If you love musical theater, sooner or later you have to come to a reckoning with Paul Simon’s unjustly maligned masterwork “The Capeman,” which had a brief, tumultuous run on Broadway in 1998. I count myself lucky to have attended one of those preciously rare 68 performances. If “The Capeman” is remembered at all today, it is usually remembered as a flop. But the truth is something much different. You had to be there to feel the electricity—reading the reviews that were written by unimaginative New York critics does not capture the essence of this show. “The Capeman” was a show which crossed cultural boundaries and mashed up musical styles with a freedom and excitement not seen again until “Hamilton.” Perhaps “The Capeman” was ahead of its time.
Original program from a magical night on Broadway in March, 1998.
Back in 1998, it seemed that everyone wanted to see “The Capeman” fail. Broadway insiders were skeptical of this outsider, Paul Simon, horning in on their act, displaying with chutzpah that he could rewrite their idiom and infuse it with the unique blend of rock’n’roll, pop music, and world music that had made his album “Graceland” such an enduring masterpiece. Latinos were skeptical, because the show was portraying Puerto Ricans once again as gang bangers, a la “West Side Story.” Critics and audiences reeled at the notion of making the protagonist of a major Broadway musical a convicted murderer who had served time on death row. Victims’ families cried foul as their wounds were re-opened at seeing the victims peripheral to the story and the killers brought to front and center. Even Simon’s choice of author for the book & lyrics became a source of controversy, as Derek Walcott, for all his credentials (Nobel Prize in literature among them) was Saint Lucian and not Puerto Rican. Here was a white man telling a Latino story using a writer from the wrong island!
So the bad reviews poured in on “The Capeman,” judgement having been passed before anyone saw the show, and the underwriters pulled the plug and killed it after only 68 performances. Paul Simon’s 1997 album “Songs from the Capeman” never got higher than #42 on the charts and went down as the worst-selling album of his career. The planned Broadway cast album and touring production never happened.
If the shows had been actually bad, that would have been the end of it. However, the show was arguably a masterwork. I sat in the Marquis Theatre in New York City one Saturday night in March, 1998, enthralled at how a white man had turned out an audience of Latinos to see a groundbreaking production that put a marginalized ethnic group at the forefront of a major Broadway play and gave real Latino stars (Marc Anthony, Ruben Blades, Ednita Nazario) their first crack at Broadway stardom. The theater was sold out and the audience on that Saturday night was pumped! The Latinos embraced this show. Its failure on Broadway was not a referendum on a bad musical—it was mostly just Broadway fighting change, resisting a rock’n’roll outsider, railing against the uncomfortable subject matter, not ready yet for the culture-bending hip-hop mashup that would be such a hit 20 years later with “Hamilton.”
Paul Simon took a risk with this material. Many questioned his choice of story, making a convicted murderer the protagonist of a musical. Salvador Agron (“The Capeman”) was a Puerto Rican immigrant boy who was a brief media sensation in 1959 when he was apprehended after killing two youths in a playground incident. He famously and defiantly blurted out to the media that he didn’t care if he died for his act and that his mother could watch him burn. He served 16 years in various prisons, had his death row sentence commuted by the governor, won early release after becoming literate and obtaining a college education behind bars, and lived quietly after release, dying of a heart attack a couple days before his 43rd birthday. The story is about the internal odyssey of a killer, as he moves from defiant youth to mature adult, from denial of his crime to acceptance of what he has done (the emotional odyssey of the killer in the “The Capeman” is not unlike that depicted in “Dead Man Walking”–interestingly, in the days since “Capeman” briefly graced Broadway, “Dead Man Walking” has become an opera.) The Capeman story is also about how a murder is not only a tragedy for the victim’s family but also for the murderer’s family—Salvador’s mother, Esmeralda, sung exquisitely by Ednita Nazario, moves the audience to tears at least twice in this production—more than the Capeman himself, she is the focal point of the show.
Simon and Walcott’s story is powerful as a commentary on the immigrant experience in America. In 1998, I attended the show with a naturalized American citizen who had experienced some of the same barriers and jumped some of the same hurdles as the characters in this play. After the show was over, it was obvious that this play had touched a nerve and spoken in a way that no stodgy white critic was going to be able to discern. Paul Simon’s “Songs from the Capeman” album got played a lot in our house after that.
The album “Songs from the Capeman” was a nice taste in 1997 of what the show would be, and in fact the album is what made me buy the show tickets and travel to New York City, but it always seemed vaguely disappointing, more like it was just the demo tapes for a far bigger concept. For years, I labored under the misconception that the Broadway cast album had never been recorded because the show had flopped. Only recently did I discover that the album had already been in the can before the show was cancelled, and it was actually released on iTunes in 2006. You can find it today on Spotify and iTunes.
Giving this show a second listening after almost 20 years, I find that it is greater even than I remember. Paul Simon as a composer (and ardent student of world music) is totally into the Latin music idiom. He draws on the various Latin styles (son, guajira, bomba, plena, aguinaldo) to create a musical that real Latino stars didn’t have any qualms about singing. He adds in American pop music, such as doo-wop, to root the story to the years in which it was happening. And finally, Simon has his finger on the pulse of New York City. This story fascinated him in his youth, and he has turned it into a musical that is a grand melting pot of music in the same way that the City is a melting pot of humanity.
While production values are uniformly high, and shows are always slick and professional, there is a lot of forgettable music on Broadway. Some of the greatest scores enjoy the shortest runs. Alongside “The Capeman” in this regard, I would put another favorite of mine: Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus’s score for “Chess” (lyrics by Tim Rice), which played for less than 2 months on Broadway in 1988. These shows both live on as original cast recordings. Well worth a listen.
–D. Dalenberg MD