We’re only talking about two words, but the creators of THE OUTSIDERS made a mistake in mentioning them.

Here’s a musical about two warring teenage gangs, each of which believes their group is right. Things will get out of hand and lead to death.

So, in a 2024 musical that brings to mind a 1957 classic that became a 1961 household-name Oscar winning film, would you mention the words “West Side”?

There they are, though, in Adam Rapp and Justin Levine’s libretto, in which The Socs – short for “Socials” – harass The Greasers. 

At one point Bob, the anti-social leader of Socs, makes a reference to the West Side of town and the East Side. 

True, these terms show up in S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel that inspired the 1983 film as well as this new musical. And that may well be how the people in Tulsa, Oklahoma demarcate their city. 

But in a musical about gang wars that seems perilously close to WEST SIDE STORY to begin with, the bookwriters would have been wise to use “North Side” and “South Side.” Better still, “our turf” and “yours.”

Given that Hinton wrote THE OUTSIDERS when she was herself a teen, we can pardon her for calling one character Dally and bestowing on another the all-too-close name of Darry. It’s a rookie writer’s mistake.

Dally is a Greaser who’s done time; Darry was once considered the de facto leader of the Greasers, although he, like Tony in the Laurents-Bernstein-Sondheim-Robbins hit, finds real life now staring him in the face. His situation is substantially more dire than Tony’s; his parents died in a car crash, and he, at 20, must take care of his two brothers.

Rapp and Levine may have felt that Dally and Darry are so well-known that changing even one of their names was out of the question. But for those who don’t know the property – and there must be some – hearing two names that have a 60% similarity is bound to cause confusion.

And speaking of names, can we really believe that any parents would actually name their sons Ponyboy and Sodapop? Understand that these are not nicknames, but the actual names that the lads’ father and mother wanted for their children. Whenever you’ve seen WEST SIDE STORY, have you ever inferred that Diesel, Mouthpiece, and Gee-Tar were the actual names emblazoned on these lads’ birth certificates?

Would-be Jet Anybodys wasn’t that lass’ real name either, but she comes to mind because one ensemble member here seems to be a female. If that’s the case, we can be pleased that 10 years after WEST SIDE STORY, a girl would now be an unquestioned part of the Greasers.

Although the novel is a neo-classic, readers and viewers can be pardoned for wondering why kids would even bother with Greasers. It’s one thing for the Have-Not Jets to be fighting the Have-Not Sharks to defend what little they have. However, why would Haves challenge Have-Nots? For that matter, wouldn’t these brains be afraid of their enemies’ brawn? 

The conflict only seems real many, many minutes into the show when Bob’s girlfriend Cherry simply chooses to be friendly with Ponyboy; the insecure Soc gets all paranoid about it. It isn’t the most original way of starting a conflict, but at least it makes sense, which nothing before it truly does.

In a vast sea of high school musicals, here’s a very different one. Although this show never brings us into a classroom, Hinton established that Ponyboy is all of 14 and Johnny is 16. Dally has made it to 17 but seems older because of his experiences in prison. His ability to survive that makes him much respected by the other Greasers, so even when he says something silly and inaccurate (“If they cut your hair, you might as well throw in the towel”), they listen.

THE OUTSIDERS may consternate newcomers who may wonder what exactly the musical wants to say. When faced with a life-threatening emergency, two Greasers do the heroic thing. It will prove costly to one of them, which spurs Dally’s contention that doing something good for others is stupid. Is that the message that Hinton wants to convey – that you must look out for yourself and ignore the plight of your fellow man?

Hinton cited two famous works in her novel. In this musical, Gone with the Wind has gone with the wind, but Great Expectations remains, mostly through a potent song by that title. Robert Frost is not only mentioned, but quoted, which leads to another impressive song. Granted, having roughnecks cite poetry is the easiest way of showing that there are more to these characters than our prejudices lead us to assume, but it’s still somewhat believable.

Many songs at least start in a sensitive manner with the same goal: to what these characters are really made of. Levin collaborated with Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance on the score; the latter two brand themselves as Jamestown Revival. 

They’ve provided us plenty of excellent thoughts: The Greasers years for a place for them where “we’d have ourselves a garden, but we wouldn’t work too hard.” They’re asked “You wanna be James Dean and crash and burn?” Older brother Darry tells his younger brothers, “I keep your head above water, and I sink like a stone  … I keep you from the fire but it’s me who’s getting burned.”

The lyricists also provide plenty of words that don’t quite rhyme.

Words bring up a WEST SIDE STORY flaw that couldn’t be avoided in 1957 but one that a 2024 OUTSIDERS could have ignored, but didn’t. The Jet named Action asks about the Sharks “Where the devil are they?” and sounds more like Henry Higgins than a street hoodlum. So in the Eisenhower era, characters weren’t allowed profanities of any sort. 

Now, with almost a quarter of the new century over, at a time when cable TV has made us used to once-forbidden words, why are our Greasers saying “Jesus Christmas” – twice?

One difficult achievement that WEST SIDE STORY made is one THE OUTSIDERS has been able to conquer, too: Greasers dance and they don’t look silly. That doesn’t mean that Rick Kuperman and Jeff Kuperman (that’s the way the brothers care to be billed) have equaled the choreography that Jerome Robbins gave us, but it’s still worthwhile and even excitement-inducing to watch.

We ain’t got no money but we got something to prove

Trust me I now

When cartwheels are used for genuine excitement

Friday night song

Johnny thrilled to be called an outlaw

Nice she heard of accident

I don’t say hi to you at school

Weak applause after the murder

We were only having fun horsing around 

The use of boards is very effective, but this show is more than just two boards and a passion.

Nice If soc girl could have had a loftier number.

There’ll be another fight later on, which the Greasers will initiate in order to “Do it for Johnny.” They’re rationalizing, for at least this point in the story, The Socs didn’t cause Johnny the misery he’s enduring. (Granted, they did cut him up some time before we enter the story.) But to be fair, we are talking about kids who don’t need much motivation to fight. 

(There are “Do It for Johnny” T-shirts at the merch counter should you care to support this cause.)

As for the cast, everyone’s fine; no one’s magnificent; many look too old. 

Too bad that both The Socs and The Greasers didn’t join their high school drama club and do WEST SIDE STORY. Bert Silverberg, who’s directed many young people’s productions in Rhode Island, noted that getting boys to perform a musical isn’t easy, but if you offer them the chance to be a Shark or a Jet, they’ll enthusiastically sign on. 

So, here’s another similarity with WEST SIDE STORY – but a positive one. Whatever the Broadway fate of THE OUTSIDERS, in the future, many a high school lad will jump at the chance to be a Soc or a Greaser. 

After that, someone in Oklahoma is bound to do OKLAHOMA! The Socs and The Greasers could learn quite a bit from “The farmer and the cowman should be friends” – a nice reminder that peaceful coexistence that should exist between these warring sides. As we’ve all seen time and time again, kids from all walks of life get to know and respect each other – and often become friends – when they work together on a show. 

That brings to mind a question that a musical from nearly 100 years ago asked: “Who could ask for anything more?” 

And if that’s what gets kids to do a musical and become initiated with this art form, that alone will justify its existence.