NEW YORK — Paul Simon was supposed to be ours.
He had always been at the top of my short list of pop singer-songwriters who should have written musicals, above even Billy Joel and Randy Newman, more than Paul McCartney and Elton John combined. With Simon’s narrative gifts, his poetic shadows, his wit, his accessibility and his musical restlessness, he was the prodigious pop innovator who — in the days before kids wanted to be Bo Diddley instead of Richard Rodgers — would have shaped the future of the progressive musical.
But then came “The Capeman,” which crashed into a sad little historical footnote after just 68 performances on Broadway in 1998, losing its entire $11-million investment and more than money.
The show was produced by Simon, inspired by his fascination with the tabloid-ready story of Salvador Agron, the notorious Puerto Rican teen — arrested wearing a red-lined black cape — who murdered two white kids in Hell’s Kitchen in 1959 and became an activist poet in prison.
Simon wrote music for 35 songs and co-authored lyrics with his book writer, Nobel laureate Derek Walcott. His cast had impeccable credentials, including genuine salsa legends Ruben Blades and Ednita Nazario, not to mention a Nuyorican heartthrob named Marc Anthony as young Agron. And the production was 85 percent Latino, a rarity not repeated until “In the Heights” broke barriers and box offices a decade later.
What went wrong? Plenty, including the theatrical inexperience of Simon, Walcott and director Mark Morris, the choreographer who had never staged a Broadway show. Everything seemed heartfelt and authentic. It was also inert and dramatically inept.
But now “The Capeman” — and theatergoers — will get a second chance at three semistaged concert performances presented free in Central Park at 8 p.m. Saturday through Aug. 16. The Public Theater is going the same route it took with its rediscovery of the timely viability of “Hair,” offering a peek (with no reviews allowed) at the end of the summer of 2007. Director Diane Paulus, who shepherded “Hair” from those revelatory glimpses to a full park production in 2008 and to Broadway in 2009, will stage this one, too. (Tickets will be distributed through the usual Shakespeare in the Park process, at 1 p.m. on the day of performance. Call 212-967-7555 or visit publictheater.org.)
Can “Capeman” be rescued from the dustbin of crushing Broadway flops? Certainly “Songs From The Capeman,” a 1997 concept cast album with Simon’s vocals issued in 2004, has a solid place among his recording accomplishments. He did, after all, manage to protect and transform South African music for his “Graceland” album and Brazilian influences in “The Rhythm of the Saints” — all without seeming like a user or a tourist.
As I remember “The Capeman,” the songs were unmistakably Simon, the way he uses the tension of uneven phrase lengths and conversational vocal lines against formal rhythms. He obviously loved this music, which was drawn from the hot-summer-night doo-wop of his own childhood in Forest Hills, N.Y., courtly plena folk forms, white pop, Afro-Caribbean polyrhythms and the magenta hues of Latin soul.
The story, well, was another story altogether. The production, which toggled between 1949 Puerto Rico and 1979 New York, had understated, admirable restraint. But it also had no shape, no joy and — surprising in a Morris show — depressingly little dance. (Choreography for the park is by Sergio Trujillo, who made “Jersey Boys” and “Memphis” move so persuasively.)
Then there was the political pressure from victims’ rights groups, which believed the show made a hero out of Agron — who matured from battered illiterate immigrant to defiant teen/monster and reportedly went on to become a model prisoner. The creators, also facing complaints about a non-Latino writing Puerto Rican stereotypes, appeared to have lost track of their point of view.
There is little doubt that Simon had one at the start. Agron’s high-profile crime — and the anti-Latino backlash it sparked against the city’s growing Latino population — fascinated him. He started composing the songs in 1989. Then came years of planning, four different directors, two choreographers, one postponement and enough controversy to send Simon screaming back to the serenity of the rock industry.
This week’s performances include several actors from the original cast, and music direction by Grammy winner Oscar Hernandez, who led the orchestra on Broadway. Instead of going for stars this time, relative newcomers Anthony Lee Medina will play young Agron, with Ivan Hernandez as his older self.
Who knows? Maybe “The Capeman,” intended as a musical about redemption, will get some of its own.
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