Review: In ‘The Outsiders,’ a New Song for the Young Misfits

For many young misfits and wannabes, “The Outsiders,” published in 1967, is still a sacred text. Written by an actual teenager — S.E. Hinton drafted it in high school — it spoke with eyewitness authority to teenage alienation. Even if its poor “greasers” and rich “socs” (the book’s shorthand for society types) now seem like exhibits in a midcentury angst museum, their inchoate yearning has not aged, nor has Hinton’s faith that there is poetry in every soul.

These tender qualities argue against stage adaptation, as does Francis Ford Coppola’s choppy, murky 1983 movie. (It introduced a lot of young stars, but it’s a mess.) The material doesn’t want sophisticated adults mucking about in it or, worse, gentling its hard edges for commercial consumption. Harshness tempered with naïveté is central to its style and argument. To turn the novel into a Broadway musical, with the gloss of song and dance that entails, would thus seem a category error worse even than the film’s.

And yet the musical version of “The Outsiders” that opened on Thursday has been made with so much love and sincerity it survives with most of its heart intact. Youth is key to that survival; the cast, if not actually teenage — their singing is way too professional for that — is still credibly fresh-faced. (Five of the nine principals are making their Broadway debuts.) That there is no cynical distance between them and their characters is in itself refreshing to see.

Also key to the show’s power is the director Danya Taymor’s rivetingly sensorial approach to the storytelling, even if it sometimes comes at a cost to the story itself. Many stunning things are happening on the stage of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater — and from the sobs I heard the other night, in the audience, too.

Some of those sobs came from teenagers, who can’t have seen in recent musicals many serious attempts at capturing the confusions of youth. Though witches, princesses and leaping newsboys can be entertaining, their tales are escapes from reality, not portraits of it. From the start, “The Outsiders” is gritty — literally. (The stage is covered with synthetic rubber granules that kick up with each fight and footfall.) There is no sugarcoating the facts as Hinton found them: Her Tulsa, Okla., is an apartheid town, the greasers subject to brutal violence if they dare step into the socs’ territory or, worse, lay eyes on their girls.

But the unavoidable cross-clan romance — between the 14-year-old greaser Ponyboy Curtis (Brody Grant) and the soc Cherry Valance (Emma Pittman) — is something of a MacGuffin here. The score, by Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance of the folk duo Jamestown Revival, working with Justin Levine, gives them just two songs, neither really about love.

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