Facing the music Paul Simon was never a big fan of Braodway musicals. So when he began to write his own show, he made sure the songs came first.

November 16, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Paul Simon is not a Broadway kind of guy.

"Broadway is such a strange place," he says. "A lot of people -- and I would have put myself in this category -- really don't have any interest in going there to be entertained. I never did. I mean, I went to see plays, but I didn't go to see musicals."

That's going to change, though, and soon. Because this winter, Paul Simon is going Broadway in the most literal sense. He has a production of his own about to debut, a full-blown musical that he wrote with Nobel laureate Derek Walcott.

Called "The Capeman," Simon's show is based on the real-life story of Salvador Agron, a teen-age Puerto Rican convicted of a spectacular 1959 gang killing in New York. A member of an Upper West Side gang called the Vampires, the cape-wearing Agron was part of a group looking to settle a score with a Hell's Kitchen Irish gang called the Norsemen, when they wound up in a rumble. Agron stabbed two 16-year-olds to death, an unparalleled act of violence for the time.

At the time of his trial, Agron was portrayed as a monster, a heartless killer who would sooner go to the electric chair than express remorse. He would have gone there, too, had he not been pardoned by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Over the next 20 years, Agron changed dramatically. Although he'd had only a single year's schooling as a child, he took classes while imprisoned and became a published poet. His life of violence behind him, he was released from prison in 1979. Describing himself as "rehumanized," Agron died of natural causes seven years later.

Simon, a lifelong New Yorker, was haunted by the story. In 1989, while he was working on his last studio album, "The Rhythm of the Saints," he began thinking of developing the story for the stage. He began work in earnest in 1993.

Granted, tracing the Capeman's development from confused immigrant to cape-wearing killer to rehabilitated prisoner doesn't exactly make for light entertainment. There are no dancing cats in this show, no roller-skating trains, and no movie-style special effects. Its biggest draw, frankly, is the phrase "Music by Paul Simon."

A pop music giant since 1965, when he and Art Garfunkel topped the charts with "The Sounds of Silence," the 56-year old Simon is one of the most adventurous and successful singer/songwriters of the rock era. From the tuneful wit of "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" to the Afropop invention of his "Graceland" album, Simon ranks among his generation's most enduring composers.

No wonder, then, that the first step in the play's prelaunch publicity blitz is the release of "Songs from the Capeman" (due in stores Tuesday), an album in which the composer himself performs selections from the show. Although it's not as pop-oriented as Simon's best-known work, its reliance on Puerto Rican musical styles isn't all that far removed from the Afro-Brazilian fare Simon investigated in his 1990 album, "The Rhythm of the Saints" (see accompanying review).

Given the Grammy-winner's run of million-selling albums, "Songs from the Capeman" ought to drum up interest in the show itself.

The stage production begins preview performances at the Marquis Theatre in Manhattan in December. With Ruben Blades, Marc Anthony and Ednita Nazario in the lead roles, "The Capeman" will open Jan. 8.

Still, the question remains: How did a guy who doesn't want to see musicals end up writing one?

Simon doesn't really dislike the idea of musical theater, only what the musical theater has become. So as much as he may shake his head in dismay at the success of "Cats," he happily listens to the likes of George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein and Cole Porter.

"It's not rock and roll, but I liked it," he says, then laughs. "I didn't mean to parody the Stones, but that's exactly what it is. I liked it.

"But it ended up in a weird cul de sac -- probably because it was never energized by rock and roll," he says. As Simon sees it, the trouble with modern musical theater is that "it's all descended either from the musical theater from its heyday in the '40s and '50s, or it's the English variant that Andrew Lloyd Webber popularized. Those are the two mainstreams of what a Broadway musical is today."

Trouble is, there's nothing terribly special about the music these plays employ. "There are all of these different stories out there, but the music kind of all sounds the same," Simon says.

Moreover, the music in these musicals is essentially secondary, having been written to fit the playwright's words. "I don't like that," Simon says flatly. "I think that's deeply unmusical."

By contrast, "The Capeman" is entirely music-driven. It isn't just that every word in the two-act show is sung, or that all the onstage movement is being treated as dance, having been blocked out by choreographer Mark Morris. It's that "The Capeman" started with the music, with Simon using sound to frame the scenes and define the world in which these characters exist.

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