The Only Living Boy in New York

Jan. 9 1998 3:30 AM

The Only Living Boy in New York

Can Paul Simon save Broadway?

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

Sound02 - music_SimonP-Bernadette.asf I wasn't paying much attention to the in-house music on Christmas Eve--I think it was "Little Drummer Boy" in the bookstore, "Jingle Bell Rock" in the toy store, or maybe vice versa--but, entering the flower shop, it hit me instantly: "Bernadette." From Paul Simon's Songs From the Capeman. The bit just before he slows the whole thing down and goes:

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I am Sal Mineo and I need you so.

It's a gorgeous song. Simon's voice sounds as young as it did on "Homeward Bound," and the number brims with all the possibilities of teen romance in those hot '50s summers. I've been singing it ever since I heard the demo tape, and I'm glad that that florist liked it enough to play it.

But I wonder how many others will get to hear it. The Capeman, the story of an adolescent Puerto Rican killer, is having a hard time taking off. The album is selling tepidly; the show's been picketed by victims'-rights groups and is under threat of more pickets by Puerto Ricans opposed to racial stereotyping; the opening's been postponed to the end of the month; and, depending on which rumor you believe, the director's either so complacent that he only bothers dropping by once a week or so dozy that he hasn't noticed he's been more or less replaced by Mike (The Graduate) Nichols, Nick (Miss Saigon) Hytner or, most recently, Jerry (Guys and Dolls) Zaks.

So far so normal for a Broadway show in previews. But The Capeman isn't just another dud musical like Sideshow or The Scarlet Pimpernel. It was supposed to be the show that would heal the great historic rift between pop music and theater scores, the first show written specifically for Broadway by a major rock songwriter and the one that would entice all the others in, ending the Great White Way's dependence on its shrunken nontalent pool of insipid Sondheim clones.

T"hey say they want something new, but they don't really," says Paul Simon. "They want something old." We're standing a gazillion floors above Broadway, about a week or so before it all began to go wrong. One wouldn't want to characterize the diminutive, balding rock star as being (in Cole Porter's marvelous phrase) down in the depths on the 90th floor, but a faint tinge of melancholy hangs in the air. "What do you think?" he says. "Do you think they want something new?"

"They" are the elderly, lizardlike survivors who preside over what's left of Broadway--the nonshowy showmen, party bookers, and theater owners into whose hands Simon has more or less delivered himself. He seems genuinely befuddled by them. In the rock biz, most of the executives are old, too. But at least they make an effort, sporting ponytails and U2 tour jackets; they don't continually give the impression that they wish there was a part for Robert Goulet in whatever it is they are working on. Around Broadway the standard line is that Simon, with his reputation for "arrogance" and as a "control freak," has disdained their expertise.

I"n the beginning," says Simon, "they said to me there's about five or six people in the world who can do this, and here are their names. And I believed it--what did I know? That's why we've been through several directors. Derek Walcott and I didn't want an auteur director. We had taken years to write it, so why would we want someone who says, 'I think this part should go over here and that character is really a woman'?" His voice trails away. "If that's arrogant ..."

Sound01 - music_SimonP-AdiosHermonos.asf To prepare for The Capeman, Simon put himself through a dispiriting crash course in recent Broadway attractions. "I saw a couple of shows I liked, but most I didn't. I really liked Tommy... I liked Guys and Dolls... er ... I kinda liked Show Boat. But the rest of the stuff, I can't say I found interesting." One wouldn't want to exaggerate the points of contact but, curiously, The Capeman is the first musical since Show Boat in 1927 to use the word "niggers" in its opening number:

Afraid to leave the project, to cross into another

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