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

           neighborhood

The blancos and the nigger gangs, well, they'd kill you

           if they could.

They're not quite the first Simon lyrics to be heard on-stage. That distinction belongs to Leonard Bernstein's hippie "theater piece," Mass, which contains one quatrain by Simon:

Half of the people are stonedAnd the other half are waiting for the next electionHalf the people are drownedAnd the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.

"He just liked the lyrics," says Simon. "I said he could have them in return for opening-night tickets--which he never sent me." They were originally written for a Zeffirelli film that Bernstein and Simon were working on. Lenny fancied himself as pretty hip, but his young collaborator wasn't impressed by the older man's attempts at rock. "He played a melody, and it was an awkward moment. He said: 'If we're going to collaborate, we have to be completely honest. So what do you think?' I said: 'Well, that's not very good. That's not rock 'n' roll.' He was taken aback." The composer drew himself up and said huffily: "This is Leonard Bernstein music."

If you're a bona fide rock star, it's hard to take seriously the theater's nervous tiptoeing into the territory. "I never thought Hair was really rock 'n' roll," says Simon, "but now, supposedly"--he grins--"it's a classic!" Hair, Godspell, the title song of Phantom, the current sensation Rent (the "rock opera" that so distracted killer Brit nanny Louise Woodward from her household duties), all are unconvincing hybrids--neither good rock nor good show tunes. The conventional wisdom, argued by Sondheim among others, is that rock is difficult to use dramatically. "Well, I don't think it's difficult," retorts Simon. "But the people who were trying to write it weren't coming from rock 'n' roll--they were doing an impression of rock 'n' roll. And, since everyone knows what rock 'n' roll sounds like, it wasn't fooling very many people."

In fairness, the theater found it hard to attract genuine rockers. At the end of his life, Alan Jay Lerner, author of My Fair Lady, used to bemoan that Simon and his generation had never written for Broadway. But rock lyricists earn their reputations with the kind of elliptical poetic impenetrability that looks great reprinted on a 1960 gatefold LP sleeve. However, when you're sitting in a theater, you get one chance to grab those words as they're flying across the footlights at you. It's a surprise, then, to find that The Capeman's lyrics are more direct, less allusive--that, after years of writing more and more about himself, Simon has been able to write in the voice of characters far less articulate. I don't know whether he's "arrogant" or a "control freak" in the studio or the rehearsal room, but where it counts--in the music and lyrics--you can hear a man who is, at 57, still trying to learn.

Just under a decade ago, I did a TV special with Simon that was filmed partly at his office in the Brill Building. The director spent the morning setting up a perfect shot for the interview, looking down Broadway, the picture framed by the Cats marquee at the Winter Garden and the 42nd Street billboard in Times Square. Simon peeked through the camera and said: "That's just a generic shot of Broadway. That's nothing to do with who I am." So everything was dismantled and the crew set up at the opposite corner of the room, away from the window. It was a telling image: Simon was literally turning his back on Broadway.

Not anymore. Clearly, it's still not an entirely comfortable fit. But, whatever happens to The Capeman, I hope he won't give up on the theater. There's more musical invention in a song like Sound03 - music_SimonP-TrailwaysBus.asf "Trailways Bus" than in the entire score of the much ballyhooed Ragtime. It's nothing to do with rock vs. showtunes, only with the cruel truth that most contemporary Broadway music isn't very good: not popular music, not serious music, but existing in some grisly limbo in between. Broadway can't afford to kiss off a rare musical voice like Simon's, no matter how much glee it might afford the Schadenfreude set. Negotiating a tricky midlife career change, caught between rock and a hard place, Paul Simon figures that sometimes, as with Graceland, the gamble pays off. "Every few years, people decide they're bored and they want something fresh. So that's a good time to have something fresh." He shrugs fatalistically. "The rest of the time they say, nyyah, I don't get it."

Mark Steyn, who hosts the live opera broadcasts on Channel 4 in Britain, is the film critic of the Spectator in London. He also writes for London's Daily and Sunday Telegraph.

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