Said about Simon

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The Independent Culture
Think of Paul Simon and you conjure up soothing images of "Bridge over Troubled Water". You do not dream of angry protestors picketing him with placards saying: "Murder is Not Entertainment" and "Dancing on the Dead".

But this is exactly what happened with Simon's first Broadway musical, The Capeman, which opened in January of this year. The protesters were enraged by the choice of subject for the show: Salvador Agron, a 16-year-old Puerto Rican who, in 1959, murdered two white boys and became the youngest person ever to be condemned to the electric chair. As far as the campaigners were concerned, it was a case of "the show mustn't go on".

And they got their way. After vociferous protests and some of the worst reviews any New York show had ever been subjected to (one tabloid succinctly dubbed it Broadway's biggest flop), The Capeman closed after a mere 68 performances. The New York Times, which had reckoned the show "numbingly bad, a wounded animal waiting to be put out of its misery", had been proved right.

But where did it all go wrong for a musician who in his previous collaborations with Art Garfunkel and in albums such as Graceland appeared to have the Midas touch? How could he have gone from gold to base metal in such spectacular fashion?

The decline and fall is charted in minute detail by "A Roll of the Dice - The Story of the Capeman", a meticulously observed documentary for Channel 4's Arthouse strand. Six years before the ill-fated run, Simon had been drawn to Agron's tale, not least because he was the same age as the killer. But, more importantly, the musician felt he wanted to tell it how it was for his generation in an unglamorised manner. "For me to tell a story of my youth and my city the way I heard it, I feel like l'm sticking up for my generation," he asserts. "It wasn't Grease or Happy Days, it was much more complex and much more interesting." Agron's saga, he believed, "turned out to be a very 20th-century story - guilt and denial of guilt and crimes and the possibility of forgiveness."

Sadly, such highbrow themes and noble motives are not the stuff of your average feelgood Tin Pan Alley show. According to Ruben Blades, who played the older Agron, when Simon claimed he was going to change the face of Broadway musicals, "a lot of people just went, `oh, really?' and, understandably, audiences had a problem overcoming the basic fact that this was a musical about a murderer."

Also, in the fervid politics of New York city, an inevitable racial element entered the equation. "White audiences were alienated by the publicity about Agron, and Latin audiences were torn between supporting it loyally and thinking it was too negative in its depiction of Latins," recalled Jeremy Marre, the producer/director of the documentary. "They wanted something about a successful Latin banker or lawyer. And who is the first Latin figure on the Broadway stage since West Side Story? A killer who screams at the cameras, `my mother can watch me burn'."

Added to that, Simon picked a creative team completely inexperienced in the production of any Broadway show (including, rather improbably, Nobel Prize- winning poet Derek Walcott to co-write the book), let alone one requiring a gigantic cast of 50 and an orchestra of 35. An uncompromising controller, he got through three directors before the curtain even went up. Marre's assessment is that "Simon comes out of the film as very caring in one way - he and the cast got on very well - but in another way he seems stubborn and very difficult to deal with."

Perhaps that would account for the "Simon factor" in the savagery of the critics. "I didn't expect the vitriolic nature of the reviews," said Blades. "It did not deserve this murderous rage. It could have been criticised, but there was a personal tone in there. It was the knife and then the twist and then the twist again. I think that was personal. I think Paul Simon basically pissed a lot of people off, and they said, `we're gonna show you something now'."

In the end, The Capeman was a very expensive learning process for Simon. Trying to reinvent the concept of the Broadway musical cost him six years and at least five million dollars. Marre contends that the show's music was "terrific", and the hugely talented Simon will no doubt soon re-emerge with another fantastically successful project.

But for the moment I just can't get out of my head that sequence from Mel Smith's The Tall Guy, where a producer tries to mount a musical version of... The Elephant Man.

James Rampton

`Arthouse: A Roll of the Dice - The Story of The Capeman' is on tomorrow at 9pm on C4