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Theater: Seeking Salvation for the Capeman

9 minute read
Richard Zoglin

On a hot July afternoon, Paul Simon was fiddling with dials on a control panel in a cramped recording studio in midtown Manhattan. With most of his hair gone and his plump face inching toward jowly, the pop troubadour, 56, has reached unmistakable middle age. But the mellow, yearning voice coming through the sound system has changed little: “I was born in Puerto Rico/ Came here when I was a child…” Simon was preparing the mix for a song from The Capeman, his new musical that recounts a bloody tabloid crime from the 1950s, explores questions of guilt and redemption and introduces a rich dose of Latin rhythms and doo-wop music to Broadway. One riff from the electric keyboard caused him to make a face. “It’s too synthy, too ‘woo-woo.'” he said. “Have you got some nice strings?” Another muddy spot he wanted rerecorded: “The piano’s too busy. You lose the lyrics.” Putting the finishing touches on the album Songs from The Capeman, being readied for release in advance of the show’s opening, Simon seemed cool, confident and completely in his element.

It was when he ventured out into the rough, unfamiliar seas of Broadway that he encountered troubled waters. The Capeman–Simon’s first Broadway musical, seven years in the works, opening this week–has weathered one of the most heavily publicized and problem-plagued births of any show in years. Reports that Simon, a legendary perfectionist, has not taken well to the demands of theatrical collaboration have been the buzz of Broadway for months. The show’s opening, originally scheduled for Jan. 8, was postponed three weeks when a new director–the show’s fourth–was brought in to do some last-minute retooling. Even the preshow CD, Simon’s first album of new music since The Rhythm of the Saints in 1990, was a serious commercial disappointment, dropping off the Billboard Top 100 after only six weeks.

There were problems onstage too, which became apparent when the show started preview performances in early December. Its story of Salvador Agron–a Puerto Rican teenager convicted of killing two white youths in a Hell’s Kitchen playground in 1959–was confused and uninvolving; the staging lacked energy; and there was surprisingly little dancing for a show directed by an acclaimed choreographer, Mark Morris. Last month the producers enticed veteran director Jerry Zaks (the Tony Award-winning revival of Guys and Dolls) to take over as show doctor. He in turn brought in a new choreographer, Joey McKneely. That left Morris (though still the director of record) the odd man out. Show publicists claim Morris remains in close touch with the production and is offering input, but he described his role to TIME late last week as a “visiting dignitary” who stopped attending rehearsals once Zaks came in. His reaction to the usurpation? “In some ways relief,” says Morris, “in some ways embarrassment. But I want Paul to be happy with the show.”

It may still happen. Zaks has cut several numbers, restaged others and made the story tighter and more coherent. Reaction from audiences is improving. Stranger things have happened on Broadway: for all its troubles, The Capeman may win redemption yet.

The creative team is upbeat. “One of the things that amazes me,” Ednita Nazario, who plays Agron’s mother, said Friday during a break in the show’s final rehearsal, “is this perception that there’s this huge crisis and turmoil around the play. And it’s so not true.” Zaks says he took on the daunting task because he was excited by the chance to “help something already on its way to being something, to become what it wants to be,” and he says he’s happy with the results after a scant three weeks. The show’s producers, meanwhile, insist that all the negative publicity has been unfair. “Would I wish this kind of scrutiny and fishbowl on any artist?” asks producer Edgar Dobie. “No.”

Simon got the idea for The Capeman nearly a decade ago, recalling a famous crime from his New York City childhood. Agron and an accomplice–dubbed the Capeman and the Umbrella Man because witnesses identified them by those accoutrements–made tabloid headlines, feeding the public’s fears of juvenile delinquency and gang violence. At 16, Agron became the youngest person ever to receive the death penalty in New York State, a sentence that was later commuted to life imprisonment. In prison, Agron educated himself, began writing poetry and left-wing political tracts and became a cause celebre for liberal intellectuals. He won a parole in 1979 and died seven years later of an apparent heart attack.

The musical’s subject matter has not surprisingly provoked controversy. Relatives of the murder victims objected to what they feared would be the glorification of Agron, and they staged a protest at the show’s first performance. Some members of the Latino community have complained that a white songwriter is perpetuating Puerto Rican stereotypes. “My fear is that the general public is going to see this as another Puerto Rican with a knife, and they will come out with that view of our community,” says Melody Capote, executive director of the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York City. The show has even spawned a counterplay: Fred Newman, a playwright and director who was once Agron’s therapist, has written and staged an off-Broadway drama on the same subject, Salvador (Fictional Conversations); among its characters is one Paul Simon.

But the real-world controversy has been overshadowed by the show’s creative travails. Simon had near total control of the project from the start, and he assembled a team of collaborators who were mostly Broadway outsiders. As co-writer of the book and lyrics he enlisted Derek Walcott, the Nobel-prizewinning West Indian poet and playwright. Morris, a leading light of modern dance, was persuaded to make his Broadway debut as choreographer. The lead roles were cast mostly with singers who had little stage-acting experience–including Panamanian musician Ruben Blades and hot young salsa star Marc Anthony (playing the old and young Agron, respectively). Even most of the show’s producers are largely Broadway neophytes, among them TV producer/talent manager Brad Grey and Simon’s friend and publicist Dan Klores.

Finding a director, however, was the real stumper. Simon admits he and Walcott didn’t want a strong “auteur” who would try to impose his own vision on the show. “We wanted to do it our way, and we wanted a director whose thinking was compatible with ours,” Simon says. “We wanted to work with a good director, but we didn’t want to work for a good director.” After running through most of Broadway’s top names, rejecting some and being turned down by others, Simon settled on Susana Tubert, an Argentine-born director who had apprenticed with Harold Prince. She was ousted after three months. Then Simon brought in Eric Simonson, a young Chicago director who had staged The Song of Jacob Zulu on Broadway. Where Tubert had favored a magic-realist approach, Simonson pushed for a more documentary style, which Simon hated. Simonson was out after two months. Simon then prevailed on Morris, whom he got along with well, to take over the job of director as well as choreographer.

Critics maintain that Simon focused excessively on the show’s music at the expense of a book that had obvious problems. For a workshop in the fall of 1996, for example, he insisted that a band of seven or eight pieces be present for rehearsals–a costly and (to many theater veterans) unneeded luxury. While admitting that it’s not Broadway’s usual practice, Simon defends his approach of nailing down the music first. “People kept saying, ‘You’re doing it backward.’ But if the sound isn’t right, how can I hear the characters?” Says an ex-member of The Capeman team: “Paul’s philosophy is: if the song is right, the moment is right.”

To be sure, the prospect of Simon’s distinctive sound and formidable musical skills enlivening Broadway is an exciting one. But his I-did-it-my-way approach recalls Sam Rayburn’s famous line about the Ivy League intellects whom President John F. Kennedy assembled as advisers: “I’d feel a whole lot better about them if one of them had just run for sheriff once.” Notes Simonson: “Paul Simon is an amazing artist. But there are reasons why the theater process has evolved the way it has. You can only reinvent the wheel so many ways.”

While some colleagues found Simon open and willing to listen to suggestions, others complain that he was less than receptive to dissenting ideas. (Walcott was reportedly even more prickly about proposed changes in the book he and Simon had written.) “I guess if you really become insistent on being happy with what’s going on, some people are going to think you’re difficult,” Simon responds. “I don’t think so. That’s an artist’s right.” Yet an impending opening can focus the mind, and Simon eventually became convinced that he needed help from an experienced Broadway hand like Zaks. “Jerry was mandated to make great incisions in the show,” says Morris, the director he supplanted. “Some of the stuff I had wanted to do for a long time but wasn’t empowered to do.”

While the $11 million show did well at the box office during early previews, ticket sales have dipped during the past few weeks. That, of course, could change quickly if the revamped show garners good reviews and Simon’s fans start pouring into the theater. After a rough year, Simon is prepared for anything. “Broadway is a tiny little industry,” he says. “People talk. And they don’t wish you the best. But all the show-biz stuff is irrelevant. I didn’t go to work on this for seven years because I wanted a big show-business hit on Broadway.” But he’d take one–and so would Broadway.

–With reporting by Elaine Rivera and William Tynan/New York

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