Magazine article The Spectator

Broadway Resurgence

Magazine article The Spectator

Broadway Resurgence

Article excerpt

After 30 years in which the `fabulous invalid' (as Broadway has always been known) seemed to be in intensive care if not actually deceased, it has come back to life, livelihood and liveliness this season with almost a dozen new musicals and plays, roughly as many as were notable there throughout all of the 1980s.

The triple-whammy threat of Aids deaths, union intransigence and inner-city decay has at last begun to recede on all fronts, and in its place comes new work from David Mamet and Neil Simon, not to mention new big-band shows on themes as diverse and sometimes implausible as the Titanic, Siamese twins joined at the hip, and a vicious double murder in the gang wars of Hell's Kitchen 40 years ago.

Maybe we should start with that: The Capeman is Paul Simon's first-ever musical, and it still has a month in previews before press night, so these comments are based on one of its very first public performances last week. Simon, (he of `and Garfunkel' and `Bridge Over Troubled Water') is coauthor, lyricist and composer, and, if backstage rumours are believable, he has treated the project as a one-man show; true, there's a cast of 70 under the ballet master Mark Morris's direction, but like Disney's remarkable Lion King (just opened to a record $28 million advance, such is the movie, television and themepark marketing power of old uncle Walt), The Capeman is regarded by old Broadway hands as an outside job, unimproved by, and maybe unanswerable to, any of the ancient laws of the American musical.

In the first place, it is controversially and unusually journalistic: where West Side Story (its most obvious and immediate model) was about unnamed and non-specific gangs of ethnic hoodlums, The Capeman is about one specific killing in 1959 of two young men whose families are still very much around and understandably indignant that their tragedy is being sold to theatre audiences at $70 a ticket, not counting the inevitable mug and T-shirt.

The killer, who came to be known as the Capeman, was a Puerto Rican youth of 16 who became the youngest criminal ever to be sentenced to the electric-chair; three years later he got lucky, at the time of Eleanor Roosevelt's anti-capital punishment crusade, and after several more years in prison he was released, only to die quietly at home of a heart attack in 1986. Not perhaps the most likely subject for a musical, but then you could also argue that of most of Sondheim's classics; and before we dismiss some of The Capeman's clumsier and more obscure choral moments we need to recall that its co-author is Derek Walcott, who now joins T.S. Eliot of Cats as the second Nobel prizewinner to have a show on Broadway at this time, not an achievement the West End has ever been able to claim as its own.

The Capeman has a vibrant and vital stage energy not always matched by Simon's score, which wanders all over the place in search of urban and ethnic inspiration; on a very filmic set by our own Bob Crowley, it ends up as a series of tableaux, not all of them very vivants, but it certainly doesn't deserve the premature dismissal by a recent Sunday Times article. Like the West Side Story it aches to be, The Capeman is alternately touching and terrifying in what it has to say about the chaos of urban violence: as it turns out, the victims were not who their killer thought they were, and their deaths were as random and incidental and yet heartbreaking as much of this haunting score. …

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