Arts: The Capeman crashes
It had a charismatic star, innovative sets and a big-name composer. But there was plenty wrong with Paul Simon's first Broadway musical, says Phil Johnson
Saturday 07 March 1998
Savaged by the critics, targeted by Victims' Rights campaigners angry at what they saw as the martyr status Simon gave to the show's murderer- hero (the real-life figure of Salvador Agron, who died shortly after his release from prison in 1979), and struggling against severe internal problems, The Capeman was not, in truth, expected to enjoy a long life. Simon, who wrote both book, lyrics and music (with Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott getting a co-credit for the first two) has been quoted as saying: "What I enjoyed most about the experience, apart from the creative process itself, was the intensity with which the Latino audience responded to the play."
There is, however, a strong element of hubris involved. Simon brought his show straight into Broadway and suffered the consequences of trying to get it right first time in a milieu where shortcomings simply aren't tolerated. The role of Walcott - who has 40 years' experience with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop - was also unclear. The Capeman, it is safe to say, was Simon's baby and he must take the blame for the failure.
But was it any good? Well, yes and no, but mainly no. When I saw the show in preview at the beginning of January, paying my $67 for a seat in the stalls, it was evident that there was an awful lot wrong. The story itself - Puerto Rican teenager Agron kills two white youths in a gang- fight in New York, goes to prison, comes out again and dies - was made to carry an unbearable weight of mythic significance. Agron is a catholic saint-figure, he's a victim of racism, he's Christ himself. As played by the salsa singer Ruben Blades, who gave a striking performance full of bruised nobility, Agron does live and breath on the stage. But by splitting the central role between Blades and Marc Anthony - who plays the younger Agron - Simon cuts in half the potential power of the character from the start. It's fair to say that Anthony does not have the charisma of Blades, and that Blades does not really have much to do.
For all the show's admirable anti-racism, Simon paints a drippingly sentimental picture of Puerto Rican life. The island is a green paradise, Agron's mother is a saint, the zoot-suited gang Agron joins in New York to become the Capeman are poor, misunderstood youngsters, and it's fair to say that the climactic moment of the murder itself, and responsibility for it, is fudged.
But surely Simon must have got the music right? Well, some of it is fine, at least compared to the lamentable standard of contemporary Broadway and there are some lovely numbers full of complex, poetic lyrics, but every time a new number starts you tend to begin tapping your feet to, say, "Diamonds On the Sole of My Shoes" only to find that what you actually get is a less successful derivative. And an awful lot of the songs do sound the same, just like an awful lot of the singers sound just like Simon, the cast echoing his sweet-voiced intonation. Only Ruben Blades makes the music his own.
Where the show fails more than anything, however, at least when I saw it under the direction of Mark Morris, was the lack of a basic grasp of how to move a large cast convincingly around the stage. This was hard to believe from a MacArthur Prize-winning choreographer but the big musical numbers repeatedly failed to energise either the performers or the audience.
The sets by the British designer Bob Crowley were often wonderful, but given the holes in the story itself, they began to have a reductive effect. As another fitted kitchen came sliding out of the wings to represent the mother's apartment, and another deliciously skewed perspective rendering of a tenement stairwell fitted into the background, one grew less and less astonished.
Despite this catalogue of shortcomings, the show still somehow had the power to move you, especially at its close.
Increasingly disenchanted after his release from prison, and more and more hangdog of expression, the older Agron goes back to his mother's apartment, switches on the television and then dies. There's no big musical number, no moving death-song, no final dance-action. He just snuffs it, quietly in his sleep. And then you cry.
The Capeman may now have died too, and with it some of the sense of adventure that it was meant to bring to Broadway, but, if few remember Ruben Blades' performance and the brave, foolhardy but sometimes poignant sense of humanism and social concern that Simon intended, it wasn't entirely in vain. A small-scale workshop production with 10 actors and a four-piece band might be its next incarnation. Which is maybe what it should have been in the first place.
If not, there's got to be a role for Art Garfunkel in there somewhere. Re-title the show Bright Eyes, get in some gigantic fluffy rabbits like the animals in The Jungle Book and, hey, I think we might just be on to something.
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