‘The Outsiders’ Choreographers on That Jaw-Dropping Fight Scene

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Photo Source: Matthew Murphy

In an especially crowded Broadway season, Adam Rapp, Justin Levine, and Jamestown Revival’s “The Outsiders” has caught fire. That’s due in large part to choreographers Jeff and Rick Kuperman—particularly their staging of a rumble scene in which the show’s rival gangs, the Greasers and the Socs, finally go head-to-head.

The two (yes, they’re brothers) have worked together on a number of projects, including Larry Charles’ raucous 2023 big-screen comedy “Dicks: The Musical.” But “The Outsiders,” a stage adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film, marks the duo’s Broadway debut. 

The show notched a Drama League Award nomination for outstanding production of a musical and received 12 Tony nods, including for best choreography. 

The Kupermans hopped on Zoom to talk about all things movement and describe how they crafted one of Broadway’s most jaw-dropping moments. 

RELATED: 5 Tips for a First-Time Choreographer 

How was it that you came to work on “The Outsiders”? 

Rick Kuperman: We had a general meeting with [director] Danya Taymor during the pandemic, and it was an extraordinary experience…. We realized we had so many of the same influences, and we liked the same kind of theater. After that, we got the script. We had another chat with Danya, and we were lucky enough that she asked us to come onboard. 

Jeff Kuperman: I remember reading the script, and every few pages, I was getting excited. There were so many challenges where I’d be scratching my head thinking, How would we stage this train escape? How would we stage this fire? How can we make this rumble as iconic as possible? With every head scratch, I got more excited.

When diving into a script, how do you decide which moments call for choreography? 

RK: It’s split into two categories. There are some scenes the writers render that you know have room for social dance and exuberance and joy and kineticism. And then there are other moments that don’t necessarily need to be choreographed or stylized…. But upon further reflection, if we lean into a more expressionistic vocabulary, we might be able to heighten the experience.

The Outsiders

How do you establish a show’s movement vocabulary—especially for something like “The Outsiders,” which doesn’t use a traditional Broadway dance style? 

JK: You break down every scene into the level of choreography that you instinctually bring to it—highly choreographed, very simple, and so on. Then you get into a room and you start with the things that jump out at you. Because once you crack those, a language starts to unfold in front of you, and you start to build your toolkit for how you will stage certain scenes. 

The rumble scene is unlike anything on Broadway; it’s become one of this season’s biggest talking points. How did it come together? 

JK: We wanted the rumble to start naturalistically, and then over the course of the fight, it morphs into a more expressionistic mode. Sound design was a huge part of that. We built [the scene] in phases. Phase one: kids beating the crap out of each other. Phase two: The sound design starts to permeate, and we become more expressionistic. And then phase three: We divorce the partners from each other, and we can embody the violence. When you’re doing fight choreography onstage, you’re not fighting an opponent—you’re dancing with someone; and your MO is really to take care of each other even as you’re trying to sell the conflict. 

RK: Speaking to the technical elements that were laid on top of the choreography, obviously there’s the rain and figuring out how to work with that special effect. It just took time. We spent time working with different amounts of blood, different makeup, different sources of rain. Then there’s, of course, the lighting score, which exists on top of the sound score. It’s all planned out down to the nanosecond. 

How do actors inform your work and the way a piece moves? 

RK: For “The Outsiders,” it was important to us from the beginning that every single person on that stage had a three-dimensional track, and that we leaned into every individual performer onstage. This is not the Rockettes, where cleanliness is the number one thing. Character is paramount in our show. We also love to help actors discover that they are capable of so much more physically than they think they are when they walk into the room on day one. When an actor says, “There’s no way I can do that,” or, “I don’t know how,” or, “I’m scared,” and then we watch them weeks or months later complete this stunt or physical act and look amazing, it’s a huge joy. 

What are some ways for actors who don’t consider themselves “movers” to get comfortable in their bodies? 

JK: To be onstage is a physical act. Theater is itself a physical act. We train to get control of our voice; we train to get control of our body. Different traditions put different degrees of focus on what it means to be an embodied performer. We know that with time and training, people will surprise themselves. Some advice to actors—especially those who do not consider themselves movers or dancers—is to not neglect the body. The more that you tune it, the more you will be capable of doing onstage. 

RK: Warm-up is a massive part of getting comfortable in your body, and especially doing it with other people, if possible—moving together, sweating together, breathing together. Building a community so you’re free to be who you are and free to fall on your butt a few times. You have to be unafraid to look silly, to fail. That’s so key to pushing the physical boundaries.

What advice would you give aspiring choreographers? 

JK: In addition to having a vision, it’s very helpful to be technical yourself. I don’t think we could’ve gotten the precision that we did [in the rumble scene] unless we were able to manipulate the sound score on our own. We would come into the studio, make some phrases, go home, do a first pass of what it might sound like, and get insight into what was working. Having the ability to tweak that in the room was essential to having a final product that worked. If we’d needed to wait to iterate, it would have taken way too long. It was an essential part of our process. 

This story originally appeared in the May 16 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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