Saturday, July 21, 2007

Gangs of New York

Paul Simon, Songs From the Capeman,
Warner Bros. [1997/2004]

I don't care if I burn;
my mother can watch.
--Nelson Agron (1959)

My dad sent me a copy of this CD as he thought I might find it of interest. Though I was a fan of Simon and Garfunkel in the 1960s, particularly Bookends and Bridge Over Trouble Water, I haven't paid much attention to them since, with the exception of Garfunkel's short-lived acting career (notably Carnal Knowledge, Catch-22, and Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing) and the stray solo track, like Simon's sing-a-long favorites "Kodachrome" and "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," which was brilliantly reinvented by !!! ("Chk-Chk-Chk") as "Me and Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard."

As it turns out, I do find these remnants of Paul Simon's ill-fated musical of interest. Of course, it's worth noting that his cinematic debut, One Trick Pony, which preceded this Broadway production by 18 years, was also considered a failure. I haven't seen the movie or the musical, so I couldn't say whether they deserved their drubbing, but Songs From the Capeman, which expands on the Latin themes of "Julio," is certainly worth a listen.
Written with Nobel Prize-nominated poet/playwright Derek Walcott, it represents a Simon you haven't heard before—and probably never will again.

This is an angry man narrating, in
first person, the ignoble life of 16-year-old Nuyorican gang member Salvador Agron, who killed two innocent bystanders he mistook for members
of the Norsemen, an Irish gang.

Agron, a member of the Vampires, was known to wear a red-lined black cape, hence "The Capeman." (His best buddy was "The Umbrella Man.") According to Simon's liner notes, Agron showed no remorse for his crimes. And yet, despite a horrific childhood, he became a model prisoner. Though his death sentence was commuted by Governor Rockefeller, he still served 20 years.

Well, I entered the courtroom, state of New York
County of New York, just some spic
They scrubbed off the sidewalk
Guilty by my dress
Guilty in the press
Let The Capeman burn for the murder
Well, the "Spanish boys" had their day in court
And now it was time for some fuckin' law and order
"The electric chair
For the greasy pair"
Said the judge to the court reporter.

--"Adios Hermanos"

It's a strange story around which to build a musical. It's stranger still to think that the same year Linda Riss and Burt Pugach were embarking on the disturbing affair depicted in Dan Klores' Crazy Love, in another part of New York, Agron was making his own bid at infamy. Against all odds, Riss and Pugach are still alive—and together—while Agron died of natural causes at 43.

Recently, I watched 1961's West Side Story for the first time

in ages. I also watched El Cantante, Leon Ichaso's biopic of salsa singer Héctor Lavoe, twice (the first time out of curiosity, the second for work). Marc Anthony, who plays the troubled Lavoe on screen previously played the troubled Agron on stage.

These titles serve as handy reminders that the idea of a Puerto Rican musical or music-oriented film isn't a new one, and Simon's effort neatly slots between the two. Of course, he isn't of Latin descent himself, but nor were Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.

Simon also previously traveled to South Africa for Graceland and to Brazil for Rhythm of the Saints. The Capeman may be steeped in Latin and doowop rhythms, but it's ultimately a New York story, and Simon is the quintessential New Yorker, so his connection to Agron is less nebulous than it may at first appear.

As for Leon Ichaso, he was born in Cuba, and has directed other Latin films like Crossover Dreams and Piñero. Like the latter, a portrait of playwright Manuel Piñero (who, like Lavoe before him, succumbed to AIDS), The Capeman isn't a heroic story, and that displeased many Latin Americans, yet it's deeply sympathetic towards its subject. Simon's intention was to rehabilitate the reputation of this maligned and misunderstood figure. Does that make it the product of white liberal guilt? Possibly, but Simon really did try to get under the skin of Agron and his familia.
But a musical is as much about the music as the story. While theatergoers had mixed feelings about the subject matter, the songs hold up.

There are no classics here,
like Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein's majestic "America," but nor are there any sap-fests, like "I Feel Pretty" (although "Shoplifting for Clothes" is just as catchy). For whatever faults it may have, Songs From the Capeman is 99.9% sap-free. As for the Grammy Award-winning Anthony, he guests on "Satin Summer Nights" and "Time Is An Ocean." Unfortunately, Tony Award-winning castmate Sara Ramirez (Spamalot, Grey's Anatomy) is conspicuous by her absence.Fortunately, Capeman castmate Rubén Blades, star of 1985's Crossover Dreams, also guests on "Time Is an Ocean"—it was Blades who wrote "El Cantante" about Héctor Lavoe—but this is mostly Simon's show. In addition, Jose Feliciano sings the 1995 demo version of "Born in Puerto Rico," while the album includes four brief, but flavorful interview clips with the real-life Agron, which lends the proceedings some welcome verisimilitude.

We came here wearing summer clothes in winter
Hearts of sunshine in the cold
Your family rented this apartment
You'd watch the street lamps from your perch
In the sacramental hour your stepfather in black
Preached the fire of the Pentecostal Church
No one knows you like I do
Nobody can know your heart the way I do
No one can testify to all that you've been through
But this will.

--"Born in Puerto Rico"

It remains to be seen whether time will validate the efforts of Paul Simon and his talented collaborators. Almost a decade
has passed since The Capeman opened on Broadway, and it's rarely been mentioned since. The soundtrack, on the other hand, has been issued twice, which indicates ongoing demand.

For my money, Simon hasn't done anything as interesting in the intervening years—and those occasional reunions with Garfunkel don't count—while Anthony, who has since married Jennifer Lopez, appears to have many promising projects ahead
of him.

Meanwhile, Nelson Agron has been dead for 21 years, while Robert Young and Anthony Krzesinski, the faceless phantoms haunting this narrative, have spent 48 years in the ground.
Now that his story has been told, maybe it's time to tell theirs.

Salvador Agron looked like a rock 'n'
roll hoodlum. He looked like the 1950s.
--Paul Simon (1997) 

Endnote: According to Playbill, "The Capeman closed
March 28, 1998, after two months' run at a loss of nearly its entire $11 million investment." Images from Playbill, The Capeman and Umbrella Man Murders, Brad Piddy, and Google Images.

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