Troubled tuner's backers plan to hang on

NEW YORK – Critics might have put Salvador “The Capeman” Agron back on death row, but the morning of the show’s devastating reviews producers huddled in advertising meetings to plot their strategy for an appeal.

“Obviously, it could have been a better day,” says Dan Klores, a producer of Paul Simon’s $11 million Broadway debut. “But we’re ready to swing our fists. We’ll be there for the Tony nominations.”

After months of turmoil and rumor, Simon’s musical about true-life murderer Agron opened Jan. 29 to blistering notices. Even as a new television commercial, pulling pleasant-sounding quotes from pre-opening news articles and features, aired during 11 p.m. newscasts on opening night, Dennis Cunningham of WCBS-TV told viewers that the show is “long and confused and remarkably cold.”

“A sad, benumbed spectacle” is how New York Times critic Ben Brantley described the Paul Simon tuner. “It’s like watching a mortally wounded animal.”The New York Post’s Clive Barnes, though praising Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes and comparing Simon to Stephen Sondheim, said the rest of the show “doesn’t live up to its music.” Fintan O’Toole of the New York Daily News liked the same elements but wrote that “Capeman” “ought to be so much more.”

But perhaps Linda Winer of Newsday summed up the overall critical reaction most succinctly:

“The show that finally cranked open in the unwelcoming Marquis (Theater) has integrity, ambitions and lots of fascinating mixed-culture music that might be best heard as a recorded song cycle. Everything seems heartfelt and authentic. It’s also inert and dramatically inept.”

The damaging reviews, if not altogether unexpected, certainly threaten a show that has seen more than its share of gloomy headlines. The production’s $6 million advance includes a significant number of group reservations which, even if the reservations are honored by the groups, would only get the show through a few months. Fortunately for the production, Tony Award nominations are only a few months away, and “Capeman” has a better than decent shot at the score and set design noms.

Still, it will be a tough winter. With weekly operating costs thought to be in excess of $400,000, the musical’s recent pre-opening (and, perhaps more significantly, pre-pans) weekly grosses have been hovering in that range. Granted, “Capeman” recently has been playing only six or seven shows per week to allow additional rehearsal time, but even so the grosses have been well below potential.

The buzz might have contributed to the show’s slipping ticket sales in recent weeks. After beginning previews in early December, attendance has fallen to the 65%-to-80%-of-capacity range from a previous high of 90%. In the week prior to opening, daily wraps ranged from $60,000 to $90,000, noticeably lower than the $100,000 wraps earlier in the run.

For the week of Jan. 19-25, “Capeman” played seven previews, grossing $385,482 of a potential $651,260.

The first hint of trouble came last summer when James Nederlander Jr. reduced his investment to $1 million from $6 million, reportedly because he was concerned over the spiraling cost of the show (the final cost of “Capeman” is $11 million, with Simon thought to have put up a hefty portion of the money himself).

More recently, the show’s producers delayed the scheduled Jan. 8 opening to Jan. 29, and hired Broadway veteran director Jerry Zaks in an 11th-hour attempt to fix the troubled musical. Zaks took the reigns from director of credit Mark Morris, cutting a half-hour from the three-hour show. Much of the excised material apparently involved Derek Walcott’s problematic book, although some music — “Trailways Bus,” “The Mission,” and several other numbers — were scrapped in the few weeks prior to opening.

Zaks, who also brought in choreographer Joey McKneely to add some last-minute steps, was the fourth director to tackle “Capeman.” Susana Tubert and Eric Simonson did some early, and brief, stints with the show, though Morris, a modern dance innovator, saw the musical through most of its development.

Despite Simon’s recent media blitz — appearances on VH-1, “Good Morning, America,” the David Letterman show, among others — “Capeman” has endured some of the harshest pre-opening buzz of any Broadway show in recent memory. A convoluted, difficult-to-follow plot had many audience members baffled — “Who is that guy with the halo?” — and the lack of movement (dance or otherwise) was both perplexing and disappointing given Morris’ involvement.

The producers’ decision to delay the opening sent an even sharper distress signal. The track record of previewing Broadway musicals that postponed opening dates has been dismal in recent years (Variety, Dec. 22) and includes such notorious flops as “Nick & Nora,” “Legs Diamond,” “Passion” and “The Red Shoes.”

Even Simon’s well-reviewed CD, “Songs From The Capeman,” featuring his own versions of the show’s tunes, augured little optimism after its release last November: The release vanished from Billboard shortly after its less-than-inspiring appearance on the charts.

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