The Capeman

Original Broadway Cast Recording

Decca Broadway/Dreamworks, 2006

REVIEW BY: Paul King

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/06/2008

Paul Simon’s ill-fated musical The Capeman opened at the Marquis Theatre, New York in January of 1998 and closed just two months later at a loss of almost its entire $11 million investment. Hampered by last-minute rewrites and public protests at the controversial nature of its subject matter, the musical brought together a stellar cast of mostly Latin-American actors including Marc Anthony, Ruben Blades, Ednita Nazario and Sara Ramirez. An album entitled Songs From The Capeman containing a selection of the score’s material sung almost entirely by Simon himself was released in 1998 but the planned Broadway cast album never made it into record stores due to the show’s collapse. In 2006 the full Broadway cast album finally gained an official release as a digital download available from iTunes and other online music outlets.

The tale of The Capeman comes from a 1959 news story in which a teenage gang from New York’s Upper West Side called the Vampires went searching for a rival gang but instead came upon a group of teenagers not affiliated with any gang. During the ensuing fight, 16-year old Salvador Agron stabbed to death two of these innocent bystanders and fled. Witnesses described him as a tall Puerto Rican kid, wearing a black cape with a red lining; hence the lurid nickname “The Capeman.” Arrested shortly after, Agron showed little remorse, famously boasting “I don't care if I burn, my mother could watch me.” Agron was duly sentenced to death in the electric chair but had his sentence commuted by Governor Rockefeller and instead ended up serving 20 years in prison. While incarcerated he learned to write poetry, became something of a political activist and was described as a model prisoner upon his release in 1979.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Conceived as the basis for a musical in 1989 while Simon was working on his Rhythm Of The Saints album, the music of The Capeman was composed by Simon and co-lyricist Derek Walcott. Throughout the show’s material Simon successfully manages to synthesise the musical influences of his youth, from doo-wop to salsa, into a sweeping depiction of Salvador Agron’s life. Taking the listener from his birth in Puerto Rico, through to his days as a street tough in New York City and finally to the salvation he found in prison through writing.

Like many, I was first drawn to this offbeat musical out of a love and respect for Paul Simon’s past work and while I never actually saw the show itself, the linear nature of the cast album enables the show’s storyline and central theme of redemption to work perfectly well without the listener ever having seen the musical.

Perhaps the most immediately striking thing about the album is that the lyrics to many of the songs are littered with expletives, an aspect of the libretto that Simon himself wrestled against, ultimately deciding to leave the vulgarities in to more realistically depict the vernacular of the rough and tumble streets of New York’s Barrio. Indeed, if you’re looking for the sanitised fiction of West Side Story or the comfy Fifties nostalgia of Happy Days, you will not find it here. The Capeman provides an unflinching look at gang life on the streets of New York City in the late 50s, as well as the institutionalised racism of the US prison system.

There’s a truly impressive array of musical styles and moods on display here, from the stark poignancy of “Can I Forgive Him?” to the carefree rock ‘n’ roll of “Shopliftin’ Clothes” and the sinister malevolence of “The Vampires.” The album’s tasteful musical arrangements serve to highlight the excellent singing voices of the cast to maximum effect, with Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades in particular stealing the show with their portrayals of the young and old Agron respectively. Although the show itself was much maligned, the music found on this double album presents a wonderfully compelling narrative of one man’s struggle to free himself from the shadow of his own past that stands alongside Paul Simon’s best work.

For fans of the original 1998 Songs From The Capeman, this full-length cast album provides a welcome look at the short-lived musical in all its sweeping grandeur and features plenty of high quality material not found on the original CD. The Capeman is not just another collection of rock and pop songs but a work of serious artistic beauty in which Simon’s consummate song writing skill ensures that quality drips from every note.

Rating: B+

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© 2008 Paul King and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Decca Broadway/Dreamworks, and is used for informational purposes only.