Original Broadway Cast

The Capeman

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The Broadway musical The Capeman, with music by Paul Simon and lyrics and book by Simon and Derek Walcott, opened on January 29, 1998, and closed on March 28, 1998, after 68 performances. In the run-up to the stage production, Simon had recorded an album of himself singing some of its numbers, Songs from the Capeman. An original cast album also was recorded, but Simon decided against releasing it at the time. Eight years later, it has quietly been issued as a digital download-only release. Back in 1998, the show, which was critically drubbed, got its only good notices for its music, and it received two Tony Award nominations for best score and best orchestrations (by Stanley Silverman), which is notable because shows that flop commercially as badly as The Capeman did rarely get Tony nominations. The album is a lavish affair, the equivalent of a two-disc set with 39 tracks running nearly 126 minutes. It is easy to tell why the music earned praise, even if it is also apparent why the work would have been a hard sell on Broadway in 1998. The Capeman is the musical biography of Salvador Agron, a Puerto Rican living in New York who, as a 16-year-old gang member, murdered two people in 1959. Initially sentenced to death with his sentence later commuted, he was paroled after 16 years and died just before his 43rd birthday. The late-‘50s setting allows Simon to explore his love of doo wop music, notably in such songs as "Satin Summer Nights" and "Bernadette," with "Quality" sounding like something Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers could have sung and "Shopliftin' Clothes" a direct parody of the Coasters hit "Shoppin' for Clothes." Of course, much of the music is set to Latin pop styles, especially salsa, and this well suits two of the three actors who portray Agron at different stages in his life, Marc Anthony and Rubén Blades. Once Agron goes to prison, Simon writes some Johnny Cash-style country music for a prison guard, "Virgil," and other songs just sound like vintage Simon, such as "Trailways Bus" (which Simon, unannounced, actually sings himself on the cast album). It is a wonderful score, powerfully performed by a talented cast (also including Ednita Nazario, who plays Agron's grandmother). But it is hard to imagine a story this serious and downbeat becoming a big Broadway hit in an era when audiences were flocking to The Lion King (the hit of the 1997-1998 season). That show also featured a score by a pop star, Elton John, but it had nothing like the musical ambitions of The Capeman and was geared to children and tourists. The Capeman attracted protesters who objected to its focus on a murderer, and Simon was vilified by members of the theater community for the control he, an outsider, exercised over the production. But what probably doomed The Capeman as a show was the decision to mount it on Broadway in the first place. Had it been commissioned by an opera company or presented in some other venue for serious work, it might have received a very different reception. As it is, the cast album demonstrates its quality as a musical work, which ranks it as one of the major achievements of a composer with quite a few achievements to his credit already.

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