A Tale of Two Musicals

American history takes shape in Broadway song


At the Marquis Theatre.


At the Ford Center for the Performing Arts.

Two new Broadway musicals - "The Capeman" and "Ragtime" - are taken from 20th-century American history, but we're not talking the mostly sunny side of farmlands familiar from such musicals as "Oklahoma!"

"The Capeman" marks performer-composer Paul Simon's first foray into musical theater. It is based on the shocking 1959 murder of two white teenagers by a 16-year-old Puerto Rican immigrant, Salvador Agrn, who later finds God in prison.

Onstage, E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, "Ragtime," becomes a red, white, and blue theatrical pageant. The show's book by Terrence McNally follows Doctorow's vision of the colorful era before World War I in its mingling of personalities - both real and fictional - to create a show as complex, rhythmic, and appealing as ragtime music itself.

"The Capeman," with book and lyrics by Nobel Prize-winning author Derek Walcott, direction and choreography by the innovative contemporary dancemaker Mark Morris, and imaginative settings designed by Bob Crowley, previewed in New York for nearly two months, in a public display of revisions. Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks was pulled in to reshape the production before its official opening Jan. 29.

The show is distinguished by Simon's score, which mixes the doo-wop music of the 1950s with a rich stew of Puerto Rican salsa, gospel, and rock styles. With practically no spoken dialogue, the piece stands as a folk opera that explores the ways Latino immigrants assume - or do not - the aspirations of American culture.

In Agrn's case, he moved with his family to the mean streets of New York, where adolescent gangs grew to manhood under a code of macho pride. The teens acted out the prejudices of their elders in rituals of violent confrontation.

Despite a large and talented cast, led by Ruben Blades as the mature Agrn, Marc Anthony as the teenage Agrn, and popular Puerto Rican singer Ednita Nazario as Agrn's mother, the show has a major problem. The structure is lopsided, with a fast-moving first act that runs from Agrn's troubled childhood in Puerto Rico through the murder and trial, and a slow, nearly uneventful Act II as Agrn ages in prison.

But more important than pacing are the thematic issues, which reach deeper than the sensational headlines about Agrn's crime. Rather than glorifying the murderer, Simon and his collaborators have made a more penetrating leap. They have transformed Agrn's story into a Christian parable, which asks forgiveness for a repentant sinner.

"Ragtime," under Frank Galati's direction, with Graciela Daniele's seamless choreography, follows the fortunes of three American families as their destinies are determined by larger forces in a nation on the move.

The show opens with a striking number that depicts three segments of American society, c. 1902, moving in phalanx formations that circle one another but never merge. They are led by an upper-middle class family, an immigrant father and daughter who bring their ambitions to a new land, and a black musician longing for respect and a normal life. Moving among them are J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, and Emma Goldman, along with other historical figures, as the intertwined plots unfold.

The strength of "Ragtime" lies as much in the stage pictures that tell the story as in the spoken words. The score and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens are more than serviceable in re-creating the syncopated aura of the music, but it is in the evocative settings by Eugene Lee, especially his lovely painted backdrops of Atlantic City and the boulevards of New York, that the show comes alive. The 59-member company is led by Brian Stokes Mitchell as the black ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. - certainly Broadway's hottest new star.

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