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The Outsiders

  • Theater, Musicals
  • Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, Midtown West
  • Open run
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Outsiders on Broadway
Photograph: Courtesy Matthew MurphyThe Outsiders

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Young Tulsa toughs get ready to rumble in a musical adaptation of S.E. Hinton's novel.

Broadway review by Adam Feldman 

Deep into the new musical The Outsiders, there is a sequence that is rawer and more pulse-pounding than anything else on Broadway right now. It’s halfway through the second act, and the simmering animosity between opposing youths in 1967 Tulsa—the poor, scrappy Greasers and the rich, mean Socs (short for socialites)—has come to a violent boil. The two groups square off in rumble, trading blows as rain pours from the top of the stage, just as it did in the most recent Broadway revival of West Side Story. The music stops, the lighting flashes, and before long it is hard to tell which figures onstage, caked in mud and blood, belong to one side or the other.

This scene succeeds for many reasons: the stark power of the staging by director Danya Taymor and choreographers Rick and Jeff Kuperman; the aptness of the confusion, which dramatizes the pointlessness of the gangs’ mutual hostility; the talent and truculent pulchritude of the performers. But it may also be significant that the rumble contains no dialogue or songs. Elsewhere, despite some lovely music and several strong performances, The Outsiders tends to attenuate the characters and situations it draws from S.E. Hinton’s popular young-adult novel and its 1982 film adaptation. Action, in this show, speaks better than words. 

The Outsiders | Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy

Like Hinton’s novel, which she wrote when she was a teenager herself, The Outsiders is narrated by the 14-year-old Ponyboy (Brody Grant), an orphan with two older brothers: the responsible Darrel (Brent Comer), who works a blue-collar job to support the family, and the dreamy Sodapop (Jason Schmidt), a gas-station attendant with a sculpted body but a sweetly dim mind. (Spelling out the word grease in an acrostical song— “G is for gettin’ the girls every time,”etc.—he skips one of the letters.) Ponyboy, who quotes Robert Frost, is the sensitive one, though perhaps not as sensitive as his hangdog-puppyish best friend, Johnny (Sky Lakota-Lynch).

As in the novel, Ponyboy begins by exiting a Paul Newman movie, in this case Cool Hand Luke. But whereas Hinton uses this moment to show Ponyboy’s adolescent insecurity (“I was wishing I looked like Paul Newman—he looks tough and I don’t”), the musical paints it as an escape from the ugly realities of Tulsa life into happy cinematic fantasy: “When I am looking up and Newman’s on the screen / The entire world just melts away,” Ponyboy sings. “But unlike in the movies and the books I like to read / Nothing in this town plays out the same.” This is not just a cliché; it’s also a nonsensical reaction to the pessimistic brutality of Cool Hand Luke. This sloppiness continues elsewhere in the song, which claims in one breath that “it was different” before Tulsa got split along economic fault lines, and in the next breath that “You’ve got Greasers and Socs, that’s how it’s always been.”

The Outsiders | Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy

Such inattention to the specific persists throughout The Outsiders’s score, which is by Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance (of the duo Jamestown Revival) and Justin Levine (who also contributed to Adam Rapp’s book). Mostly it manifests as bald exposition: The characters spend most of their lyrics narrating themselves (“My name is Ponyboy / Youngest of the three / I know there’s so much more to life / Than what’s in front of me”) or their settings (“This is Tulsa 1967,” say, or “It’s Friday night at the drive-in”). There are beautiful moments; the yearning “Great Expectations” reaches out and grabs you by the heart, and there’s a pretty duet between Ponybody and a sympathetic Soc girl (Emma Pittman). But although the score ventures into rockabilly and blues and even a hint of soul, its predominant country-folk idiom—gentle, reflective and somewhat repetitive, often with a lot of space between phrases—has a limited dramatic range. Too many of the songs are merely descriptive; they don’t do anything. (The dialogue, meanwhile, often does a bit too much: “Please stop fightin’! I can’t stand this anymore! It’s tearin’ us apart!” pleads Sodapop to his brothers. “We’re all we got left! If we don’t got each other, we don’t got nothin’!”) 

I suspect that a lot of people will like The Outsiders more than I did. But to me, its approach misses the central thrust of Hinton’s story. Her point was that kids who might be dismissed as juvenile delinquents are teenagers like any others, with complicated feelings and dreams. But in the musical, they mostly seem neither juvenile—Grant is a terrific singer, but he doesn’t sound remotely 14—nor delinquent. Rapp and Levine add cuss words to the dialogue, but otherwise their version scrubs the Greasers clean. In the book, they are low-level criminals. Here, they are presented as innocent victims, targeted by the villainous Socs merely for being poor and not dressing like preppies, and perhaps for not all being white guys: Their leader, Dallas (an excellent Joshua Boone), is now Black, and their group includes an Anybodys-style tomboy. It’s like a version of West Side Story in which one of the gangs is entirely to blame, and the other is just trying not to die while crossing from the wrong side of the tracks. And this sanitization makes the musical feel oddly superficial. It approaches its subjects from the outside.

The Outsiders. Nederlander Theatre (Broadway). Book by Adam Rapp with Justin Levine. Music and lyrics by Jamestown Revival and Levine. Directed by Danya Taymor. With Brody Grant, Sky Lakota-Lynch, Joshua Boone, Brent Comer, Jason Schmidt, Emma Pittman, Daryl Tofa. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission. 

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The Outsiders | Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman


Event website:
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 W 45th St
New York
Cross street:
between Broadway and Eighth Ave
Subway: A, C, E to 42nd St–Port Authority; N, Q, R, 1, 2, 3 to 42nd St–Times Sq

Dates and times

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