On paper, "The Capeman" is exactly what the Broadway musical needs. It brings in huge talents from the worlds of pop music (Paul Simon) and literature (Derek Walcott). It opens out to a hitherto neglected Latino culture. It deals with a serious subject the redemption of a notorious murderer. It should be a pointer to the future of the musical form.
Musicals take place, however, not on paper but on the stage. And the stage makes some simple and inescapable demands. Chief among them is an ability to decide what story is being told.
That decision should have been easy. "The Capeman," after all, is based on real events the life of the Puerto Rican gang member Salvador Agron, who murdered two kids in New York in 1959 when he was little more than a child himself. Since Agron educated himself in prison and became a writer, there is a basic narrative of degradation and redemption to be explored.
Yet the astonishing thing is that "The Capeman" doesn't really tell this story. There are three fundamental questions a show about Agron has to address. Why did he become a vicious killer when the other members of his gang, brought up in the same conditions, did not? Why and how did he begin to change? And what did he learn in the process?
For all its many pleasures, "The Capeman" never answers those questions. Simon and Walcott's book manages to be both sprawling and skimpy. It spends precious stage time on long diversions into Puerto Rico and the Arizona desert. But it brushes over key dramatic moments.
We never see Salvador beaten by his stepfather, though this is supposed to be one of the keys to his brutalization. The murders he commits are barely present on stage. We never see the illiterate young punk learning to read in prison.
These absences don't make for a disaster. There is, on the contrary, a great deal to admire and enjoy. The show is peppered with beautiful melodies ("Born in Puerto Rico," "Can I Forgive Him?") and brilliant evocations of 1950s doo-wop and ballad styles. It has the oak-matured voice and charismatic presence of Ruben Blades as the older Agron. It has the superb voice and lithe acting of Marc Anthony as the younger Agron.
Around them, there is fine singing from Ednita Nazario as the mother, and a vibrant, gutsy young cast. And Bob Crowley's sets all strange angles and shifting perspectives are truly outstanding.
Since the beginning of January, when it was originally scheduled to open, "The Capeman" has been radically reshaped, mostly by drastic cutting, so that it plays more effectively to these strengths. It now flits fluently from song to song, and has enough movement, color and lively music to be consistently engaging.
But it ought to be so much more. The good things often serve to point up the bad. The lyrics, for instance, are occasionally worthy of a Nobel Prize laureate like Derek Walcott, as when the mother of one of the murdered kids sings of bouquets she gets from sympathizers: "The trembling flowers they bring/ Fear in the roots and the stem." But when the lyrics are hideously embarrassing, as in the love letter Agron receives in prison, the contrast is all the more dumbfounding.
And as the second half of the show circles rather aimlessly around itself, the questions become increasingly insistent. Why is there no big number for Blades? Why has all the fabulous talent on show here so little to say about the themes of crime, punishment and social integration that crave expression? How can all these great artists not know that a musical has to appeal, not just to the eyes and ears, but also to the human desire for coherent stories? Amid its fine melodies, "The Capeman" answers those questions only with the sound of silence.
There is much more to a musical than music. This is the lesson which is gently but disappointingly hammered home by Paul Simon's "The Capeman," which opened at the Marquis Theatre last night.
Here is the most bewitching and bewitched Broadway score in years - music that, in a quite different way, only Stephen Sondheim has equaled.
It is beguiling, it is enchanted, it is moving - just listen to Simon's own, already issued album of songs from it. Vocal and musical magic. Satin summer nights.
But it is not enough. Sad.
"The Capeman," Simon's first theatrical excursion, has not had - if the rumor-mill is to be credited, and here it surely must be - an easy journey to opening night. It seems to have been plagued with difficulties that would have tested the biblical patience of Job.
The true story of Salvador Agron, a teen-age member of the Vampires, a Puerto Rican youth gang, who was convicted of killing two boys in 1959, was a controversial subject for a Broadway musical.
In a sense it was "West Side Story" particularized, de-prettified and de-balleticized. A tough call for entertainment.
The subject matter permitted to a Broadway musical has vastly expanded over the years since, say, "Carousel," and this strange story of crime, punishment and redemption as devised by Simon, with the collaboration of Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott, was perhaps not as unlikely as it has proved.
The trouble is certainly not the crime - if you can have musicals on subjects as grim-toned as "Sweeney Todd" or "Jekyll and Hyde," anything is up for grabs - but the anticlimax of the ending.
Agron, after a reprieve from the electric chair, and after 20 years in prison as a model prisoner, was released, apparently rehabilitated, only to die of a heart attack in 1986 just shy of age 43.
It's not dramatic. Shakespeare would never have let Richard III die peacefully of a heart attack. Simon and Walcott could have avoided so many of their troubles had they not let themselves be pinned down by the realities of sometimes dubious actuality rather than liberated by the deeper realities of art.
If they simply had created a fresh story, incorporating Capeman elements, they might have revealed the kind of urban, racially charged, melting-pot tragedy they aimed at. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it's not so malleable.
What has emerged is a series of awkward scenes, almost vignettes, some of them like TV music videos, with all their characteristically unfocused drama and abstracted passion.
It was an easily second-guessed mistake for the producers to entrust the staging to an untested if sporadically brilliant choreographer, Mark Morris, who, like Simon, had no Broadway experience.
Although Morris has remained what, in the parlance of showbiz legalese, is known as the "director and choreographer of record," it is common knowledge that in recent weeks a reshaping of the show has been undertaken by Jerry Zaks, while the little bit of dancing that hangs around has been given an assist from Joey McNeeley.
Although the remedial measures have not completely worked, the unlikely combination of Morris and Zaks has at least left a fairly slicked-up first act, but the second act trails off into odd inconsequentiality.
The real tragedy of "Capeman" is that so much of its components is fantastically good.
First, naturally, is Simon's score. Simon has taken the odd mixture of salsa, rock, a touch of doo-wop and even gospel, and, helped by the orchestrations of Stanley Silverman, made it his own voice - just as he once remade the South African township sound of Soweto.
This is the best score on Broadway. And probably the best scenery and costumes are those of Bob Crowley, whose wild imagination and crazy perspectives have never been more effective.
Last, but certainly not least, there are some stellar performances, from Ruben Blades, as the older Agron, Marc Anthony as his younger self, Ednita Nazario as the mother, Renoly Santiago as his mentor and accomplice, and Sara Ramirez as the woman who writes to him in jail.
This is not a musical to send you out dancing on the sidewalk. It is rough, in more ways than one. It only rarely lives up to its aspirations - even its use of a few grainy TV news clips have a seriousness which eludes the show - and it certainly doesn't live up to its music.
Yet..."The Capeman" will be one of the great ''yets'' of Broadway, for decades to come. Meanwhile, I eagerly await hearing these talented performers on the original cast album.
For those who regard theatergoing as blood sport, it promised to be the event of the season. A budget of $11 million; a world-famous composer new to the Broadway musical and openly contemptuous of its traditions; a protracted period of previews replete with tales of desperate last-minute revisions, a frenzied parade of advice-dispensing show doctors: ''The Capeman,'' Paul Simon's pop-operatic retelling of a street-gang murder in 1959, seemed to have all the elements that make theater-disaster cultists drool.
But it would take a hard-core sadist to derive pleasure from the sad, benumbed spectacle that finally opened last night at the Marquis Theater, three weeks behind schedule. Although it may be unparalleled in its wholesale squandering of illustrious talents, including those of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott (Mr. Simon's co-librettist and book writer) and the brilliant choreographer Mark Morris (the director of record), ''The Capeman'' is no fun even as a target.
It is certainly not a camp hoot, along the lines of such fabled flops as ''Moose Murders'' and ''Carrie.'' It's not even an intriguing ''noble failure,'' the kind that causes you to scratch your head and think, ''They came so close to getting it right.'' Instead, the show registers as one solemn, helplessly confused drone. It's like watching a mortally wounded animal. You're only sorry that it has to suffer and that there's nothing you can do about it. One doesn't doubt that ''The Capeman'' has been a labor of intense devotion for Mr. Simon, who began his long, fluid career as half of the poetic pop duo Simon and Garfunkel. The professional intelligence and curiosity that have since led him into explorations of foreign musical cultures in albums like the South African-inspired ''Graceland'' (1986) and the Brazilian-flavored ''Rhythm of the Saints'' (1990) is obviously at work in this latest venture, a portrait of Puerto Rican immigrants in a hostile New York City.
Indeed, anyone who had listened to the sampler of songs from ''The Capeman'' that was released last year (and was Mr. Simon's first studio album in six years), had reason to hope for the stage version. Intricately weaving Latin American rhythms and inflections with the doo-wop harmonies in vogue in the 1950's, these songs have a contemplative, sensuous elegance all their own and remain a pleasure to listen to.
What sounds terrific through a headset, however, doesn't automatically translate into the more demonstrative style that theater demands. It's hard to fault the orchestrations (by Stanley Silverman) or the musical direction (Oscar Hernandez) of the Broadway incarnation. The problem is that no one has been able to find the visual and verbal equivalents to Mr. Simon's multilayered score. Everything in the music melts together; practically nothing that's said, done and shown on the stage seems to connect with anything else.
This is partly a result, no doubt, of the many disparate hands that the exacting Mr. Simon has brought in to shape ''The Capeman.'' In the past year and a half, the show has gone through three official directors: Susana Tubert, Eric Simonson and Mr. Morris, who is still credited for direction and choreography. But it has also been confirmed that Jerry Zaks, a Tony-winning Broadway veteran, has been editing and restructuring the musical over the last several weeks, aided by the choreographer Joey McKneely, who worked with Mr. Zaks on ''Smokey Joe's Cafe.''
They have apparently improved it. The person with whom I saw ''The Capeman'' had been to a performance in early January, and said Mr. Zaks had at least managed to clarify the show's story, which follows the fall and redemption of Salvador Agron, a Puerto Rican gang member who at 16 stabbed two other teen-agers to death. Mr. Zaks was quoted on Monday in The New York Times as saying, tellingly, ''I've done about as much as I can with what's there.''
What was there may have been beyond salvaging. Irrevocable damage seems to have occurred with Mr. Simon's and Mr. Walcott's very conception of the show's central character, whose real-life prototype dominated New York City headlines in 1959. Agron, who died in 1986, seven years after his release from prison, is here embodied by three different actors portraying him as a 7-year-old boy (Evan Jay Newman), an adolescent (Marc Anthony) and a middle-aged man (Ruben Blades). Yet they fail to add up to one fully dimensional character.
As the work follows its hero from Puerto Rico to the barrios of New York to the prisons in which he spent nearly two decades, Salvador remains a blank, passive figure, a tabula rasa scrawled upon by bad karma and a bad society. He is berated by Puerto Rican nuns for being a bed wetter; he is abandoned by his father and beaten and insulted by his stepfather (Philip Hernandez), an ill-tempered minister, even as his long-suffering mother (Ednita Nazario, a beloved pop singer from Puerto Rico) continues to love and pray for him.
When he is seduced into the violent world of the Vampires, a street gang led by the short and sinister Tony Hernandez (Renoly Santiago), Sal is a human noodle made limp by years of mistreatment. When he commits the crime that will land him on the front pages of the tabloids, it is hard to believe that he would ever find the fire within to do so.
Don't blame Mr. Anthony, a young salsa recording idol with a supple, affecting voice and plenty of natural presence. He has been given no proper role to play, a fact underlined by the tendency to keep him standing still as a statue whenever possible. This seems to have been the governing rule of the show's direction, a surprise given the involvement of the whimsically kinetic Mr. Morris.
Certainly, Mr. Blades, also a star of salsa music and a fine actor in movies like ''Crossover Dreams,'' suffers from a similar, presumably imposed rigidity. In the second act, he carries the burden of presenting the self-education of Salvador, while he is tormented by a cliched racist of a prison guard (Stephen Lee Anderson), as he comes to terms with his younger self. But what self is that? Everything happens to Salvador, but nothing seems generated from within.
The subtle variety of Mr. Simon's music somehow blends into a monotone by the end. The score is built from an infectious rhythmic base that hooks you at the beginning but never seems to take you anywhere. It has been flattened by lyrics that show scarcely a trace of the piquant, mythic spin of Mr. Walcott's poetry. Words are mostly used either for flat, information-crammed stretches of exposition or sloganeering pronouncements: ''The politics of prison are a mirror of the street./ The poor endure oppression./ The police control the state.'' Fancier phrases, often repeated, fall with a thud: ''Time is an ocean of endless tears.''
It becomes hard to distinguish the individual songs, too, as though everything were one long-spun recitative. In fact, the whole show is plagued by a curious failure to highlight its most significant moments. When the pivotal stabbing occurs, it almost passes unnoticed. As the varied characters are introduced, from the mystical figure of St. Lazarus (Nestor Sanchez) to the Indian woman who corresponds with Salvador in prison (Sara Ramirez), they just seem to wander in and out, like extras on a movie lot.
The performers sing well, though they look as if they're devoting all their concentration to hitting the right notes in Mr. Simon's subversive, slippery melodies. Perhaps that's why movement, let alone real dancing, is kept to a minimum. When the Vampires form a line and roll their shoulders a bit for a number about shoplifting, the audience seems disproportionately grateful.
What does stand out are the sets by Bob Crowley, the impressive London designer best known here for the recent revival of ''Carousel.'' He uses a wide assortment of techniques here, evoking everything from the island of Puerto Rico itself, in a miniature reminiscent of Julie Taymor's work in ''Juan Darien,'' to the mean streets of New York, conjured by the photographic projections by Wendall K. Harrington.
Some of the effects are dazzling in their use of perspective, especially the tall, eye-fooling backdrops used to create the exterior and interior of Sal's tenement building. Yet their precision and boldness seem at odds with the tentativeness of the rest of the show. The characters never appear to inhabit the sets. And when Mr. Crowley serves up a breathtaking image of prison life, with gray statues of seated inmates dotting a long wall, you keep looking hopefully to the statues to provide the animation the actors do not.
The production also features filmed interviews with the real Salvador Agron, which are so electric one questions the wisdom of including them. In the segment in which Agron, shortly after his arrest for the murders, notoriously proclaimed that his mother could watch him burn, he registers as a terrifying amalgam of confusion and contempt, an inchoate force of raw energy groping for defiant style.
Nothing that Mr. Anthony or Mr. Blades does in ''The Capeman'' begins to approach the disturbing complexity of that image. When the older Sal sings to his younger self, ''Nobody knows you like I do,'' you assume that he's also speaking for Mr. Simon, who spent years researching the character.
But if the composer truly knows the heart of Salvador Agron, he has been unable to find the theatrical language for sharing that knowledge. ''The Capeman'' itself feels as flat as, and far less incendiary than, the blaze of headlines that illuminated its hero's tragic life.