Paul Simon is ”putting it together,” as another notoriously brainy Broadway songwriter, Stephen Sondheim, once described it. Come January, Simon will have made a little bit of history by being the very first singer-songwriter from among rock & roll’s slim pantheon of uncontested greats to open a serious original musical on Broadway. Which might seem like an altogether long-overdue rite of passage for those of us from the generation that came of age listening to both ”The Sound of Music” and ”The Sound of Silence,” but putting those two camps together took a few decades.
Looking as coolly unrelaxed as anyone on the verge of opening a risky $11 million musical ought to, Simon pulls up a couple of folding chairs inside the Manhattan rehearsal hall where an orchestra is taking a lunch break between last-minute arranging sessions for The Capeman, the production for which the 56-year-old pop legend is creator, composer, co-author, co-lyricist, co-producer and inadvertent controversy prompter. As the hundred-odd musicians file out, I remind Simon of how much intrigue this show holds for those of us who consider ourselves rock & roll enthusiasts and devotees of the Broadway musical. Not that there’s necessarily a huge overlap between those two audiences.
”I’ll say,” Simon interjects. ”There’s virtually none. You may be the overlap.”
Well, it’s not quite so lonely as all that. But he does have a point: Most rock nerds and theater geeks part ways somewhere around junior high, and rarely again do the twain popularly meet. When a supposed example of newfound common ground is seized upon, it usually turns out to be either nostalgia satiation, like Grease! or The Who’s Tommy, or catchy hepster hokum, a la Rent. For all the claims of the musical theater’s revitalization, ”I don’t think it’s changing,” says Simon, ”not much.”
Once rock emerged, he figures, ”theater music never absorbed that energy, and rock & roll became the mainstream of popular music, while theater became this other branch of pop music. Whereas in its heyday, the ’40s and ’50s, it was the same composers writing for both the Top 40 and the stage.” Sad how that schism came about, isn’t it? ”I don’t see that as a tragedy. The cream-of-the-crop writers of new generations didn’t have any interest in [theater]. I’m sure Lennon and McCartney could have written a great musical if they wanted to. But why bother when you can have a satisfying experience making an album and then go on the road and — David Bowie is the first name that comes to mind — be as theatrical as you want?”
Why, indeed? Simon has just made a surprisingly compelling argument against the whole idea of ”rock opera.” Shouldn’t someone be calling the box office to cancel previews right about now?
Relax. Fortunately, the now-pejorative ”rock opera” scarcely begins to cover The Capeman’s reach — though Simon’s 39-song score does rock, in its fashion, and the story is rendered operatically with almost no spoken dialogue. The show doesn’t take many direct cues, either, from classicists like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Loesser, or Lerner and Loewe, all of whom Simon admires.