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The Outsiders Comes to Broadway After Generations as a Literary Landmark

Ponyboy. Sodapop. Cherry Valance. Chances are you know these names, because even now The Outsiders still looms large.

In the 56 years since its publication, S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel The Outsiders remains as influential as ever: a young adult classic beloved by both teen and adult readers, a staple of high school English classes across the nation, and the inspiration for a similarly iconic 1983 film version. Now, The Outsiders is coming to Broadway—and for the show’s creators, the story’s outsize cultural footprint informs their approach to making a new musical that carefully honors the source material while adapting the story for the stage in a uniquely theatrical way.

The Outsiders may be set in Tulsa, Okla., in the 1960s, but its coming-of-age tale of teen longing and social stratification, narrated by the soulful 14-year-old Ponyboy, has proven universal and timeless. In the U.S., the novel has sold an estimated total of almost 20 million copies, and around the world it’s been translated into 30 languages. The film adaptation, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, has become almost equally well-known thanks to it vivid evocation of place and a cast of rising young actors—Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane—all on the cusp of superstardom.

The novel owes its authenticity to its author Susan Eloise Hinton, a Tulsa teen who was just 16 years old when she wrote it. In the publishing industry, the novel is widely credited as the progenitor of the young adult book market, while in the wider world of pop culture, the status of The Outsiders as a literary touchstone is obvious in all the movies and TV shows that include references to the novel, from Finding Nemo to Lost to Stranger Things. (The most oft-quoted line? “Stay gold, Ponyboy,” one character’s parting words by way of Robert Frost.)

Counting themselves among the young readers deeply affected by The Outsiders are both Adam Rapp, the co-book writer of the musical, and Justin Levine, the co-book writer, orchestrator, music arranger and contributor to the score. Rapp, the Obie-winning playwright (The Sound Inside, Red Light Winter), novelist and screenwriter, remembers fervently reading the novel after Taps at St. John’s Military Academy in Wisconsin.

“It was one of the first books that made me want to become a reader,” he says. “There was so much I could immediately connect to. It was like making a friend.”

Growing up on Long Island, Levine (Moulin Rouge! The Musical) recalls the book making a similar mark on him when he read it in middle school. “I grew up on the novel,” he says. “I was surprised at how engaging it was and how relatable I found the characters. One of the things it did for me was make me feel closer to people halfway across the country, and I remember my English teacher using the book to talk a lot about identity and exclusion and the way we treat each other and label each other.”

On the other hand, director Danya Taymor (Pass Over) had the rare experience of first encountering the novel as an adult. “I’d heard of it, of course, and I was aware of it being an important part of the zeitgeist,” she explains, but she read it for the first time in preparation for her work on the musical.

The cast of The Outsiders world premiere production at La Jolla Playhouse. Photo by Rich Soublet II.
The cast of The Outsiders world premiere production at La Jolla Playhouse. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

The experience proved just as powerful as it has been for the generations of teenagers the book has influenced. “I read it in one sitting and sobbed through it,” she says. “I felt every emotion you can possibly imagine. I felt joy. I felt understood. I felt it really got to the heart of what it feels like to be a teenager.”

All three creators acknowledge the sense of responsibility they feel in creating a new version of the story that means so much to so many.

“The book is my touchstone,” Taymor says. “I try never to deviate from the source and from Hinton as we’re adapting it to the form of a musical. We’re asking: What can live theater do for this story that’s so real and so intimate?”

Rapp adds, “We always hold to the core of the characters and the core of the story. I feel very responsible to that.”

“It’s really a balancing act,” notes Levine. “A big part of it is the reverence and the admiration that you have for the material. What you really want to do is capture the memory of it in a way that’s satisfying for the audiences who love it.”

Judging by the crowd response from a run at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, Calif., earlier this year, the creators are achieving their hopes for the piece. “It felt like people really connected it, and with all the beauty and tragedy and love stories and stakes of the story,” Rapp said.

When The Outsiders arrives on Broadway in the spring, theatergoers can expect it to feel as enduringly relevant as it always has. Writing in 2018 in the New York Times, Lena Dunham declared, “There has never been a more fitting time to read The Outsiders.

During the show’s run in San Diego, Taymor met with a class of local high school students. As part of the school’s long relationship with a high school in Kabul, the class chose one American book for their counterparts in Afghanistan to read. They chose The Outsiders.

Taymor and her collaborators aim to make a musical version that shares the novel’s power to unite. “The Outsiders appeals to people across class, race, privilege, political beliefs,” she says. “Hopefully this theater will be full of people who all love the same thing. That is so rare right now.”

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