In 1990 Paul Simon chose to shoot a part of his music video for "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" in a small playground on West 46th Street in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen a place with a dark history in contrast to the jaunty rhythms of the seventies pop hit for which it was serving as a backdrop.
But its composer had already begun thinking of creating a Broadway pop opera about tragic events that had occurred there on a steamy August night in 1959. For in that place two teen-agers had been fatally stabbed by Salvador Agron, later nicknamed "The Capeman," who mistook them for members of a rival gang. At age 16, the Puerto-Rican-born youth became the youngest person ever sentenced to New York's electric chair a sentence later commuted at the behest of petitioners who included Eleanor Roosevelt.
The subject matter may seem unusual as the basis for a Broadway musical. But The Capeman, an $11 million musical about those tragic events, opens this month at the Marquis Theatre. And it marks not only the theatrical debut of one of the most acclaimed and successful of American pop artists but also boasts an impressive roster of collaborative talents: director-choreographer Mark Morris; Nobel Prize-winning author Derek Walcott (who co-wrote the book and lyrics with Simon); set designer Robert Crowley (Carousel); and stars Ruben Blades, Marc Anthony and Ednita Nazario, all well-known salsa music stars.
"People say, 'Isn't this kind of down?' " says Simon, taking a break from rehearsals of the show and looking younger than his 54 years, dressed in a lime-green jacket and blue baseball cap. "And I don't know how to answer that. Do you mean, 'Is this escapist?' No. Does it mean you might cry and be moved? Yeah, maybe. But will you be bored? No."
Although Simon is part of a trend of pop songwriters trying their hand at the Broadway musical format like Pete Townshend (The Who's Tommy), Randy Newman (Faust), Elton John (The Lion King), Jimmy Buffett (Don't Stop the Carnival) he insists that the move to musical theatre didn't come as the result of any desire for what he calls "a career change." In fact, growing up in Queens as the son of a bandleader, he had no particular predilection for Broadway musicals.
Still, in 1988, his first thought was of Broadway when the idea of The Capeman began to germinate in his mind. It was simply a case, he says, of the "right fit" for a project on which he began working in earnest in 1993 after years of painstaking research, both into the events (which had led then-governor Nelson Rockefeller to appoint a commission on gang violence) as well as the Latin musical styles, which he has incorporated into the score. Working with the West Indian poet Walcott, a close personal friend, Simon says he and his collaborator began to pose "tough questions" surrounding the life of Agron, who died of a heart attack in 1986, six years after his release from prison.
"Agron never said that he had been rehabilitated in prison, but that he had been 're-humanized,'" says Simon of the young man who had been raised in a poor house in Puerto Rico before moving to New York with his sister and mother. "And we wanted to address the ideas of redemption and forgiveness in our society. Are we willing to grant redemption to someone if they have remorse? And does that forgiveness stem from society or from the person who has served their time in prison? These are tough moral questions that are not decided by majority vote. Thank goodness, I'm writing with a great poet."
Simon is sensitive to the charge that the musical, however inadvertently, may glorify a heinous act. "It's not an expiation, at all; we're not defending Sal Agron. His was a tragic life which produced tragedy," he says, adding that although the events took place in 1959, the show seems very modern to him. Indeed, the recent headlines deploring gang violence seem to have been ripped from the same page as the media firestorm surrounding the events then. "The events raised all sorts of issues then about racism, about fear or violence, about redemption that seem relevant now." The spiritual quest implicit in the musical is nothing new for Simon, who has plumbed the mysteries of the soul in such Grammy Award-winning albums as Bridge Over Troubled Water, Still Crazy After All These Years and Graceland. To all of these projects, as well as The Capeman, he has brought a slow, deliberate perfectionism, which has made the journey of the musical to Broadway one pocked with some missteps and false starts as he learned about musical theatre.
"I didn't come in here with any attitude about the business; I didn't come to be intimidated or to show anyone up," he says. "We sailed through some choppy seas, and I knew we'd be making more than the usual amount of mistakes mistakes that Stephen Sondheim wouldn't make but I knew that would be okay as long as we had time to correct them. There were times when I would've fired me if I could've gotten someone who knew what they were doing to replace me. But I kept on top of things, not because, as some people like to say, I'm a control freak, but because I didn't want business decisions to affect the artistic integrity of the project."
Simon says that he is now very pleased with the fruits of his collaboration on The Capeman and hopes that it will generate some of the same degree of excitement that he experienced first, as a spectator at the Alan Freed Rock n' Roll shows at the Paramount, and then as a performer with such "theatrical" talents as Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo at his "Graceland" concerts.
Referring to the decades past when Broadway composers like Lerner and Loewe and Cole Porter churned out the popular hits of the day, Simon says that he hopes that can once again happen. "It was a long time ago but not unheard of," he says. "I thought, 'To capture that kind of intensity, to hear music you loved with the traditional structure of theatre, yeah, maybe I could do that.'"