On a knife’s edge: La Jolla Playhouse stages visceral, violent ‘The Outsiders’ musical

Actors playing the Greasers gang rehearse a scene for "The Outsiders" at La Jolla Playhouse.
Actors playing the Greasers gang rehearse a scene for “The Outsiders,” a world-premiere musical opening in previews Sunday, Feb. 19, at La Jolla Playhouse.
(Jacey Aldredge)

The creators of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere musical “The Outsiders” hail from different states and cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds and have traveled different artistic paths.

But there’s one thing they all have in common. At some point in their adolescence, Adam Rapp, Jonathan Clay, Zach Chance and Justin Levine all read S.E. Hinton’s 1967 young-adult novel “The Outsiders” and felt a deep connection with the book’s main character. In the fast-moving coming-of-age story, 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis is a smart but directionless orphan in Tulsa, Okla., fighting to survive and find purpose and connection in a harsh world of poverty, class division, gangs, guns and pocket knives.

The novel became a bestseller, was made into a star-packed 1983 film by Francis Ford Coppola, and has been on middle and high school required reading lists for more than 50 years. And now — after eight years of development — it’s finding new life as a stage musical that will open in previews Sunday, Feb. 19, in La Jolla.

Rapp, a novelist and Pulitzer Prize finalist for his play “Red Light Winter,” wrote the musical’s book, based on both the novel and the film. The score was co-written by Jamestown Revival — the Austin, Texas-based American folk music duo of Clay and Chance — and Levine, a Tony Award-winning orchestrator, arranger and composer.

All four men say that while they’re excited to bring a fresh look, sound and visceral energy to “The Outsiders,” they want to tell Ponyboy’s story faithfully because he’s a character readers have always loved and rooted for.

“I remember reading this book in eighth grade,” said Clay, 37, who started making music with Chance 22 years ago in their shared hometown of Magnolia, Texas. “You almost got to have this vicarious independence through these characters. It was scary, it was exciting, it was relatable. It felt like it was uninhibited youth. That’s something really exciting to read about when you’re a kid — the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful and all the things it encompasses. I thought pocket knives were the coolest thing ever, and we’re still obsessed. Pocket knives are now a big part of our everyday carry — watch, keys and pocket knives.”

Zach Chance (left) and Jonathan Clay of Jamestown Revival are co-writers of the score for the musical "The Outsiders."
(Jackie Lee)

‘Stay Gold’

The “Outsiders” musical project began eight years ago when the Araca Group (co-producer of “Wicked”) obtained the stage rights for Hinton’s book. Instead of hiring a Broadway songwriting team, Araca put out a call to bands that write music about the American heartland.

Chance said it seemed a good fit for Jamestown Revival, whose music blends country, Americana and Western styles with deeply personal lyrics about life, love and home. The duo also felt confident writing about the world of Oklahoma.

“There’s a shared connection,” said Chance, also 37. “I have family in Tulsa and I grew up visiting that part of the world. There’s a healthy rivalry and a kinship between Texas and Oklahoma.”

So the two called on their memories of the book, wrote and recorded two songs and sent them to the producers.

“One was absolutely horrible and the other was us getting completely lucky,” Clay said. “They loved it, and that song is still in the play. It’s one of the only songs we haven’t touched. It was just one of those lucky moments that opened the door for us.”

That song was “Stay Gold,” based on a Robert Frost poem about the inevitability of change called “Nothing Stays Gold,” which Ponyboy and his best friend and fellow Greaser, Johnny, talk about while hiding out in a church near the climax of the story.

But while Chance and Clay had the regional knowledge, the right sound and the songwriting talent that Araca wanted for “The Outsiders,” they didn’t know how to write a musical score. So Araca brought in Levine as a musical supervisor to put the duo through musical theater boot camp.

Justin Levine is a co-writer of the score of "The Outsiders" at La Jolla Playhouse.
(Getty Images)

As the three began working together, they found an unexpectedly strong musical connection and friendship. Clay said he and Chance had never enjoyed working with anyone else before, but they were both so enthralled by Levine’s songwriting and musicianship that about a year into the project they asked him to become a co-writer on the score.

“When we’re in the room together and the vibe is happening, there are sparks,” Chance said. “But then there is another type of songwriting where we’re almost like scribes and the song feels like it should have existed forever. That’s the difference between co-writing as an exercise and as a true creative experience.”

Levine, who won a 2021 Tony Award for orchestrations on “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” said the 20-song “Outsiders” score is more songwriter-driven, like many of the great musicals from Broadway’s golden age, when composers for the stage were also the nation’s top pop songwriters, such as Frank Loesser and Cole Porter.

The Greasers vs. the Socs

Susan E. Hinton was 15 when she started writing “The Outsiders” about two rival high school gangs: the poor but scrappy Greasers, who include Ponyboy and his two older brothers, Darry and Sodapop, and the Socs (an abbreviation of “socials,” pronounced “soash” or “soashes”), who are entitled kids from the wealthier side of town. The gangs rumble over turf and girls and to let off steam, but one night a fight involving Ponyboy, Johnny and the Socs ends with a fatal stabbing that changes the trajectory of everyone’s lives.

Hinton sold her book to a publisher on the day she graduated from high school. The publisher encouraged her to write under the name “S.E. Hinton” because boys might not read a book written by a girl. And to attract a wide young-adult audience, the book has no profanity.

Rapp, who joined the “Outsiders” project seven years ago, said Hinton’s gender likely helped make the book appealing to both boys and girls. Ponyboy is sensitive, vulnerable and talkative, and he sees the good in everyone, even the Socs. But Rapp said the sanitized language in the book isn’t a realistic depiction of how teen boys, particularly gang members, talk. So for Rapp’s play script, there is a good amount of profanity. The violence of the story also will be depicted more realistically onstage than it is in the book.

Adam Rapp, pictured in 2018, is the bookwriter for La Jolla Playhouse's world-premiere musical "The Outsiders."
Adam Rapp, pictured in 2018, is the bookwriter for La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere musical “The Outsiders.”
(Associated Press)

“Suzy’s gaze on the book was really an affectionate one, and it’s really beautiful. But ... I wanted to bring out the teeth a little bit more,” said Rapp, 54. “In our world, it’s a more adult experience. It’s much more foul-mouthed, and I saw the fights as being really important to feel authentic. The audience should want to rush the stage and help Johnny and Ponyboy. It’s important to activate the nervous system of the audience. It is brutal, but adolescence is brutal. Boys can really run amok.”

To balance the gender dynamics in the story, Rapp has expanded the roles of the novel’s female characters. And “The Outsiders” is being directed by a woman, Danya Taymor, an Obie Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist. She has reimagined the Greasers as a multiracial gang and cast several key roles with actors of color, in particular ex-con Dally, the gang’s most charismatic but volatile member.

And to create the hardscrabble, violent world of the story, Taymor’s production won’t just be gritty — it will have actual dirt on the stage floor that turns to mud during a fight in an onstage rainstorm.

The choreography is created by brothers Rick and Jeff Kuperman, who are trained modern and ballet dancers as well as black belts in karate and professional fight choreographers.

Co-choreographer Jeff Kuperman (right) works with cast members in a rehearsal for La Jolla Playhouse’s "The Outsiders."
(Jacey Aldredge)

The musical’s original premiere date was set for June 2020 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, but the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down. The delay led to changes in the artistic team. Taymor took over as the director and the Kupermans joined the project.

‘The Outsiders’

When: Previews Sunday, Feb. 19, through Friday, March 3. Regular performances Saturday, March 4, through Sunday, April 2. Show times 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.

Where: La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive

Cost: $25 and up

Information: (858) 550-1010, lajollaplayhouse.org