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The Outsiders: A New Musical

A musical version of S.E. Hinton's classic YA novel tries to stay gold.

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The Greasers in a scene from “The Outsiders: A New Musical” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

Maybe it’s a coincidence or maybe it’s something more, but the past is alive and complicated on Broadway this season. That’s particularly true looking down the row of marquees on West 45th Street where courageous suffragists, a fracturing 1970’s rock band, and an abused Depression-era circus elephant have all taken up residence. They’ve been joined by a bunch of working-class young toughs from 1960s Tulsa, Oklahoma who rebelliously call themselves Greasers, adopting a slur used by the Socs, budding socialites from the other side of the tracks with bright futures, unpunished sociopathic tendencies, and a lack of pomade in their hair.

While the Greasers’ theatrical addition to the block in The Outsiders: A New Musical should arouse a wistful murmur in the aging hearts of those familiar with the literary source material or previous incarnations of it, (yes, even the oh-so-brief 1990s television series that the musical ignores), disappointingly, they’ve succumbed to creatively mature reimaginers who misinterpreted the fundamental lesson of the Greasers’ story, currently emblazoned on T-shirts being sold at the back of the orchestra: to stay gold.

Emma Pittman as Cherry Valance and Brody Grant as Ponyboy Curtis in a scene from “The Outsiders: A New Musical” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

A defiant response from a dying character to the poet Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” it’s the philosophical pulse of Susan Eloise Hinton’s The Outsiders, a pithy plea not to let go of youthful wonder or compassion (or to stop being annoyed that for foolish marketing reasons, Hinton had to use the initials S.E. to hide her gender). Still a teenager herself when the YA novel first graced bookstores in 1967, beginning a revolving relationship with generations of adolescent psyches, it’s hard not to draw parallels between Hinton and her first-person narrator Ponyboy Curtis, a precocious 14-year-old, whose wisdom, sensitivity, and emerging writing talent naturally come with profound loneliness, even though Ponyboy belongs to a caring Greaser family formed through both birth and choice. Of course, that the reader only ever sees other characters in the novel as pieces of Ponyboy’s perspective suggests the possibility that, in fact, we’re only seeing Ponyboy, an isolated kid with an English composition book and one heck of a sad imagination.

Admittedly, that interpretation might be more about that particular reader, who also saw a lot of his older brother in Dallas Winston, the novel’s most hardened, and generous Greaser. That personal connection could develop because Hinton’s prose made lots of lyrical room for discovering your own life in it, which Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 cinematic adaptation left there, too. Additionally, Coppola continued to preternaturally find faces the camera absolutely adored (rest in peace, Patrick Swayze).

Brody Grant as Ponyboy Curtis, Jason Schmidt as Sodapop Curtis, Brent Comer as Darrel Curtis and Sky Lakota-Lynch as Johnny Cade in a scene from “The Outsiders: A New Musical” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

The cast of The Outsiders: A New Musical bring their own substantial charisma to the stage, but it’s been dramaturgically constrained by Adam Rapp and Justin Levine’s book, which sacrifices poetry for explanation. That unfortunate choice is abetted by a score from Levine, Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance (the latter two comprising the folk duo Jamestown Revival) that, influenced by Oklahoma! instead of pure sentiment, is far too Rodgers and Hammerstein, when it should have aimed for Rodgers and Hart. Laying out everything neatly and binarily in the expositional song “Tulsa ’67,” Ponyboy (Brody Grant) and his bosom buddy Johnny Cade (Sky Lakota-Lynch) sing, “If you’re not born into money, then you’re born into despair,” a state of mind the show’s brown-and-browner set (by the design collective AMP) drably actualizes. But, even if you’re an orphan like Ponyboy or must endure rotten parents like Johnny, having a friend in this world is not hopelessness.  A comforting thought Hinton evoked often, Grant and Lakota-Lynch remarkably still manage to sweetly convey this point of view, despite being in a production that doesn’t share it.

Upward mobility is a larger theme in the musical, with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations replacing Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind as Ponyboy’s paperback obsession. Given the latter’s cultural baggage, a swap was definitely understandable, but Ponyboy’s identification with Pip in both dialogue and song grafts a future onto Ponyboy that suggests his dreaminess will eventually give way, after lots of struggles, to understanding the importance of good credit and how to balance a checkbook. Did Socs produce this musical?

The Socs in the Drive In scene from “The Outsiders: A New Musical” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (Photo credit; Matthew Murphy)

At a drive-in, Ponyboy meets Cherry Valance (Emma Pittman), a Soc who has an obvious counterpart in Great Expectations, at least if following the musical’s comparative logic. But it’s enough to see Cherry as Ponyboy does in Hinton’s novel: with astonishment that someone from such a different background could be captivated by the same sunset. While Rapp and Levine expand on this beautiful simplicity, with diminishing returns, they focus scant narrative attention on the other Socs and also give short shrift to a couple Greasers. Two-Bit (Daryl Tofa) is little more than a Soc-baiting brawler, while the Curtis clan’s middle child Sodapop (Jason Schmidt) is most memorable as a shirtless beefcake, though he does fare better than his compadre Steve who has been left out of the musical entirely (as well as off the T-Shirts).

Instead, the book and score shift considerable audience attention to Darrel (Brent Comer), Ponyboy’s oldest brother, weighing him down not only with parenting responsibilities but also regrets for assuming them. That internal conflict is much less affecting than its absence in the novel, which is equally true of the trite battle the musical sets off between Darrel and a now all-too-earnest Dallas (Joshua Boone) for Ponyboy’s soul. Insouciance is always more appealing, as is love not being a decision.

The cast in The Church Fire sequence of “The Outsiders: A New Musical” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

As in the novel and film, a pair of coups de grâce–one from a switchblade and the other a burning church–combine to instigate a bloody, 1990’s-style Calvin Klein ad, er, rumble between the Greasers and the Socs. Collaborating with choreographers Rick and Jeff Kuperman, as well as other members of the design team, director Danya Taymor crafts a flashing sequence of stunningly violent images, amidst a sudden downpour, that attest to a lot of artistic skill but not much depth. That isn’t the meaning of staying gold, either.

The Outsiders: A New Musical (open run)

Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit

Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission

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