The final preview of a Broadway musical is always happily hysterical. The critics are present, poisoned quills sharpened, of course. But whatever we may think, the audience rises as one to cheer the show on to glorious success. It’s a nice tradition.
Even if, by most standards, the show isn’t particularly good, there are friends of the cast in the house, and adoring family and musical nuts, who will cheerfully give the cast a ritual ovation, come what may. Yet, during the curtain call at the final preview of Paul Simon’s troubled Capeman , the audience response was strangely muted. To be sure, there were those who defiantly rose to their feet, as if to say, “We are with you!” But if you felt badly for the cast, there were reasons.
The stars of Capeman -Ruben Blades, Ednita Nazario and the young, charismatic Marc Anthony-were embracing each other during the curtain call. They are themselves proud symbols of a Latino culture mostly ignored by Broadway until now. But their emotional embrace told a different story. They had given of their best, but they knew, secretly, as performers do, they were done for. And that there would be no reprieve.
Capeman , conceived in public turmoil, turns out to be unsavable. The tale of a Broadway musical that’s saved miraculously at the 11th hour is always welcome. (A legendary Broadway musical was made out of it- 42nd Street .) The pre-opening troubles of Titanic , for example, which made prophesying Broadway disaster a blood sport, are now forgotten. The sorry new twist to the show-biz story with a happy end is Capeman . The $11 million musical has had what must surely be a record number of unofficial advisers and show doctors, but not even Lazarus (one of Capeman ‘s characters, incidentally) could promise resurrection.
Anyone who has worked on a Broadway musical will tell you that it can induce a form of paralytic insanity even among the most clear-eyed and brilliant of talents. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that Paul Simon’s co-book-writer and co-lyricist, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott, knows what he’s doing. So, too, the innovative choreographer Mark Morris (the director of record, as well as the choreographer). Nonetheless, the failure of Capeman is at least partly due, it’s said, to both of them making their Broadway debuts. So is Mr. Simon. But what of that?
There has been more than one musical created by seasoned Broadway talent that’s turned out a disaster. Mr. Walcott, the poet, has written more than 80 plays. That should qualify him to co-write the book of a musical! (He’s also worked with Galt McDermot, the composer of Hair , for some 20 years.) He isn’t, then, some kind of naïve innocent in hostile alien territory. Mark Morris is new to Broadway, too. But he has directed successful opera productions, including the 1997 Royal Opera production of Platée . Music-a story sung-isn’t new to him! (Nor is a story danced.) Besides, many are the choreographers who have gone on to revolutionize the American musical-among them, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion and Michael Bennett.
It’s dumbfounding to report, however, that there’s scarcely any dance in Capeman . Mr. Simon’s sweet, seductive Latin American rhythms and 1950’s doo-wop pastiche cry out for choreography. In scene after scene, we long for the cast to bust out and dance. Salsa compels it. Yet next to nothing happens-except for awfully inadequate bits and pieces that have been added in the last frantic weeks by the uncredited Joey McKneely, who choreographed the ever-memorable Smokey Joe’s Cafe .
The cast-or Mr. Morris-have been straitjacketed. But Mr. Simon’s musical bewilderingly fails to dance in more ways than one. I can only assume that portions of Mr. Walcott’s book have been substantially junked in the last-minute cuts and rewrites that are said to have “improved” the piece. There have been four directors of Capeman : Susanna Tubert, an Argentine protégé of Harold Prince whom Mr. Simon replaced with the young Chicago director Eric Simonson, whom Mr. Simon replaced with Mark Morris, whom Mr. Simon discreetly replaced in the last weeks with the Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks. It looks as if Mr. Simon didn’t know what he was doing.
He said as much in a Playbill interview that was meant to publicize the show: “There were times,” he explained, “when I would’ve fired me if I could have gotten someone who knew what they were doing to replace me.”
And that nicely perverse statement takes the biscuit, too! But a major casualty of the mess and clash of egos is Mr. Walcott’s libretto. The Nobel laureate’s lyrics (co-written with Mr. Simon) only half rise to the occasion. Compare the MTV pop standard mush “Time is an ocean of endless tears” to the memorable force of “This city makes a cartoon of crime/ Capes and umbrellas, the glorification of slime.” But the book actually throws away the very raison d’être of the entire musical, which is the crime and punishment and redemption of Salvador Agron.
Agron’s story is well known by now, even mythic. It has fascinated Mr. Simon for a decade (the time he has obsessively spent on the musical). In 1959, Agron, a 16-year-old Puerto Rican gang member known as the Capeman, stabbed two other teenagers to death. He became the youngest person ever sentenced to death in New York State. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller commuted his sentence, and Agron became a model prisoner and sometime poet. As he put it, he “rehumanized” himself. After serving 20 years in prison, he died in the Bronx in 1986 of a heart attack. He was 43 years old.
A Broadway musical about a killer? Well, there’s the precedent of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (or for that matter, Jekyll and Hyde ). But this is different. The events are within memory; there are family members of the murdered boys who still live in pain and loss.
In a New York magazine article about the Capeman and his gangland sidekick known as Umbrella Man, Mike McAlary found a survivor of Agron’s vicious knifing-Ewald Reimer, who was stabbed but saved. He was the one who identified Agron as the killer. Now 56, Mr. Reimer lives in a wooden shanty just west of Atlantic City. He would only talk reluctantly through his mailbox and told the reporter this:
“The Capeman is a long time gone. I ain’t going back to that. They can do whatever they want, even make a musical. But the Capeman killed them kids, and stabbed me. He done it because we were white, and I don’t guess that is anything to fucking sing and dance about.”
The Capeman takes an unpopular stance. Mr. Simon would like us to be willing to grant redemption and forgiveness. Is it possible for someone who has committed a foul crime to redeem himself? We are not saints, but are we willing to forgive a killer who shows remorse?
I must say that the Broadway musical doesn’t seem to me the best forum for such a debate. But the issues are never debated! You need only compare the scary documentary film footage we’re shown of the unrepentant, contemptuous 16-year-old killer with the meek, passive stage version to sense the deep divide between reality and show biz.
The Capeman doesn’t glorify Agron; it merely turns him into a one-dimensional cipher and predictable victim. He’s played by three actors-from 7 years old (Evan Jay Newman) to confused teenager (Marc Anthony) to brooding middle age (Ruben Blades). But in this woolly, unfocused version of events that drifts haphazardly to a close, we never get to know him. We learn little more than, when a child, he was beaten by Puerto Rican nuns for bedwetting, that he’s illiterate, and was beaten up by his stepfather, a minister. He seems to join his street gang, the Vampires, reluctantly. They corrupt him .
It was not so facile, I’m sure, and in theater terms, not so wan. There are scenes that go dead, as if they haven’t even been thought about-or have been thrown together at the last minute. Ultimately, Mr. Simon’s songs blur into each other. This is a barrio musical that even manages to stage a lifeless Puerto Rican Day parade. The killing scene itself takes the breath away in its utter lack of drama-which only reminds us of a similar rumble, brilliantly staged and danced, in Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story .
The Capeman just might have been the more authentic, darker, postmodern version of Mr. Robbins’ landmark musical. But among its creators, only Bob Crowley’s wonderfully imaginative sets, with their hypnotic perspectives and insane angles, convey the exciting possibility of new horizons and tragic stories well told. The rest is Mr. Simon’s confused, dysfunctional, well-intentioned trip.