Monday, July 30, 2012

Manhunt/ Can I Forgive Him?

[Note to readers: Someone asked if a more complete soundtrack than Songs From had ever been released. Here is the full answer, from a 2006 piece for by Andrew Gans: "The original Broadway cast recording of Paul Simon's The Capeman — the short-lived musical that featured Ruben Blades, Marc Anthony, Ednita Nazario and Sara Ramirez — never made it to record stores, but interested listeners can now download tracks from the recording on iTunes... All 39 songs from the Simon musical are available for download... The Dreamworks SKG original cast album of Paul Simon's Broadway musical The Capeman was originally scheduled for release in spring 1998. The recording, which was never released, featured the entire Broadway cast singing the full score, which was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Original Score. A CD of Simon, Blades, Anthony and Nazario singing selections from the show was released in fall 1997. The cast album includes much material not on the Songs From The Capeman CD."]

There is no song about the crime in progress, just the aftermath. The song "Manhunt" begins with adult Salvador recalling the events' conclusion: "I see two bodies lifted high/ As angels in their shroud."

A cabdriver recalls picking up "them Puerto Ricans," and where, and also where he dropped them off, a neighborhood called San Juan Hill, which we assume is named for Puerto Rico's capital. "The little guy with the stingy brim/ Looked mean enough to kill," the cabbie adds. We recall a "stingy brim" hat being discussed in "Shopliftin' Clothes." (This just means the brim is smaller than standard.)

The Chorus takes part in this song. At first, they cry, "Run, Spic, run!" This slur comes from the way native Spanish speakers tend to pronounce the word "speak," especially in explaining that they "don't speak English." Those who could would mock their accent.

Then the mayor arrives for a press conference. He blames the lack of "parental guidance," and "the courts," with their "leniency for animals that lead a life of crime." He concludes by saying the police force will add 1,400 officers.

Carlos, young Sal's positive role model, was "at the scene," and it seems he fingered Sal; we are also reminded that Sal was 16 at the time. Now Sal himself takes over the narration, explaining that he and Umbrella Man "vanished in the Bronx/ Taking food from garbage cans" until Sal is caught by a cop... and admits that, yes, "I'm the one who used the knife."

Now the Chorus, who has first told him to "run," chant "Kill the spics!" Sal reacts with outward toughness: "I don't care if they fry me/ My mother could watch me burn."

"Can I Forgive Him?" (Track 7) has got to be one of the saddest songs Simon ever wrote.

Esmerelda, Sal's mother, comes to see Mrs. Young and Mrs. Krzesinski, the mothers of the murdered teens. She asks them to see past the "savage boy... with the sneer," to the child she "nursed and bathed." In a weird way, she tries to paint herself as somewhat of a victim, too. After all, her "fated" son too is "gone... the state will see to that."

Mrs. Young replies first, with racist overtones-- as if people born in America didn't also kill!-- "You Spanish people... nothing here changes [you]... Ungrateful immigrants." Then she lashes out at the courts, media and society in general that "makes a cartoon of crime... a glorification of slime."

Mrs. Krzesinski speaks more to the point. "My religion asks me to pray for the murderer's soul/ But I think you'd have to be Jesus on the cross/ To open your heart after such a loss./ Can I forgive him?/ No, I cannot."

Esmerelda grudgingly accepts this logic: "Only God can say, "Forgive"/ His son, too, received a knife/ But we... have to live/ With this cross we call our life." Again, while she is suffering, she does not acknowledge that her suffering is not the same as theirs, with her use of "we."

Mrs. Krzesinski says that one of the hardest parts is the sympathy of others, which is not entirely selfless: "The trembling flowers they bring/ Fear in the roots and the stem/ What happened to me... could happen to them."

And both speak of the unending nature of the pain. Mrs. Young uses the metaphor of a "bomb" with "wave after wave [of] aftershocks.] Mrs. Krzesinski calls it a "nightmare/ From which you can't wake."

The victims' mothers repeat "Can I forgive him/ No, I cannot"... while Esmerelda still insists that their pain and hers, being two sides of the same coin, entitle her to sympathy from them, too.

It is very presumptuous of Esmerelda to approach these women at all. And then, instead of apologizing, she straightaway tries to excuse Sal's murderous behavior-- "He's really a good boy!" She tries to shift away blame from herself-- "I nursed and bathed and mothered him as best I could!" Lastly, she sighs, "Yes, isn't it terrible what we all are all going through-- together and equally-- what with our sons' deaths and all."

It is not hard to wonder if this lack of empathy-- "Hey, I have to live with the fact that my son is a murderer! Where's my compassion?"-- isn't a touch, well, out-of-touch on Esmerelda's part. If so, did she impart this insensitivity to Sal somehow?

I do fault The Capeman this far-- although this issue may have been addressed on the stage and just not in the lyrics-- it ignores the role of fathers. Sal's birth father is never seen, and his adoptive father seems distant and unrealistic. Boys look for male role models, and Sal found two-- Carlos and Hernandez. But Carlos was busy with Yolanda, and Hernandez took an interest. So naturally, Sal wanted to please and impress Hernandez.

Everyone is pointing fingers at the mothers, at the courts, the media, and society. But not one word about the lack of positive, involved male role models. Here, the positive one was not involved... and vice versa, the involved one was so in a less-than-positive way.

And where is Sal's righteous, holy stepfather in the middle of all this? Does he want to distance himself from Sal's crime so as to save his church's reputation? Why is he not pleading with the mothers of the victims, or the judge or the mayor or the press? As clumsy and self-serving as she is about it, at least Esmerelda is trying to do something for her boy.

One thing Sal did know-- how to, eventually, own up to what he did. When confronted, he admits his guilt. This trait is one he did not, it seems, learn from his mother.

Next song: Adios Hermanos/ Jesus Es Mi Senor

Monday, July 23, 2012

Dance to a Dream/ Quality

Has Hernandez, The Umbrella Man, become the only influence in Sal's life? What about Bernadette, and his role models for a solid relationship, Carlos and Yolanda? As this song shows, they are both still couples.

The song mostly belongs to Carlos and Yolanda, as they dream of a life together, away from the barrio. We have heard this type of song before in musicals, from Annie's "Easy Street" to Little Shop of Horrors' "Somewhere That's Green."

Here, the "desire" is material, too, at least in part, Yolanda sings: "I have always imagined a better life/ Far from the barrio's gutters/ We could manage a club as a husband and wife... A restaurant, white tablecloths/ And maybe some live Spanish music."

She has also envisioned their home. Together, they could "build a house, paint the shutters... There are lawns and flowers on a Westchester street/ Maples that sound like a river." She clings to this desire like a lifeline: "It's my dream, and I don't want to lose it."

Carlos' "desire" is, originally, less material, and more immediate: "Come on, Yolanda, I just wanna see..." But  of course he wants to provide a good life for her: "A place for our children that's restful and sweet/ I promise you some day, we'll live there."

Young Sal has less mature ways to impress Bernadette: "What you wanna bet/ I can fly like the guys in the comic books?/ You know how magic this cape is." (Ah, so he did acquire the cape... somehow! Later, he mentions a salary, but...). Bernadette is incredulous of the cape's powers, but sure of her feelings for Sal: "I'll bandage your wounds with my kisses."

Both women and Carlos join for the chorus: "You can dance to the dream of a summer's night/ As you drift to the edge of desire/ Guided by love's mysterious light/ Set the stars in heaven on fire." Since before Shakespeare, something about a midsummer night has set lovers to dream.

"Quality" is the sixth track on the soundtrack album. It's a simple 1950's-style pop tune, and it also marks the differences between what the women hope for and what the men (or boys) do.

The women sing: "Are you my beautiful young boy/ Or just another love/ Passing through my life... And maybe one day soon/ Will I be your wife?"

Carlos is not part of this number, but Sal sings lyrics typical of the age... and his own age: "Come on, Baby, let's go downtown/ You sure look good to me... Don't be shy/ Step in the light so I can see... Let's rock some more/ I want to spend my salary... The way you move/ It's got quality." He's so pleased with life, he even sings this about himself, that others see that he has quality.

Adult Salvador steps in at this point, sighing: "Who can stop the setting sun/ Who can raise the dead?/ I feel the shame of what was done/ See how the stain has spread." With one act, which we will soon see, all of Sal's and Bernadette's dreams and desires are rendered meaningless, as are those of his mother and stepfather.

But first, young Sal gets in one more verse of "Quality," just to show, exactly, what he will lose: his youth, his hope, his exuberance, his freedom... maybe not his life, but everything good in it.

Next Song: Manhunt/ Can I Forgive Him?

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Vampires/ Shopliftin' Clothes

These two songs (the first of which is Track 5 on the Capeman soundtrack) illustrate young Sal's initiation into the Vampire gang and then his first-- today we would say "gateway"-- crime. (As the song is about the Hispanic gang, the music has a decidedly Latin flavor.)

"The Vampires" starts differently in the Lyrics book than on the album. In the book, Hernandez (a.k.a. The Umbrella Man) sees that Sal has been given a beating by a gang called the Red Wings as a warning to stay out of their neighborhood. Hernandez sees his pain and humiliation, and uses the opportunity to goad Sal. Sal tells him to leave him alone, and Hernandez replies, "Oh, now you're ready to rumble?/ I'm gonna run to your stepfather's church and start praying."

In the soundtrack, Hernandez is shaking him down, "Well, did you bring me my money... my cab fare?... I got expenses, you know/ Where's my weekly dues?"

From this point forward, the two versions are the same. Through the song, we get a lesson in gang psychology. Hernandez calls Sal a "Jibaro," a bumpkin or yokel.  Hernandez then humiliatingly tells the gang that Sal still lives with his "mami." Then he praises him: "You know it takes a strong man to survive/ It ain't no accident you're still alive." This break-down/build-up tactic is typical of many initiation rites.

The gang starts to explain his situation and how it relates to them: "We stand for the neighborhood." This is implies that if you don't stand with them, you stand against the neighborhood, and therefore are a threat that they are authorized to address. 

Hernandez says, "You want to fight for your people, don't you Sal?" Sal responds, "If I got to." And Hernandez affirms, "Oh, you got to." So there is the false dichotomy of with us/against us, plus the cloaked threat... which also the removes self-determination.

There is the offering of membership: "So, you gonna be a Vampire!" He is shown the gang's hideout: "This is the cave of the Vampires/ Dracula's castle." Then he is given a knife, a sign of trust. Oh, and he mentions that Carlos collects the "dues." 

The initiation makes membership very attractive... and turning it down much less so. In addition to the implied thrashing should he refuse, there will be major questions as to his loyalty to the neighborhood, and his manliness altogether: "If you got the balls, then come on, mete mano," those last two words being Spanish for, roughly, "put your hand in." If Sal joins, he is "in," and thus enjoys the gang's protection in exchange for (tangible) gratitude. If he doesn't, well... who knows what might happen to a disloyal, cowardly weakling in such a terrible place?

To drive the point home that they need to band together, Hernandez tells him the story of gang member Frenchy. When this upstanding young man only meant to sell some marijuana in an Irish neighborhood, someone there insulted his Puerto Rican heritage (using expletives, yet!) and assaulted him violently, breaking his collarbone! The injustice of the incident, Hernandez sighs, has caused him to question the basic morality of America itself. Obviously, they must fend for, defend, and advance themselves... themselves.

The next song is called "Shopliftin' Clothes," but the lyrics don't relate that. They show Sal and his new "friends" going into a store. They are waited on by a saleswoman, then also a salesman. They are shown pants, shirts, a sharkskin suit, and hats. Then Sal's eye falls on a cape, which he is told is just a floor model to tout the shipment coming in soon. They are waited on so closely, it is hard to see how they could steal anything. Also, how does one steal a suit or hat-- how would one hide that in a pocket? And, if Sal did steal the cape, it would be obvious which store it was from. At most, they could make off with a pair of socks or a handkerchief. Perhaps the thievery is shown through onstage action.

The song might be a pastiche on the song "Shoppin' for Clothes" by The Coasters.

Next Songs: Dance to a Dream/ Quality

Monday, July 9, 2012


This is young Sal's song to his young love, Bernadette. Appropriately, it's a young, puppy-love song,

The bulk of the song is in the sprightly doo-wop, teen-pop mode of the 1950s, but there is a passage that is more sophisticated, jazzy, and adult. In the soundtrack album (track 4), the whole song is sung by Simon, but the notes in the Lyrics book indicate that this passage is a duet in which Bernadette sings along, possibly expressing her ability to bring him toward adulthood.

The opening cliche lyrics befit the Frankie Avalon-style music: "I got time on my hands tonight/ You're the girl of my dreams/ When I'm with you, the future seems bright."

In the more cosmopolitan passage, the lyrics are a bit more, well, lyrical: "I love you/ And the breeze that wraps around you."

This slides back into the cuter lyrics with the transitional line: "You're the smile on the Moon,"

Then we get the classic doo-wop nonsense "words" like "dom," "zoom," "wop," and "well-a-well." These surround the heartfelt words "I'm home," which is an important statement for an immigrant like Sal, who was somewhat homeless even in his Puerto Rican homeland.

Next, Sal invites Bernadette to a "hiding place in Central Park." Then Sal adds a seeming non-sequitur: "There's a wooden cross over my bed." Does this mean: "I am a good, religious boy! I just want to show you the place I have discovered for looking at the stars." Or does this mean: "My apartment, overseen my my religious family, is no place to do with you what I would, ahem, like to..." Given what we know about Sal, we assume the former explanation-- he really likes Bernadette and knows that if he wants to marry her, they will have to wait.

"The city is lit with candles/ They're shining for you, Bernadette." She really brings out the budding poet in Sal. But let's not get ahead of ourselves...

This song is of a type Simon wrote back in his pre-Simon and Garfunkel days, a la "Hey Schoolgirl." It must have been fun for him to write in that simple, happy mode again.

Musical Note:
Simon's collaborator for the lyrics of The Capeman is a very impressive, and very appropriate one. Derek Walcott is a Nobel Prize-winning poet... and a native of the Caribbean, specifically, the island of St. Lucia in the West Indies.

He favored the modern poets like TS Eliot (Simon himself likes Wallace Stevens), and also Elizabeth Bishop. He also founded a theater in Trinidad in 1959-- still running!-- and wrote as many plays as books of poems. In fact, it was this work as much as his poetry that garnered Wolcott an OBE.

Wolcott's work involves themes of religion (he grew up Methodist in a Catholic environment) and sensuality, two themes that run through The Capeman, and of course he is familiar with Caribbean imagery. As far as I can find, this play is his only foray into songwriting, although he originally trained as a painter!

Next song: The Vampires/ Shopliftin' Clothes

Monday, July 2, 2012

Satin Summer Nights

In The Capeman, the scene has now shifted to New York, and we meet some new characters. (Track 3 on the album).

Sal has been sleeping "on the roof" of his tenement. We know about the accessibility of this space from songs like "Up on the Roof."  This vantage point gives young Sal views of the sunset, but also canoodling couples. Like Carlos and Yolanda, who like to dance to old songs. We presume he sees them through a window across the street.

Then he mentions St. Lazarus, the one his mother was told by the santero, the fortune teller back in Puerto Rico, was the only force who could save him from his violent fate. Lazarus, of course, is the man Jesus brought back from the dead, so he must have something to do with changing one's fate and getting second chances.

Sal is aware that he will have to grow up at some point-- "Well, these jitterbug days I'm living/ They won't last..."-- but the question is how. He seems to enjoy the romance of the couples...and the "sound of a cappella groups" Simon spoke of in "Late in the Evening" and which provides the background for this number. He calls this a "satin summer night," a reference to the thickness of the humid air, but also its sultry sensuality.

For now, he seems to be drawn to a girl named Bernadette: "I can feel the fire in her eyes." She returns his attentions: "Be my special one/ I seen you move in from across the street/ I love the way you run."

Bernadette and Yolanda revel in the freedom and confidence they feel in their adopted country: "No more baby talk/ This is the island of Nueva York." Also, the privacy afforded by the rooftops.

So his route to manhood seems set, and attractive at that. Find a girl, settle down, etc.

But here comes another option. It is offered by one Hernandez, who goes by "Umbrella Man," after his scepter of choice. He belittles the romance of the couples, and calls such goals small: "You little ghetto weeds/ I feel like killin' you."

Umbrella Man says there is more going on here. There is war being waged among a dozen rival gangs, he explains, listing them off. Each is centered around a different ethnicity and neighborhood, each eager to expand its territory... by violence if necessary.

Involvement in protecting oneself and the neighborhood, he feels, is inevitable: "Your future's locked in mine." He is a member of the local Puerto Rican gang, the Vampires. These other gangs look down on them--"They treat you like you're piss"-- and it's only manly to respond with a return challenge: "From the heart of the barrio, now, my brother/ We tell [them]: "Suck on this."

Umbrella Man is full of racial slurs, and he uses one on Sal to provoke a reaction, adding, "You get no respect here unless/ You belong to a bopping gang." And that adjective, we assume, means a gang willing to "bop" the other gangs a solid blow.

In conclusion, Hernandez offers Sal a choice: "You either belong, or you get hurt/ Or you can buy some protection from me." Buy protection "from" him in both senses of the word, that is-- either the protection from outsiders will come from him... or the danger he needs protecting from will.

And Umbrella Man has one more selling point-- he will fight on Sal's behalf! "If someone's got to die/ I believe in an eye for an eye/ What do you believe in, Salvador Agron?" He closes his pitch by referring to Sal as both "Mr. Agron" and "Senor Agron" to drive home that this is a choice of ethnic and adult pride.

Sal, young though he may be, realizes that Umbrella Man offers a false choice. He has already seen another way-- the way of Carlos and Yolanda, the way it could be with Bernadette.

What does he believe in? He already knows: "I believe I'm in the power of St. Lazarus." And he begs the Umbrella Man not to ruin his bliss: "Don't tear apart/ This satin summer night."

Musical Note:
Marc Anthony sings Sal's part here on the album, and played young Sal in the original production. Anthony is equally adept at acting (the movie Big Night and others) and singing, and has been a force in entertainment since the 1980s, singing on some Menudo albums. In 1999, his English-language hit "I Need to Know" hit #3, and his fourth album won a Grammy. He is the best-selling salsa singer... ever.

Oh, and he's been married to Jennifer Lopez since 2004 (although as of this writing, divorce papers have been filed).

Next song: Bernadette