‘The Outsiders’ Director And The Hollywood Insider: How Danya Taymor & Angelina Jolie Built A Friendship And A Hit Broadway Musical – Tony Watch Q&A

When Angelina Jolie announced nearly a year ago that she’d signed on as a producer of the Broadway-bound musical The Outsiders, folks in the theater community could be forgiven for assuming she was merely the latest in a long and ever-growing line of celebrities willing to either raise money or share fame in exchange for a credit in Playbill.

Those folks would have been wrong.

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“Angelina was in the room a lot,” says Outsiders director Danya Taymor, explaining that the Oscar-winning actress (for Girl, Interrupted) offered creative notes, suggestions and even guidance and advice for the show’s young cast, many of whom were making their Broadway debuts.

“I’ve had successes and failures,” Jolie tells Deadline, “and I’ve been around a long time…”

Brody Grant, who has earned a Tony Award nomination for his Broadway debut as Ponyboy Curtis, told Deadline, “Danya and Angelina are two artists who are at the top of their game. It’s an honor to get to work under the guidance of these incredible women.”

So how did Jolie and Taymor come to forge such an effective team? Turns out, they owe their thanks to Jolie’s 15-year-old daughter Vivienne. (How so? Again, read on.)

Based, of course, on the 1967 S.E. Hinton novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film adaptation, The Outsiders, set in Tulsa in 1967, tells the story of 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis, his two brothers and best friend Johnny – the Greasers – as they struggle to get by and stand tall against the affluent rival group the Socs.

Taymor’s staging – which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego last year before its move to Broadway – has been one of the few unqualified hits to emerge from Broadway’s incredibly busy spring, garnering good reviews and excellent box office.

The production has been nominated for 12 Tony Awards:

  • Best Musical

  • Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (Brody Grant)

  • Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Joshua Boone, Sky Lakota-Lynch)

  • Best Direction of a Musical (Danya Taymor)

  • Best Book of a Musical (Justin Levine and Adam Rapp)

  • Best Original Score, Music and/or Lyrics (Zach Chance, Jonathan Clay, Justin Levine)

  • Best Scenic Design in a Musical (AMP featuring Tatiana Kahvegian)

  • Best Lighting Design in a Musical (Hana S. Kim and Brian MacDevitt)

  • Best Sound Design in a Musical (Cody Spencer)

  • Best Choreography (Rick Kuperman and Jeff Kuperman)

  • Best Orchestrations (Matt Hinkley, Justin Levine and Jamestown Revival’s Zach Chance and Jonathan Clay)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The Outsiders is playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

DEADLINE: Danya, what drew you to this show, The Outsiders? The movie, the book, something else?

DANYA TAYMOR: I was approached by Adam Rapp, who’s one of the musical’s book writers. I know him as a playwright, and I’d invited him to see a show of mine called Pass Over, and he came and saw the show, and they were looking for a director for The Outsiders, and I knew about the book, and I knew about the film, but I had not read it and I had not seen it. So my first encounter of the material was the musical itself.

And I think the thing that hit me, and this is important for a musical, was the music. That’s what hit me first. After I went through the materials of the musical, I read the book, and I read it in one sitting, and it totally destroyed me. I really had an emotional experience reading it. I felt like S. E. Hinton, Susie Hinton, was unstinting, was really brutal. She got what it felt like to be a teenager, and I thought, I’ve got to do this.

DEADLINE: At what point did you see the movie?

TAYMOR: Early in the development, we took a trip to Tulsa. I got to meet Susie Hinton, and I got to see the place, because I knew Coppola had shot it there, and you know, because both film and theater are such visual mediums, I wanted to sit with the material, sit with the book for a while before I saw the film. Once I went to Tulsa and had really sat with the material for a while, then I watched the film.

DEADLINE: Angelina, how did you get involved?

ANGELINA JOLIE: My daughter Viv loves theater. She appreciates all theater but she certainly knows what she feels close to and what she responds to. She went to see The Outsiders at La Jolla about five times and was telling me about it, and I had read the book, and I’d seen the film years ago.

Then she asked me to come see it with her, and I thought it was just a…you know, Danya speaks of how important it is to teenagers, how it was written by somebody who’s the age of my daughter, right? So, really, as a mother, as a person, I was watching it, but I was really watching the effect it was having on my young daughter and what she was telling me about herself, and I was learning what about it was important to her and why it connected so deeply to her.

So, it was a very different experience of understanding, of how this is having a significant effect on her as a young person right now, and she’s communicating something to me, and that is the power of this material, which was in really good shape even by then. And then I had the privilege of watching everyone work over this last year to make it into what it is, and Vivienne has been there the whole way.

‘The Outsiders’
‘The Outsiders’

DEADLINE: The book was published in the late ’60s. The movie was the early ’80s. What was it about this story that resonated so much with your daughter now?

JOLIE: [Laughs] Oh, it’s hard to speak for her, because she’s a complex young woman. I think it’s just that it’s very deep, and it’s honest, and it doesn’t shy away from real feelings and real discussion and real pain, I think maybe every person that watches it might identify slightly more with one character or another, right, but what I think you see through it all is there is pain in life, right? There is fear. There is, Who am I and where do I belong? There is, Why are these people marginalized and harmed more than others? Why do these people kill themselves? What is it we’re facing in life? I think a lot of young people, especially today, these are very difficult times, and they want to have that real discussion, and they want to know what helps you get through life. What’s the reality of it? Like, don’t sugarcoat things for teenagers, is what I learned from S. E. Hinton. Meet them where they’re at, and it’s heavy, and it’s real, and these are the biggest, most complex times as you form into a person and realize certain hard truths about life, and what gets you through.

DEADLINE: I find it interesting the Outsiders story, even though it’s always seemed to be what used to be called a boys’ story, every step of the way women have been not only involved, but central, to its telling, from its author right up through the two of you. And young women are coming to the show.

JOLIE: It might be about how we see men. Instead of it being how it resonates with us. Maybe it’s possible that this exploration of a man, of men, is really quite beautiful through the eyes of the wives, mothers, lovers, sisters, daughters because it’s how much we see and love and understand the many aspects of men.

Emma Pittman (Cherry Valance) & Grant
Emma Pittman (Cherry Valance) & Grant

TAYMOR: I totally agree with that. I think the story resonates with people. People. I think that’s part of the lasting power as a book. And not just American people, people in different countries, people of different ages. I think what Angelina’s saying is true, though, and one of the most important and impactful moments in the story for Ponyboy is his interaction with Cherry, not because it’s all about romance, but because Cherry is a person who really sees him, and I think that what S. E. Hinton did for the group of kids around her, who happened to be a lot of boys, is profound and does resonate with people, because we’re all together. We’re not siloed apart from one another, and I think that that compassionate gaze resonates powerfully across gender, across race, across religion and class, too.

DEADLINE: Danya, a lot of movie-to-stage adaptations don’t always work, some because they stick too close to the movie and some because they veer too far from it. I’m wondering how you managed to find the sweet spot.

TAYMOR: I can’t speak for Coppola, but Fred Roos, the late, great Fred Roos, whose idea it was for this to become a musical, he loved the book, and so did Coppola, and I think that all of us were trying to tell the same story, so I don’t think I thought, oh, I’m going to do it exactly like the movie or I don’t want to do it anything like the movie. I thought, let me take everything that I can from these incredible source materials and try to adapt it for this different medium.

Something that had a huge impact on me was visiting Susie Hinton, and she said, You have the characters, you have the story, now have a vision, and that was very freeing for me and such a good guidepost. She didn’t say, Make it up. She said, Use what you have. I also read her other novels, like Tex and Rumble Fish and That was Then, This is Now, and I also watched her other collaboration with Coppola, Rumble Fish, which is also great and was a huge visual inspiration for our musical.

DEADLINE: That’s Interesting because the musical has some very cinematic set pieces – the rumble, the fire…

The church fire
The church fire

TAYMOR: I’m moved by the fact that people use the word cinematic to describe the piece, and what’s interesting to me is we used the things that theater does best, and that makes it feel cinematic. We used strobes and blackouts, we used expressive storytelling. I tried to figure out, like, how do you do a jump-cut on stage?

JOLIE: That’s so interesting to me.

The rumble
The rumble

TAYMOR: We’re using the things the theater does best, and what’s fascinating to me is it makes it feel cinematic, you know? There’s no machinery, really, in our show. It’s all done by hand. It’s all analogue, and yet, the feeling is like the feeling of watching a great film, which I think is a beautiful thing. We use freeze-frames, slow-motion, like trying to play with time in the way that you could in the editing room. We had to figure, How do you do that with bodies in space?

DEADLINE: Angelina, once you came aboard, what did you see your role as being, and did it work out as you envisioned?

JOLIE: After we saw it, we were contacted by the producers, and they said, did you enjoy it, and we said yes, and they said, what did you like? So Viv and I sat together and we wrote down what we liked, what we were curious about. And they responded to our notes. For me, it was a moment to learn more about Viv, not me thinking of becoming a producer.

Then we were asked again to have some more thoughts, and then we had the opportunity to meet Danya and Adam and Justin. I think at some point, it just felt the team seemed to feel that we were adding to it, so I really wanted to just be a support and listen and share my thoughts where useful. Most of the time, I was simply just listening. I have so much respect for Danya and her work, and as a director I learned so much watching her, how she makes sure the artists who were doing such special work were heard and supported.

TAYMOR: Angelina was in the room a lot, a lot, and providing not just support, but also incredible feedback, not just to me, although definitely to me and like, a real champion of keeping the vision potent and courageous and brutal like the book, but she also was there for the actors. You know, we had a lot of people making their Broadway debuts, a lot of people entering the spotlight for the first time, and she was incredibly generous in sharing her experience.

And you know, technical rehearsals in the theater are not for the faint of heart. They’re long days, and it moved me so much that Angelina was there, because that’s how you earn people’s trust, and she gave us that. She had so much skin in the game and so much curiosity about it all, and same thing with Vivienne. Vivienne would watch the show and give me the most amazing notes. Like, incredible eye. So, it was a wonderful, wonderful support, and also, obviously, made the work better.

DEADLINE: I tend to assume that when celebrity producers are announced, it’s usually just in name only, to help get the word out about the show. This sounds much more hands-on.

TAYMOR: I always say that Angelina’s the real deal, and she was there in every way and also gave us space when we needed it. And she’d say, ‘You can do it. Jump off the cliff. You’re going to be great. You’re going to fly. I know it.’ Those are important moments where you don’t know if you can do something, to have somebody say, ‘You can do it. Go on, you can do it,’ and push you to where you want to go but might be afraid to go.

DEADLINE: Angelina, what advice did you have for the young actors in the cast? And were they intimidated by you at all?

JOLIE: Well, I would love to work with Danya as an actor myself. She’s really, really attuned to actors and to pulling from them authenticity and grounding them and collaborating. So, a lot of it was me watching this process and then certainly being there where I could be a support, but I think it was really being alongside her to follow that process. She was my guide.

Whenever there was a moment when I might see that someone needed to talk or just…You know, I’ve had successes and failures, and I’ve been around a long time, and it’s really about the family that you make. It’s such a privilege to be an artist, and it’s such a deep, wonderful thing to connect to a stranger through a piece of art, and how fortunate we all are and to just enjoy it, you know? Not to feel just the pressure, but also have this full experience. I think that’s part of what is special about this piece, that it’s very fully realized, lived, and discussed, and felt by everybody who’s involved, and it brings out of each of us a discussion of our own questions of life and pain, and it brings out family, and it brings out what you fight for. For me it was just being part of the team.

We sometimes rush through things these days, and art can be about content and promotion and marketing and ticket sales, and it’s none of that. It is the deepest part of you trying to connect to the deepest part of someone else and be human together, and that’s all we’re doing.

DEADLINE: It sounds like you’ve been bitten by the theater bug. Do you think you’ll be doing more of this?

JOLIE: I would love to. I would love to. I loved my role in this, and I would love to keep producing, and if I was to do it as an actor, I would really want to be in this team’s hands. So, that’s me. I’m staying with this group.

DEADLINE: What were your responses to the Tony nominations?

TAYMOR: My reaction was, like, joy and relief. This piece of work is a true collaboration. Everybody put their heart and soul and guts and time into this piece, and so when it came out to be 12 nominations, across departments, writers, actors, choreography, designers, direction, it just made me feel like the piece was being seen. I know that recognition sometimes comes when something is worthy, and then again something can be worthy without being recognized, but I did feel so proud of the group and so happy that the collaboration was being seen, and that more people might be exposed to the piece because of that.

JOLIE: I think the same. I was talking to [composer & book writer] Justin Levine a few nights before, and we were almost preparing for, How do we make sure everybody knows how good they are, regardless of nominations, and we wanted to be able to take care of everybody. I was so in the headspace of making sure everybody knew it wasn’t the measure of what they do, because sometimes, as Danya said, sometimes it’s very worthy and they don’t get recognized. But I woke up to my daughter sitting on my bed, and I think she’d been waiting for me to wake up, and wow, there are 12 nominations. Everybody’s named, you know? We were like, ‘Justin got nominated, and Adam got nominated, and Danya got nominated. Which actors? Did Josh get it?’ You know, they were our friends, and our friends had been acknowledged. Our friends, who we love and really, really admire. It’s very special. Very special.

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