April 5, 2008

Still Wrapped Up With "The Capeman"

Zillions of people have fallen in love with Broadway musicals before even seeing their first show. Instead, it was a cast recording that won their hearts. And that’s how I first fell for Paul Simon’s The Capeman. I’ve been a Paul Simon fan since seeing “The Graduate” when I was in my teens and over the years, I’ve loved Simon’s musical adventurousness. His 1986 album “Graceland”, an homage to the mbaqanga sounds of South Africa, is one of my all-time favorites. And so I was really intrigued back in 1997, when someone gave me a copy of “Songs from The Capeman,” a concept cast album that served as a kind of aural trailer for the show that was scheduled to open on Broadway a few months later.

As it turned out, The Capeman became a flop of myth-making proportions, and Simon vowed never to write for Broadway again but I continued to love the music and when I got a flyer in the mail saying that the Brooklyn Academy of Music was staging a concert version of Songs from the Capeman as the kickoff to its month-long celebration of Simon’s work, I clicked right on to Telecharge and ordered tickets.

The Capeman tells the story of Salvador Agron, a troubled Puerto Rican kid who joined a street gang in the late ‘50s, stabbed two white boys to death during a rumble and became a tabloid sensation for the dramatic black cape he wore during the fight and the defiant attitude he displayed during later interviews with the press. Agron spent 16 years in prison, became a born-again Christian and accomplished poet before being released in 1979. He died from pneumonia seven years later.

Simon’s wonderful score includes doo-wop, gospel, Latin jazz and his trademark folk-inflected pop. His collaborators on the show included Nobel laureate Derek Walcott who co-wrote the book and lyrics, choreographer Mark Morris as director, and the always innovative set designer Bob Crowley. The cast included Marc Anthony as young Sal, Ruben Blades as the older Sal, and Sara Ramirez, who seven years later would win a Tony for her scene-stealing role as The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot, making her Broadway debut as the pen pal who befriends Sal when he’s in prison.

With the exception of Crowley, they were all Broadway newcomers. And it showed. During the extended preview period, reports leaked out about the weakness of the book, about Simon’s refusal to listen to the advice of Broadway veterans, about Morris’ disappearance from rehearsals and finally about the arrival of show doctor Jerry Zaks. My pit-musician husband K had worked with Zaks on several earlier musicals and I so I approached the director in the lobby a few days before the show opened. “How’s it doing?” I asked after establishing our connection. “Well, it’s better,” I recall him saying. “But we could use some more time.” They didn’t get it. The show open to near universal pans and closed after 68 performances, losing all of its $11 million investment.

Still, the music was terrific. And so my sister Joanne and I trooped out to Brooklyn this past rainy Thursday night and trekked up what seemed like a hundred steep and rickety steps to the balcony of the BAM Harvey Theater. But once we got our breath back, we had a grand time. The legendary doo-wop group Little Anthony & the Imperials, celebrating 50 years together, warmed up the audience and set the mood with three of their classic numbers. Then the Spanish Harlem Orchestra took the stage and swung into the merengue rhythms of The Capeman’s opening number, “Born in Puerto Rico.” A company of nearly two-dozen people sang the entire score without any of the show’s dialog. But the story was fairly easy to follow and the music impossible to resist. By the end, company members were inviting audience members to come up and dance with them. At least one couple I saw didn’t even wait to be asked but just jumped up and joined in the fun.

That kind of easy flow between the worlds of pop and Broadway used to be common. In the Golden Age, from the 1920s right through Hair in 1968, the country’s most popular songwriters wrote Broadway shows and show tunes played on the radio. Everybody hummed Gershwin and knew that some enchanted evening they might see a stranger across a crowded room and that once they’d found her they should never let her go. Then rock came along and for the next three decades, the Broadway musical and mainstream music went their separate ways. Hopes were high for a reconciliation in the late 1990s when, maybe because they were then in their 50s, both Simon and Elton John decided to tackle their first musicals. John wrote the stage version of Disney’s The Lion King but tuned down his sound to fit the Disney aesthetic. Simon was more successful at keeping his voice but The Capeman failed. I’m still hoping that Simon will reconsider and try another musical. In the meantime, the final performances of Songs From The Capeman are playing at BAM tonight and tomorrow. But, of course, if you miss them, there’s always the cast album.


Anonymous said...

Wow, fascinating article. I'd never heard of The Capeman until now, but will definitely seek out the cast album. Thanks for this!

Esther said...

One of the things that struck me from watching "Broadway: The American Musical" is the extent to which show tunes used to be America's Top 40.

I love Paul Simon, and I've heard of "Capeman" but I didn't know the whole story behind it, except knowing that it was a flop. I'll definitely check it out. I think you can get the entire score on iTunes.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Dylan and Esther, thanks, as always, for posting your comments. Songs from the Capeman is indeed available on iTunes and if you download it, I'd love to know what you think of it.

Anonymous said...

I saw the show three times...the first preview, the opening night and the closing night...all in a 3 or 4 month period...the music is fantastic, and you can actually download the cast album from Itunes, it is very sad that the show wasn't able to survive.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Mfuste, thanks for your comments. It's particularly nice to hear from another fan of this ill-fated show.

Anonymous said...

i saw the capeman when it was playin n it was beautiful. a very sad story that it made me cry. the music was out of this world. i hav the cd n still enjoy it. wish it would come back on broadway. maybe another state. thanks Paul Simon.