Facing the music Paul Simon was never a big fan of Braodway musicals. So when he began to write his own show, he made sure the songs came first.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Paul Simon is not a Broadway kind of guy.

"Broadway is such a strange place," he says. "A lot of people -- and I would have put myself in this category -- really don't have any interest in going there to be entertained. I never did. I mean, I went to see plays, but I didn't go to see musicals."

That's going to change, though, and soon. Because this winter, Paul Simon is going Broadway in the most literal sense. He has a production of his own about to debut, a full-blown musical that he wrote with Nobel laureate Derek Walcott.

Called "The Capeman," Simon's show is based on the real-life story of Salvador Agron, a teen-age Puerto Rican convicted of a spectacular 1959 gang killing in New York. A member of an Upper West Side gang called the Vampires, the cape-wearing Agron was part of a group looking to settle a score with a Hell's Kitchen Irish gang called the Norsemen, when they wound up in a rumble. Agron stabbed two 16-year-olds to death, an unparalleled act of violence for the time.

At the time of his trial, Agron was portrayed as a monster, a heartless killer who would sooner go to the electric chair than express remorse. He would have gone there, too, had he not been pardoned by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Over the next 20 years, Agron changed dramatically. Although he'd had only a single year's schooling as a child, he took classes while imprisoned and became a published poet. His life of violence behind him, he was released from prison in 1979. Describing himself as "rehumanized," Agron died of natural causes seven years later.

Simon, a lifelong New Yorker, was haunted by the story. In 1989, while he was working on his last studio album, "The Rhythm of the Saints," he began thinking of developing the story for the stage. He began work in earnest in 1993.

Granted, tracing the Capeman's development from confused immigrant to cape-wearing killer to rehabilitated prisoner doesn't exactly make for light entertainment. There are no dancing cats in this show, no roller-skating trains, and no movie-style special effects. Its biggest draw, frankly, is the phrase "Music by Paul Simon."

A pop music giant since 1965, when he and Art Garfunkel topped the charts with "The Sounds of Silence," the 56-year old Simon is one of the most adventurous and successful singer/songwriters of the rock era. From the tuneful wit of "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" to the Afropop invention of his "Graceland" album, Simon ranks among his generation's most enduring composers.

No wonder, then, that the first step in the play's prelaunch publicity blitz is the release of "Songs from the Capeman" (due in stores Tuesday), an album in which the composer himself performs selections from the show. Although it's not as pop-oriented as Simon's best-known work, its reliance on Puerto Rican musical styles isn't all that far removed from the Afro-Brazilian fare Simon investigated in his 1990 album, "The Rhythm of the Saints" (see accompanying review).

Given the Grammy-winner's run of million-selling albums, "Songs from the Capeman" ought to drum up interest in the show itself.

The stage production begins preview performances at the Marquis Theatre in Manhattan in December. With Ruben Blades, Marc Anthony and Ednita Nazario in the lead roles, "The Capeman" will open Jan. 8.

Still, the question remains: How did a guy who doesn't want to see musicals end up writing one?

Simon doesn't really dislike the idea of musical theater, only what the musical theater has become. So as much as he may shake his head in dismay at the success of "Cats," he happily listens to the likes of George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein and Cole Porter.

"It's not rock and roll, but I liked it," he says, then laughs. "I didn't mean to parody the Stones, but that's exactly what it is. I liked it.

"But it ended up in a weird cul de sac -- probably because it was never energized by rock and roll," he says. As Simon sees it, the trouble with modern musical theater is that "it's all descended either from the musical theater from its heyday in the '40s and '50s, or it's the English variant that Andrew Lloyd Webber popularized. Those are the two mainstreams of what a Broadway musical is today."

Trouble is, there's nothing terribly special about the music these plays employ. "There are all of these different stories out there, but the music kind of all sounds the same," Simon says.

Moreover, the music in these musicals is essentially secondary, having been written to fit the playwright's words. "I don't like that," Simon says flatly. "I think that's deeply unmusical."

By contrast, "The Capeman" is entirely music-driven. It isn't just that every word in the two-act show is sung, or that all the onstage movement is being treated as dance, having been blocked out by choreographer Mark Morris. It's that "The Capeman" started with the music, with Simon using sound to frame the scenes and define the world in which these characters exist.

"These songs are all scenes," he explains. "It might be that a scene is based on a rhythmic premise, or it might be based on a sound premise, like the a cappella doo-wop stuff.

"But you get that sound right, and that beat right. And then, when those characters speak, in that musical context, you can believe what they say. If the lyrics are good, you're going to believe it, because it sounds like they're in the right place."

Getting that sound right was important, particularly since there are still a lot of New Yorkers around who grew up in the world Simon wanted to evoke. "The first and most important test of that was: Would the Puerto Rican community believe it?" he says. "Because if it didn't pass that test, then it probably wasn't telling the story in a really compelling way."

Sounds of the time

Simon also had to ensure that the music evoked the proper era. For instance, some of the early scenes are set in the Puerto Rico of Agron's youth. Simon's challenge was simple. "If I was in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, in 1949, what would that sound like?"

He went through his music collection, listening over and over again to recordings of Puerto Rican music from that period. Once he got a sense of the era's sound, Simon recruited musicians who could play in those styles, and started cutting tracks.

As when he collaborated with African musicians on "Graceland" (an album that single-handedly introduced Americans to the zippy "mbaqanga" music of South Africa), Simon started with the rhythm section. Much of what they played was built on the two national rhythms of Puerto Rico, the spritely "plena" (which has a fast, rumba-like one-two-three-FOUR-AND beat) and the more African sounding "bomba" (which has a rolling, ONE-two-and-three pulse).

After they established a groove, they would set down the basic shape of the song -- how long the verses would be, where the chorus would fall, how many times sections would repeat, and so on. Then he would build the song around the recording, slowly adding melody, harmony and lyrics. If it turned out that he wanted more verses than were originally recorded, Simon and his engineer would adjust the shape of the recording through cut and paste. "We would just edit the tape," he says.

Not every song was written that way, of course. "I've used everything that I know about songwriting in writing this show," Simon says.

Other voices

Writing "The Capeman" has been an education for Simon on several levels. For one thing, it's the first time he has had to write for voices other than his own. Because his practice over the years has been to improvise vocally while shaping his melodies, all of his songs have been in a register -- that is, a range of notes -- that's comfortable for his voice.

"But if I write a song for a man and a woman, if the register is right for the male, then chances are it's not right for the female," he says. "So that the melody has to be written as if it were a harmony. That was something that I had to learn."

Then there was his work with Walcott. A poet and playwright whose work earned him the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature, the 67-year old Trinidadian is the first writer with whom Simon has ever collaborated. And he reveled in the experience. "I'm writing with a guy who's a great poet," Simon says.

Just as composing the music followed no single process, Simon and Walcott worked in a variety of ways on the words. "Sometimes I'd write like 80 percent of a song, and come to him, and he'd finish it up with me," says Simon. "Or he'd be an editor, you know?

"Then there were some scenes where he'd write. I would maybe have made a track, with a melody, and he'd write songs. Then I could look through the song and pick out phrases. Sometimes whole verses, because they fit in with the rhythm of what I was singing."

Because Simon and Walcott were writing for the stage, the language in "The Capeman" is far different from what would normally be found in a Paul Simon song. It isn't just that these songs are full of dialogue and exposition; in several cases, they're also full of swearing. Considering that Simon's songs normally don't get any nastier than the mild expletive in "Kodachrome," this polysyllabic profanity may come as something of a shock for some listeners.

"Well, I've never used that kind of language in songs before," Simon agrees, vaguely amused that this would be an issue. "But I didn't need it to say what was on my mind. I needed it here. To be on the streets and to be in prisons, sanitizing the language would strike a weird note. But for all of that, the overall effect doesn't feel brutal," he adds. "I think that so much of the language is beautiful."

Indeed, there is almost a sense of poetry to the frequently profane language of "Vampires," as when one of the characters describes an Irish gang member as looking "Like a ton of corned beef/Floating in beer."

Although Simon is justifiably proud of what he has written, he has no idea whether "The Capeman" will be a success.

"I saw a run-through of the play the other day in the workshop, and it was very powerful. It was really powerful," he says. "But while I think it's very possible that it's a hit, that is hard for me to imagine happening. It's a big enough thing for me to think that [the show itself] is actually going to happen.

"Besides," he adds, almost cheerily, "it's not like it's in my hands. It'll be an audience decision. People will love it, or they won't. And that'll be that."

The gods smile on Paul Simon and Derek Walcott

One of the many things Paul Simon learned while working on "The Rhythm of the Saints" was about the "orichas," or gods, of Santeria, a faith that mixes beliefs of Catholicism and the traditional religion of the Yoruba people of West Africa.

Many orichas are identified by Santeros (those who practice Santeria) with Christian saints -- something that wound up leading Simon to some unexpected connections in "The Capeman."

It all started when Derek Walcott, Simon's collaborator, asked about a line Simon wrote for the song "Satin Summer Nights," in which the Capeman, Sal Agron, sings, "I believe I'm in the power of St. Lazarus."

Recalls Simon, "Derek said, 'Where did that come from?' And I said, 'I don't know. It's probably from this statue of St. Lazarus that I have here, which I picked up at a bodega. It just came into the song, you know?' "

But the more the two thought about it, the more significant that chance inclusion seemed. St. Lazarus,it turns out, corresponds with the oricha Eleggua [pronounced el-lay-GWAH], and that fit with a lot of what was going on in the play. "Eleggua is the king of the crossroads," explains Simon. "He controls fate, because he controls the crossroads. And his colors are red and black, which are the colors of the cape Sal wore.

"So Lazarus started to become a significant character."

As did Eleggua. Like all orichas, Eleggua is identified with a specific chant, which is performed as sort of salute or prayer, and so Simon decided to work that into his score.

In the song "Santero," he has a group of Santeros singing the Eleggua chant. "His chant is in 12/8," he says, meaning that the rhythm is felt in four groups of triplets. But when Sal's mother, Esmeralda, enters, the meter changes. "This is where it starts to get complicated," he says. "She is singing in 4/4, but I keep an element of the pattern of the drums going." In other words, the time is basically the same, but the triplet feel is gone. "Then when the Santero comes back in, it comes in at 12/8, which relates to Eleggua.

"Nobody's really going to know that," Simon says. "But what it does for me musically is to give me a structure for a song. And a song like 'You [Messed] Up My Life' came from the same Eleggua chant. Had I not been using it, I never would have written 'You [Messed] Up My Life' in that pattern." The gods, it seems, work in mysterious ways.

Hear the music

To hear excerpts from Paul Simon's new release, "Songs from the Capeman," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6142. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

zTC Pub Date: 11/16/97

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