‘The Outsiders’ Director Danya Taymor on Making a Gritty, Violent Broadway Musical: ‘This All Needs to Take Place in the Dirt’

By the end of every performance, “The Outsiders” cast is caked in grime and dust. That’s a consequence of the Broadway musical’s sandy stage, which finds the actors who bring the the gritty coming-of-age story to life each night, fighting, dancing and falling in love in the gravel.

“In the script there’s an incredible stage direction where it notes that by the end of this one conflict, the boys are bloody and bruised and muddy,” says Danya Taymor, the show’s director. “And I thought, ‘this needs to all take place in the dirt.’ I wanted there to be an organic material that helped us stay grounded and gave us an edge.”

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That unvarnished intensity is what stood out when Taymor read S.E. Hinton’s novel about growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Tulsa, circa 1965. Her book follows Ponyboy Curtis, a soulful teenager who is also the member of the “Greasers,” a blue collar gang locked in a forever war with the middle-class “Socs.” But what made Hinton’s writing so totemic for generations of Americans is the way she channeled the emotional tempest of adolescence, capturing the promise of first love, the persistent feelings of being misunderstood, and the desperation to break free that so often characterize that stage of life.

“She’s writing about what it feels like to be a teenager and that never changes,” Taymor says, noting that the book remains almost as popular today as it was when Hinton published it six decades ago. “It’s like why ‘Romeo and Juliet’ still resonate with people. She doesn’t sugarcoat anything. She talks about these primal things in an unfiltered and honest way.”

But Taymor, who somehow missed reading the novel when she was a teen, was still puzzled when she was approached to mount the revival by Adam Rapp, a playwright who was writing the show’s book. She had made a name for herself with her searing productions of modern masterworks such as Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over” and Will Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” but she’d never directed a musical. But Rapp was an old friend, who also was a relative newcomer to the genre, and Taymor began to believe that she offered a unique perspective and a set of “fresh eyes.” And she loved the way that having characters set their inner turmoil to music opened up dramatic possibilities.

“I went and saw every musical that I could on Broadway, and I watched films of musicals and started to see the potential,” she says. “Music is perhaps the most powerful live medium of expression — it’s why all these religious places like churches or temples have singing as part of worshiping. And as a storytelling device there’s something so emotional and vulnerable about it. It’s a powerful language that you get to use.”

Taymor finally got around to reading the book, but one thing she decided to avoid was watching Francis Ford Coppola’s beloved 1983 film adaptation of Hinton’s story, the one that featured a cast of up-and-comers like Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon and Ralph Macchio.

“I decided I needed to wait a little longer, because Coppola is so visually powerful that I didn’t want his style to alter the landscape I was trying to build on stage,” she says.

Instead, Taymor decided to journey to Tulsa, to experience the Oklahoma city that shaped Hinton’s story and to meet the author herself. “I needed to see the place,” she says. “Tulsa is unique — it’s not the south or the midwest. It’s a crossroads. And it has this intense and rich history and this quiet energy and buzz. There’s a restlessness that you feel.”

There’s also a violent side to the story that makes “The Outsiders” different from other stage musicals — think “West Side Story” with more broken bones and bruised knuckles. In one bravura sequence towards the end of the show, Taymor stages a fierce clash between the Socs and the Greasers. Rain beats down and dirt flies as the two sides clash, while the lights flash dramatically and the actors become a gnarl of bodies. It’s so arresting that, when this writer saw the production, the audience broke out in loud applause, with a few members even rising to their feet.

“Part of why this story resonates is so many people experience violence as part of their lives from a very young age,” says Taymor. “I needed to depict that in a way that felt as real and as visceral as the book does. And I needed to have the choreography show it in a slightly distorted way and to use lighting and sound that is slightly stylized. It’s very cinematic.”

Tony voters have embraced the show, giving it 12 nominations, including nods for Taymor’s direction and for best musical. But even before “The Outsiders” opened on Broadway this spring and became an awards darling, it received an important endorsement. While the show was being workshopped at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2023, Angelina Jolie and her 15-year-old daughter Vivienne saw the production and were impressed. They joined the show as producers, and Taymor says it was more than a vanity credit for the Oscar-winning Jolie, who is an acclaimed filmmaker in addition to her acting work.

“It’s been invaluable,” she says. “It’s just exciting to have another powerful female director telling me they believe in my vision. She’s encouraged me to stick to keeping it gritty and not watering down the aspects that make it painful and true. And to have Vivienne respond to the material so strongly made me feel like we were doing something right. It helps to have a real teenager around.”

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