’s longest run ever.
I had worked for years, but when I got to LA, people would say I had nothing on my résumé that mattered.
“Lauren was handed the most iconic song in Alanis’ catalog,” says Christopher Muther, a writer for the Boston Globe. “That song is the show’s prized pig, but it also comes with an incredible amount of pressure. It was the soundtrack for breakups around the globe in the 1990s… Patten’s interpretation of the song was electric. She was able to channel her character’s grief into the kind of suffering we’ve all endured when we feel like we’ve been wronged.”
Patten was one of those kids who always knew she wanted to act. Growing up in Chicago, she didn’t fantasize about becoming an astronaut or architect or marine biologist. In elementary school, she persuaded her parents to let her skip class to audition for commercials. By junior high, her parents started homeschooling her so she could spend nights doing community theater. But when she arrived in Los Angeles in 2011, the slight 18-year-old bumped up against an industry that didn’t see anything special in her.
“Trying to get [into] the rooms just to audition for anything on TV was a struggle,” she recalls. “I had worked for years, but when I got to LA, people would say I had nothing on my résumé that mattered. They had no idea what was happening off-Broadway or in Chicago theaters.”
Patten had some success breaking into LA’s small theater scene, but she felt uneasy about her chances of making it on the Great White Way. “I don’t have a traditional musical theater voice, and I have a lot of insecurities that have stayed with me,” she says. “I didn’t have a voice like the ones I heard on cast recording albums. I became so embarrassed about that, I thought I was done.”
Then came the career-shifting moment in 2015, when she auditioned for Fun Home, the Broadway musical adapted from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir that would go on to win five Tony Awards, including best musical. After her audition, Patten received what she describes as the strangest feedback from a casting team.
“They told me I was singing it too pretty, that I was singing it too well,” Patten says. “To hear that, after so many years of trying to sing pretty, was amazing.”
Fun Home, which deals with suicide and sexual identity, didn’t need another singer who’d grown up on Cats or Guys and Dolls. With its deceptively lighthearted tone and themes of family trauma, secrets and tragic truths, the show represented a stunning break from theater’s conservative past.
Patten moved to New York in 2015, when she won a spot as the understudy to a lead, taking over when the lead had to leave for a four-month TV project. Her work caught the attention of other theater and TV casting directors, one of whom hired her to appear on HBO’s Succession this summer.
For Paulus, ART’s artistic director, musical theater has been evolving as a vehicle for talents like Patten, and Jagged Little Pill proved the ultimate showcase for her skill set. “She has an ability as a performer to deliver a raw rock sound and not every singer who does theater can do that, her voice is just so authentic,” Paulus says. “Audiences are craving these performers.”
Still, Patten’s recent success doesn’t mean she won’t struggle to land bigger roles on Broadway — hers is not the voice to take on Christine Daaé, the female lead of The Phantom of the Opera; her look is all wrong for this year’s My Fair Lady revival. But as Broadway continues to embrace less traditional sounds and styles, Patten should find herself in greater demand. Starting Oct. 9, she will appear in Days of Rage, the new off-Broadway show from Steven Levenson, the Tony Award-winning writer of Dear Evan Hansen.
But with clear signs that Jagged Little Pill will soon take up residence on Broadway, Patten could be looking to jump shows — and to snag a Tony of her own for her take on “You Oughta Know.” It’s enough to give anyone a flutter in their stomach.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the character of Jo, who is exploring gender identity, as female.
5 Questions for Lauren Patten
Growing up, what was your favorite musical? I have to go very old school and say Les Mis. That show was one of my first loves as a kid and I think I dragged my mom to see it seven or eight times. The scope and scale and heart of that show gets me every time.
What is your biggest professional fear? Dancing. I can move well and I have trained in dance, but that is definitely my weakest link. When I am auditioning for musicals and I have to go in for a dance call, it is always a fresh terror.
What places would you like to see before you die? I was just in Cuba and Colombia; next on my list are Guatemala and Peru. But I think, weirdly, there is just no place I don’t want to go.
What do you do to unwind after a show has wrapped? I always turn to yoga and meditation after shows. I also think, once a show closes, you have to lean on your friends and your family. It’s so easy to get the post-show blues, so I need to surround myself with good people, people that I love and don’t get to spend enough time with.
You are politically engaged — you marched in the Pride parade in Boston and met Elizabeth Warren. What is the one issue where you most hope to see change? It’s hard to pick one with so much going on in our country, but where my head is right now, mostly because of the show, is trans rights. It’s very important for me to be a vocal ally to the trans community. For me, putting the trans rights and the feminist movement together is hugely important.