14 Aug 1998
(Dreamworks) Recorded in March, the original Broadway cast album of Paul Simon's high-profile flop The Capeman has had its release date postponed several times; it is now scheduled to appear in October. A double-CD package (minus booklet and cover, but with full track sequencing) was sent to Tony voters last spring; while it is possible the recording has undergone further mixing since, this version sounds finished and fully releasable, so I thought it would be of interest to preview it at this stage.
The set runs 124 minutes, and preserves several sections ("Carmen," "Christmas in the Mountains") cut during previews. Another number cut in previews, "Trailways Bus," is also heard, but with Simon himself (rather than cast members) singing the male roles.
The score remains one-of-a-kind. The Capeman was neither rock musical, pop opera, nor traditional musical theatre piece, but it is filled with haunting music, strange, tantalizingly lovely sequences, and several outstanding songs ("Born in Puerto Rico," "Can I Forgive Him?," "Adios Hermanos," "Time Is An Ocean," "Sunday Afternoon"). As in the theatre, the major drawback is the second half, which gets badly bogged down when it turns to musicalizing a prison guard, a warden, and Wahzinak, Salvador Agron's epistolary lover.
The recording serves to remind one that The Capeman was done a disservice by being mounted directly on Broadway. More an oratorio or song cycle inspired by the life and culture of Agron than a musical, it did not offer conventional character development or dramatic structure -- the order of numbers could at times be shuffled with no loss to the action. Offering it initially as a stage musical inevitably led to a feeling of bewilderment on the part of an audience expecting to see something that operated like a dramatic theatre piece.
I maintain the best route would have been to introduce The Capeman through a series of concerts featuring the three Latino stars -- Ruben Blades, Marc Anthony, Ednita Nazario -- the show would eventually feature, along with Simon as narrator and occasional performer, a large orchestra, and projections and/or films suggesting the scenes and events. I suspect the score would have been well-received in such circumstances, and a live album of one of these concerts might have brought the piece widespread attention and acceptance. After that, Simon and co-author Derek Walcott might have worked with a director to shape what they had written into a workable theatre piece. Even if The Capeman would never have fully worked as a stage musical, a Broadway production might have gotten by had the score been allowed to develop a following first.
And even without Bob Crowley's wonderful set designs, The Capeman may find more favor on disc than it did on Broadway, as its song-cycle nature is less of a problem on a recording. And those lead singers are very strong, with Antony and Blades perfect as the young and mature Sals, Nazario making gorgeous sounds as their mother, and Renoly Santiago making scary ones as The Umbrella Man. Stanley Silverman's orchestrations make a major contribution.
Flawed as it is, I find The Capeman -- a show vilified by almost every critic -- impossible to dismiss on disc. Because it was mostly performed by Simon, last fall's Warner Bros. single-CD Songs From The Capeman will remain of interest, but the Dreamworks cast album should pretty much supplant it. Will the new recording lead to future productions? Perhaps not, but it could very well turn The Capeman into one of those cult flops far more admired on disc than it ever was on stage.
SOUNDTRACKS FROM RYKODISC
In response to a couple of my recent pieces -- one on Sweet Charity discs, another on Jerry Herman recordings -- I received e-mails asking why I didn't devote more attention to soundtrack albums. I explained to the correspondents that I believe the importance of such recordings altered radically with the advent of home video: Now that musical films are widely available on videotape and laser disc and can easily be taped from television, one can have the actual film at one's fingertips. Why spend time listening to a CD of music from the soundtrack when one might as easily hear the same music while watching the visuals as well?
Theatre cast albums are, in most cases, the only widely available record of a stage production; soundtrack albums are no longer the only at-home record of a movie. I don't quite understand why people purchase newly remastered CDs, often with additional material, of old movie musicals when one can simply buy (usually for about the same price) the actual movie (although I grant some people might enjoy listening to such discs in the car or at the beach).
Rykodisc has just released remastered versions of the soundtrack albums of several United Artists/MGM films that were originally released as United Artists LPs. The new issues have handsome packaging, with fold outs that include the original poster art, color photos, and new notes. And each disc offers the film's original trailer as a CD-ROM bonus.
The two most interesting titles -- How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum -- further thicken the issue, as both of these films cut a considerable amount of the Broadway score. So in addition to the fact that these movies are available on video, their soundtrack discs are a lot less useful than cast albums if one is interested in hearing these scores in full.
How To Succeed.... was one of the more faithful stage-to-screen transfers, but it nonetheless lacks five of the show's songs (one of them, "Coffee Break," is heard on the album but did not make it into the film, while "Paris Original" became an instrumental). There are two versions of "I Believe In You," the first added to give leading lady Michele Lee something more to sing when several of her character's vocals were cut.
Forum went considerably further, retaining only five of the show songs, two of them belonging to Miles Gloriosus (played by Leon Greene, held over from the London production). The soundtrack disc, which, in addition to the stage's Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford, features Michael Crawford as Hero, runs just 35 minutes, and actually features more incidental music by Ken Thorne than it does Sondheim.
Although the Forum film preserved Mostel and Gilford in at least some semblance of their stage performances, its merits are debatable. But the film version of Man of La Mancha is widely considered one of the flattest film adaptations of a stage musical, managing to lose just about all of the corny but effective sentiment of the original. With Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren in leading roles, it sounded good on paper. But the show was a theatrical conceit that left a great deal to the imagination; the magic was gone when the piece was performed in real scenery, with real horses, etc.
Ironically, the La Mancha film retained most of the stage score, lacking only two major songs. The track listing on the CD is wildly faulty in terms of the disc's contents, which has the score quite out of order ("Aldonza," Loren's final solo, precedes her entrance song, "It's All The Same," on the CD). And although the notes make no mention of it, I still suspect the vocals of the leads were sweetened by other singers; O'Toole and Loren do not sound here as they do on other recordings.
Irma La Douce lost its delightful songs when Billy Wilder transformed it into a successful non-musical film. Andre Previn's handsome background film score, which uses several themes -- especially "Language of Love" -- from Marguerite Monnot's original stage score, won an Academy Award and is also newly available on a Rykodisc CD.
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