Stephen J. Dubner





Selected journalism by Stephen J. Dubner
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The Pop Perfectionist on a Crowded Stage
Paul Simon sees "The Capeman" as the summation of his career. But on Broadway, you can't do it all by yourself.

By STEPHEN J. DUBNER
November 9, 1997

Paul Simon is sitting in an Irish tavern on Columbus Avenue, finishing off a plate of roast turkey and mashed potatoes, watching the Yankees' season crash to a close and insisting that he is not a perfectionist. He has just come from the theater. For seven years, Simon has been writing a Broadway musical called ''The Capeman.'' Now the show is just weeks away. (The first preview performance is scheduled for Dec. 1, with opening night set for Jan. 8.) Earlier this evening, several scenes were staged for an audience of group-ticket-sales agents, who seemed to like it quite a bit. More surprisingly, so did Simon.

Another sneak-preview performance, held a week earlier, left him unhappy -- so much so that in the theater tonight, some band and cast members were still muttering about the scolding he'd delivered afterward.

''No, I wasn't upset,'' Simon says now -- and then, as he often does, edits himself. ''Well, I guess I was upset -- but part of it was letting myself get upset so that the band and the singers would know that I didn't think it sounded good.''

Which leads, eventually, to the conversation about perfectionism.

The Yankees have fallen behind the Indians, for good, and Simon is a Yankees fan. (Bernie Williams and Luis Sojo once sat in with the ''Capeman'' band; that night, Sojo broke his arm and Williams went hitless, spawning talk of a ''Capeman'' curse.) ''It's a sad night for New York,'' Simon says, and sighs; then he orders a second beer and bums a cigarette. Everyone in the bar is glued to the game, which is a good thing. Simon wears the deeply uncomfortable look of a man who worries that a stranger will step up and gush fanspeak, which might prod Simon into rudeness, which might later make him feel guilty.

''Look,'' he says quietly, slowly, ''at a certain point, something is musical. And beneath that point, it's not musical. You can't sing out of tune, you can't play out of rhythm, you can't play your instrument that isn't tuned, the tempo has to be right. I don't know, is that perfection? I don't say that once you reach that point, you must keep going to the sky -- although I do think, Hey, you got this far, why don't you see how far you can go? If you want to call that perfection, O.K. But it's not anywhere near perfection, it's just musical.''

Everyone working on ''The Capeman'' has a story about Simon's. . . musicality. ''Paul's obsessive about what he's trying to do,'' says Oscar Hernandez, the show's musical director. ''He's always looking for new things, exhausting the possibilities. And then he usually goes, 'Oh, I guess it was better the way we had it.' But until he goes through 18 million changes, he just doesn't settle.''

Then there was the time, with the whole ''Capeman'' cast and band standing by, that Simon ''spent half an hour moving the tambourine around the room to see where it would sound best,'' as one person who was in the room recalls.

The upside to Simon's discernment, of course, is that it has led to some of the most memorable, word-smart and sophisticated music in pop history. From the immensely popular Simon and Garfunkel records to the world-music hybrids of ''Graceland'' and ''The Rhythm of the Saints,'' Simon has produced such finely wrought -- such carefully wrought -- music that it seems somehow inexact to call him a singer-songwriter.

Tales of his obsession in the recording studio are easy to come by. He reportedly spent 800 hours, over the course of two years, making the last Simon and Garfunkel album, ''Bridge Over Troubled Water.'' In 1990, with ''The Rhythm of the Saints'' ready for release in time for the Grammy deadline, Simon had a chance to win a fourth Album of the Year award; at the last minute, he decided he wasn't happy with the song sequencing, and he delayed the record. (The following year, Simon was beaten out by Natalie and Nat King Cole.)

For Simon, the studio was a perfect sanctuary from, among other things, an often rocky personal life. Above all, it was a place of supreme control for someone who, despite his objections, has never shaken the perfectionist tag.

So why has he now decided to wade into the musical theater, the most collaborative, least controllable of all the arts?

He answers this question differently every time I ask. He says that after recording and touring with ''Graceland,'' collaborating on a musical is really not such a stretch. (''Have you ever counted up the number of people in the credits on that record?'') He says that after arranging for Olodum, the Brazilian drumming group, to play on ''The Rhythm of the Saints,'' he wasn't all that intimidated by the notoriously rocky shoals of Broadway. (''Listen, the negotiations with Olodum were as complex as this, and I had to do that in Portuguese, and these are guys with guns.'')

I didn't disbelieve those answers. But, because Paul Simon is most candid when he is most personal, something he told me in late October rang the most true. I asked again: Why Broadway? ''Because,'' he said, ''I didn't want to be 'that guy who played Central Park.' ''

He didn't want to be a middle-aged troubadour, that is, a one-man (or occasionally two-man) nostalgia act, playing songs he'd grown sick of for people who treated them like sacred texts. But writing a musical for Broadway, that strange and chancy business, can be an invitation to failure. Moreover, change comes hard for a man of 56, and it would seem unlikely that Simon would suddenly find it within himself to surrender to a Broadway collaboration, wherein the composer loosens his grip once the composing is done. That, at least, is the way it's supposed to work.

The idea for ''The Capeman'' came to Simon 10 years ago. ''I just thought, Hey, the Capeman murder, that would make a good musical,'' he says.

The Capeman was a 16-year-old Puerto Rican named Salvador Agron. He'd grown up troubled and wild, moved to New York with his family, joined a gang called the Vampires, and one late-summer night in 1959, while wearing a flashy black cape, stabbed two white teen-agers to death in Hell's Kitchen. ''West Side Story'' had just played on Broadway, and when Agron was captured after a citywide manhunt, the tabloids cast him as the Puerto Rican menace come to life. He hardly helped his cause: ''I don't care if I burn,'' he told the police. ''My mother could watch me.''

Agron was indeed sentenced to the electric chair, becoming the youngest criminal in state history to receive a death sentence, but it was later commuted by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller. In jail, Agron rehabilitated himself. He became a writer, a born-again Christian, a Marxist, a leftist cause celebre. He was paroled in 1979 and died in the Bronx seven years later, of an apparent heart attack, at 42.

These were the elements that drew Paul Simon to Agron's story: murder, remorse and redemption. But more intriguing to Simon was the possibility of marrying those themes to the doo-wop and rock-and-roll and Puerto Rican music that filled the city's streets when both he and Agron were teen-agers.

Simon's career had just been reborn when the Capeman idea seized him. In the early 80's, he had been flirting with irrelevance and, worse, derision. The college-boy-poet image had not weathered well; he was derided as pretentious, a tiny man with an outsize ego, his music too soft, his liberal pieties too familiar.

He responded, in 1986, by making ''Graceland,'' a record with which, he says now, he was trying only to satisfy his own curiosities. ''Nobody was paying any attention to me at the time, anyhow,'' he says. ''My last record, 'Hearts and Bones,' had been a flop.''

''Graceland'' was a stunning pastiche of African rhythms and American wistfulness that would go on to sell 11 million copies. Attention was being paid to Simon again, not all of it welcome: having popularized South African music, he was called a cultural rapist, a musical carpetbagger. The criticism stung; it took four years to release another record, the Brazilian-inflected ''The Rhythm of the Saints.'' Notwithstanding more carpetbagging attacks, the record was well received, and went on to sell nearly five million copies.

These last seven years, Simon has been happy to lie low, writing his musical, hoping the middle-aged troubadour would be forgotten. But next week, he is finally releasing a new record, a dozen songs from ''The Capeman,'' most of which Simon sings himself.

As a boy in Queens, Simon harbored no great love for the Broadway musical (nor does he now). But he did fall in love with music, early and hard, and he saw the Capeman tale as a means to revisit that love. This project, he knows, will also be attacked. Relatives of the murder victims have already accused him of spinning the life of a teen-age killer into a seductive doo-wop dreamscape; Latino groups have assailed him for perpetuating the stereotype of the savage Puerto Rican hoodlum.

Simon gets cranky at such talk. ''If you're asking me,'' he says, ''this is about an incredible love of sound. This is all about music. The story, I think, is an interesting story. But I'm not a sociologist, or even a playwright. So I'm interested as a composer in things that I love, and this is all about how I fell in love with music and who I was when that love happened. And the bonus for me is that, here's this coexisting culture that I didn't pay attention to when I was a kid. I was always sort of vaguely aware of Latin music, because at that time my father was a bandleader, and he'd play at Roseland Ballroom, and the other band that played there was a Latin band. So these are the sounds that are just at the edge of my memory.''

But ''The Capeman'' is also about leaving his past behind. Simon had his first hit record, with Art Garfunkel, 40 years ago. (They were called Tom and Jerry then, and the song was ''Hey, Schoolgirl.'') Ever since, through the duo's ascent and breakup, their triumphant but bitter reunions and Simon's solo career, he has come to choke on his fame. ''When Simon and Garfunkel became famous,'' he says, ''I liked it, a lot, and it was fun for a long, long time. Until it got really nasty. The media changed, the whole climate of the country changed. New York magazine did this cover story on Central Park West and gave out everybody's address -- I mean, I have kids. But there's nothing you can do about it, and it's a big interference with the quality of your thinking. Unless you're a genius'' -- he pauses, to imply that he is not -- ''if you're just talented or just smart, you have to work really, really hard, you have to really concentrate on what you're doing.''

I ask him if that's why he first thought of a musical -- so he could keep writing without keeping himself in public view. ''No,'' he says, ''but it didn't take long to figure out that's why I was doing it. I wanted to do something that wouldn't involve all the things that I hate doing.''

The things he hates doing: promoting himself, being asked stupid questions and performing live. A few weeks ago, he had the chance to combine all three. His manager, Dan Klores, had persuaded him to film a segment for VH1's ''Storytellers'' series (to be shown Nov. 23), in which a songwriter plays his music and takes questions from the audience. Simon's performance was, depending on how you view these things, either scathingly honest or just plain scathing. He was quite hilarious, mocking the polite applause that interrupted the first few bars of his old songs, swatting away questions about Simon and Garfunkel. (''There's nothing of any value in it,'' he said flatly when someone asked about a new Simon and Garfunkel boxed set that includes early rarities.) After a few more dud questions, someone in the back row raised a hand. ''Ah, the group with the good questions,'' Simon said. Then a blond woman stood up, identified herself as a singer and said she'd just recorded her first CD. But she was stymied by the music business, and appealed to Simon for advice.

Simon groaned. ''Are you singing what you want to be singing?'' he asked. She said she was. ''So what's the problem?''

Later, even Klores scolded Simon for being mean-spirited. ''Look,'' Simon told me the next day, ''I don't like to hurt people's feelings. But I was thinking, that's an inappropriate question. This may be an artificial situation, but it's certainly not about you and your career. Why should I be focusing on a question that I have no interest in?''

A thoroughly defensible argument. But why tape a Q. and A. show if you're not going to make nice with the audience? This is what has some people wondering if Paul Simon has been ''Paul Simon'' for so long that there's not much room for malleability. And building a Broadway musical is all about malleability, and about sharing the load -- with musicians and actors, producers and marketers, a director and a set designer and an orchestrator and, in the case of ''The Capeman,'' a co-writer, Derek Walcott, the Nobel-laureate poet. Could Simon possibly learn to make nice with so many others?

''If what everybody says about Paul is all euphemism for competitive, then yeah, he's fiercely competitive,'' says Lorne Michaels, the executive producer of ''Saturday Night Live'' and an old friend. ''But does he play by the rules? Absolutely. Is he fair and generous? Absolutely. I think the reason he's doing this show is just because that's who he is, he's an artist, although that's the part that he's probably least comfortable talking about. He's very brave, and in some way, he has to put himself at risk.''

I first sat down to speak with Simon two years ago, in his home studio. It's set in a sprawling living room, with one fireplace and a small forest of guitars. He is, at first, a cautious conversationalist, relentlessly analytical, prickly on occasion. (A favorite parry: ''I just don't see how that's a very interesting question.'') Anyone who spends even a little time with Simon cannot help noticing a certain Don't-look-at-me, don't-look-at-me, please-look-at-me! quality about him. He tells you that he'll discuss his music, but not his life. Five minutes later, he drops an intimate detail, then checks your eye to see what you are making of it.

At this point, ''The Capeman'' existed only on tape. It was an intensely cross-pollinated collection of songs: Puerto Rican plenas and mambos boosted by edgy rock-and-roll and satiny doo-wop, with choral music and country and western creeping around the edges. As the tape rolled, Simon narrated the play's action. Then he began the story from the beginning, telling me how his latest musical obsession had come to be.

In 1967, a college student from the Bronx named Carlos Ortiz was ambling through Central Park when he saw a face he recognized. ''Are you Paul Simon?'' he asked. Ortiz was a fan, and Simon, charmed, took Ortiz back to his apartment to listen to ''Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.'' It was the kind of thing Simon did then. ''I think I was on LSD at the time,'' he recalls.

They stayed casual friends, and ran into each other more than 20 years later. Ortiz had just made a documentary about the history of Latin music and jazz in New York. Simon said he was working on a new project, also involving Latin music, and asked if Ortiz could help him.

Salvador Agron was dead by now, but Ortiz introduced Simon to people who'd known Agron in prison. He plied Simon with salsa and mambo records and dredged through the Spanish-language newspapers for stories about the Capeman murder. Together, they visited Agron's mother, Esmeralda, in Puerto Rico. Within five minutes, she described a dream she'd had about her son Sal entering heaven, which Simon would turn into ''Esmeralda's Dream,'' the final song of ''The Capeman.''

Ortiz, who remains a friend of the ''Capeman'' project, then hooked up Simon with some of the best Latin musicians in New York. Simon sat in with them, listening more than playing, studying the rhythms and melodic possibilities. Before long, he'd written his first plena, ''Born in Puerto Rico,'' in the voice of Salvador Agron.

Simon's method of composing had evolved dramatically over the years. Like most pop songwriters, he used to begin with a vocal melody, or a guitar riff that led to a vocal melody, and then construct a song around it. Over time, he learned to come at a song from the other end: on ''Graceland'' and ''The Rhythm of the Saints,'' he built upward from the rhythm. He'd assemble a band, record a set of rhythm tracks and live with them for months. The melody and lyrics would come last, the guest of honor arriving at an already rollicking party.

That, in part, is what made those records so distinctive: the songs are infectious even when there is no singing. The ear latches onto a burbling bass line or a hiccuping guitar, and then here comes that voice, plaintive or cocky or wry.

Now he began applying that method to Puerto Rican music. But he knew he needed help. Writing character-driven, narrative songs would be difficult enough; structuring a musical was quite beyond him.

Simon had recently become a fan of Derek Walcott's poetry. Walcott, who won a Nobel Prize in 1992, was widely considered among the greatest living poets, blending the formality of classical literature with a soulful Caribbean nuance. Simon soon learned that Walcott had also written and directed many plays, and that he ran his own theater company in Trinidad. And it wouldn't hurt, Simon figured, for a musical with Puerto Rican characters to have a Caribbean sensibility.

Simon arranged an introduction and, once they became friendly, he asked Walcott if he'd like to collaborate. To Simon's surprise, he agreed.

''I don't think I would have worked with anybody but Paul Simon,'' Walcott says. ''Before I met him, I always thought he was a very fine poet. I mean, the first line of 'Graceland' is a great line of verse: 'The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar/ I am following the river down a highway through the cradle of the Civil War.' That's Whitmanesque, or even Hart Crane. What I also like very much is how Jewish his writing is: it's ethnically very provincial, deliberate. In other words, here's someone who has never lost his identity totally. He can go to South Africa, or to the Caribbean, and he remains a Jewish singer.''

Simon had never collaborated in this way before. Even his famous partnership, he says, wasn't quite a partnership: ''Artie wasn't really much of a collaboration. He was a very nurturing guy, a big fan, he'd love a song, want to get into it and sing harmony. But he didn't write.''

Walcott and Simon's collaboration didn't begin smoothly. For starters, Walcott hated the character of Salvador Agron. Ultimately, he says: ''You realize that what you're writing about is not only a guy who did a particular crime. I began to be attracted to the idea of this guy finding either an escape or, what would you call it, a deliverance.'' Walcott also had to learn to read Simon -- when to leave him alone for a few days, when to push him.

Simon, too, was feeling his way. ''For the first six months,'' he says, ''Derek would write a line, and if I didn't like it, I didn't feel that I could say so, or I'd say, 'Well, I guess that's O.K.' Or Derek would want to write a poem or lyric and set it to music, but I had to say: 'No, first comes the sound. So here are four examples of an aguinaldo. In your mind, which is the one you'd hear the character speaking in?' And he'd say, 'No, that music is too fierce, that one is too bouncy, that's the one.'

''Then I'd take it, research it, come up with a form, then keep working on the lyric. I certainly wasn't going to get in Derek's way when he's writing a Caribbean landscape song any more than he would with me on a New York street song, but we did touch up each other's work.''

Together, Simon and Walcott worked on the musical's structure. What began to emerge was an operatic memory play, with nearly the entire story told in song. It begins with Agron's release from prison, then flashes back to his childhood in Puerto Rico, his teen-age years in New York, his prison term, a surreal visit to the Arizona desert and back home to Esmeralda. The music is all Simon's, with the book credited to Simon and Walcott. The songs' lyrics, both men say, are about 50-50 Simon-Walcott, though they've been combed over for so long that it's impossible to know for sure.

Simon was in no hurry to rush the show to the stage. He had recently remarried, to the pop singer Edie Brickell, with whom he now has a son, 4, and a daughter, 2. (He also has a 25-year-old son, Harper, from his first marriage, and no children from his second, to Carrie Fisher.) Simon was taking his second round of fatherhood seriously. He'd play with the kids in the morning, write for a few hours, knock off by late afternoon. Every so often, he flew to St. Lucia, where Walcott has a home, to collaborate. Back in New York, Simon put together a band to record the new songs. He eventually spent nearly $1 million in the studio, and the better part of five years, emerging with something far closer to a finished record than a traditional Broadway demo.

These tapes became the armature for the Broadway show. Instead of delivering a script and score to a director, Simon's plan was to essentially turn over a finished version of a musical, which a band and cast would try to replicate. This was the first signal that, although Paul Simon was writing a musical that he wanted to play on Broadway, he felt no compunction to play by Broadway rules.

There were other signals. Though he could easily afford it, Simon wasn't interested in staging a vanity production. But he did want artistic and financial control. So he'd need to find producers willing to drop money into the purse while he held the strings. He enlisted Peter Parcher, his longtime lawyer, and Dan Klores, his manager and a close friend, as architects of the project. These three men brought aboard James L. Nederlander Jr., the scion of the Broadway empire, and Joseph Rascoff, Simon's former business manager. The budget was estimated at $8 million to $10 million; Simon put up a few million dollars of his own to start, planning to replace it once investors came aboard. Nederlander would raise up to two-thirds of the money, with Rascoff and his partner raising the rest.

This group was soon joined by Brad Grey, the TV and film producer, who put up some of his own money. Now the show had plenty of producers, but none who actually knew how to put on a Broadway show. (Nederlander, his provenance notwithstanding, is considered less a theatrical strategist than someone with access to an investor pool.) Simon met with Dodger Productions, among the most successful producing outfits on Broadway. The Dodgers advised that he hire a director immediately, and not spend so much time and money recording the music. ''I said, 'What you're telling me is that I don't know what I'm doing,' '' Simon recalls. ''And while I'm still in the creative process, that's harmful to me.''

Simon decided to do without Broadway expertise. But even his own producers started getting nervous. Rascoff, soon after he signed on, sent Simon a letter suggesting that it might be hard to find investors if the producers had no financial control over the project. Nederlander apparently felt the same way. Simon, who had known Rascoff for years, was furious that Rascoff resorted to a letter. Simon insisted that their arrangement would stand, and, for a while, it would.

With most of the show recorded, Simon was finally ready to choose a director. He'd invite candidates over, play the tape, narrate the action as he envisioned it. ''It's about the most seductive thing in the world, particularly if you're a fan of Paul's,'' says Robert Falls, the artistic director of the Goodman Theater in Chicago.

Falls loved the material, and was impressed by Simon's sense of theatricality, but he didn't get the job. Other established directors shied away, fearing their hands would be tied. As Simon interviewed candidate after candidate, word spread through the Broadway community: Simon wasn't looking for a director; he was looking for a glorified stage manager.

He eventually settled on Susana Tubert, an acclaimed 38-year-old Argentine-born director. But, in another indication that Simon was paying no attention to standard Broadway procedure, the director was the last member of the creative team that he hired. Simon had fallen in love with Mark Morris's dances and signed him on as the show's choreographer. Actually, he'd first asked Morris if he'd consider directing ''The Capeman.'' It made sense: Morris's choreography is musically astute; he'd also staged several operas, and Simon's musical, though he cannot stomach the word, is plainly operatic. But Morris turned Simon down -- he was too busy with his dance company to direct a musical. He'd make time for the show's choreography, and that's all.

Next, Simon hired a set designer, an Irishman named Bob Crowley, whose work Simon admired in the Lincoln Center Theater's staging of ''Carousel.'' He also chose two of the play's leads: Ruben Blades, the intense Panamanian singer and actor (and former candidate for President of Panama), as the adult Salvador Agron, and Marc Anthony, a silky and charismatic Nuyorican salsa star, as the teen-age Sal.

So Tubert, having had no input in these decisions, was now asked to help Simon cast the rest of the show, some 40 performers to cover more than 70 roles. He was looking primarily for great singers, mostly young and preferably Latino.

It's a summer afternoon, more than a year ago, in a tiny black-box studio in Chelsea. Simon, Tubert, Walcott and a few others are sitting through a parade of auditioners. The performers' only commonality is an almost otherworldly enthusiasm: '' 'Graceland' changed my life,'' testifies one singer before ruining his chances with an over-the-top ''Be-Bop-a-Lula.''

''Don't sing that, don't sing that,'' says Simon, waving him off.

After another singer leaves the room, Simon turns to Tubert: ''Why'd you bring that guy in, what was it you saw?''

''His voice,'' she says, ''the falsetto. First of all, I don't know what's going on yet in the play, I really don't.''

It seems an odd complaint, coming from the show's director, but it is true. Simon and Walcott have been hoarding the script. Tubert also suspects that Walcott is interested in directing ''The Capeman'' himself.

Another supplicant, then another. Stanley Silverman, the show's orchestrator, turns to Simon. ''Nice voice, huh?'' he asks, hopefully.

''Yeah,'' Simon answers, ''but it's kind of light and he can't really hear. He's got a wide vibrato -- he's not going to blend with harmonies. He's got a great look, but his 'street' is very naive, right out of the movies.''

Silverman and Tubert exchange a glance; could a composer possibly be harder to please?

Finally they take a break. ''God, I hate this job,'' Simon says. ''The constant rejection is just so much.''

''Yeah,'' Walcott says. ''You know that line from E. E. Cummings? 'He's a friend. You know why? He didn't try to sell me any insurance.' ''

They make an odd pair -- Simon, tiny and pale and poker-faced, Walcott barrel-chested and darker-skinned, grinning hopefully. Simon is wearing black jeans, a T-shirt and, as always, a baseball cap. (Soon, though, Simon would do away with the hat and, more substantially, the toupee he's worn for years.) Walcott, at 67, has proven a stabilizing force for Simon. They've bonded tightly since the bumpy first days of their collaboration, especially since Simon's father died in 1995. Simon had a famously tortured relationship with his father, who was a teacher as well as a musician. To Lou Simon, his son's pursuit of artistry -- and fame -- was selfish; Paul still rehashes those conversations regularly.

In five minutes, they're back at it. The next singer is very nervous, with tight jeans and stringy, jet-black bangs in his eyes. Simon cuts him off after eight bars of a squishy pop tune. ''Whose song was that?'' Simon asks, nicely, as if he's interested.

''Des'ree,'' he exhales. Then, inspiration! ''But I know 'Bridge Over Troubled Water,' '' he says, cocking a hip.

Simon looks over his glasses. ''Sing it at your own peril,'' he says, and there's silence -- until Simon laughs, and then everyone joins him. The nervous singer laughs, too, and then he's asked to leave.

Late in the summer of 1996, the third lead role, Esmeralda Agron, was cast: Priscilla Lopez, the Broadway veteran best known for originating Morales in ''A Chorus Line.'' Simon and the others wept at her audition.

Momentum was gathering. Months earlier, Simon had brought on Stephen Eich, the former managing director of the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, to shore up the production from the inside. In October, as the plan then stood, Tubert would direct a 10-week workshop rehearsal at the Westbeth Theater Center, on Bank Street. Simon and Walcott would spend the spring rewriting, with the show to open in Chicago in July and on Broadway in the fall of 1997.

The upcoming workshop would eat up $1 million of budget. Nederlander and Klores were routinely telling me that they were fighting off investors, but that was hardly true. Very little of the money was in place and costs were rising daily, in part because of the band rehearsals Simon was now holding with Oscar Hernandez, the show's musical director. ''It takes a lot of time to put together a real band,'' Simon said, ''a band that doesn't just sound like a pit orchestra. And that's a big part of what will make this show very different from everything else on Broadway.''

Potential investors found all sorts of reasons to beg off. ''You're dealing with a difficult subject matter, with a central character who's stabbed two people to death,'' said one major Broadway producer who chose not to invest. ''Plus, there's no one there to edit Paul Simon, to rein him in, and he's a control freak. There's no one to say that the money is getting out of hand -- who's going to say no to Paul Simon?''

It certainly wouldn't be Susana Tubert. Simon didn't feel she was clicking; Walcott heartily agreed. Several weeks before the workshop, Tubert was let go. ''I thought Susana would have had an edge, being a woman and from South America,'' Simon told me, ''but it was obvious that we were going to have to keep having meetings about what we really meant, and it was better to do it sooner than later.''

Tubert was surprised, and she was insulted that Simon didn't deliver the news himself. ''It's very hard to work with people who are trying to redefine the idea of collaboration,'' she said. ''There's a reason that theatrical collaboration is the way it is -- because it works.''

When Tubert was hired, the other name on the short-list was Eric Simonson, a 36-year-old director from Steppenwolf. Most significantly, he had directed ''The Song of Jacob Zulu,'' a musical featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African vocal group with whom Simon had collaborated on ''Graceland.'' Now Simonson got the call. He was finishing up a show in Chicago, but he'd make it to New York just in time for the ''Capeman'' workshop.

Within a week, the workshop at Westbeth is running full tilt. Oscar Hernandez leads the band while Eric Simonson roughs out the sprawling Puerto Rican Day Parade scene. Simonson grew up in Wisconsin; he's extremely affable, willing to listen to any suggestions. Ruben Blades, his beret pulled low, is looking for a stronger hand: ''You just tell me where to go, what to do, and I'll do it,'' he tells Simonson.

In another rehearsal room, Simon cradles a guitar, knee-to-knee with the actors playing Sal's stepfather and sister. This is Simon as composer-cum-director, feeding them their characters' motivations. ''We're talking about the Spanish,'' Simon explains. ''The father rules with an iron fist. Sal got hit every day of his life, by everyone he came in contact with.''

The cast members are, for the most part, young, ecstatic and Latino. Several of them are Nuyoricans, and many bring up ''West Side Story'' -- how much they hated its depiction of Puerto Ricans -- and how much they love the music Simon has written. Marc Anthony, 29, is one of the biggest salsa stars in the world, a heartthrob, a cutup and perhaps the most enthusiastic performer in the show. He took a year off from touring to do ''The Capeman.'' Simon, who has never been the mentoring type, has taken Anthony under his wing. Publicly, he compares him to a young Sinatra; privately, he dispenses advice. Anthony tells me about a recent concert review that described him as a boy-next-door type. ''Paul called me and said: 'You've got to be careful with that kind of stuff. For Sal, you've got to be seen as a badass.' Then I made a film, 'The Substitute,' and the character was a real -- excuse my English -- [expletive], and I thought of Paul the whole time I was shooting it. He saw it the other day and said, 'O.K., that's good, I'm convinced you're a badass.' ''

Though Simon has hand-picked nearly everyone in the production, they are all nervously feeling out the boundaries. They tip-toe around Simon, learning to phrase questions carefully, lest a request come off as a challenge. They sense that Simon has a vision in his head, but they're not privy to it. Simon spends much of his time huddling with Walcott; when he walks in on rehearsal, it's as if the teacher has returned to the classroom.

In the big room, it can be hard to tell who is running things. Simonson blocks out the scenes but when Simon wanders in and inevitably starts making suggestions, the cast's attention shifts to him. Simon admits he doesn't know much about staging, but he'll put questions to Simonson: Sal shouldn't be smiling here, should he? Why do those dancers look like elephants swinging their trunks? Simonson listens, smiles, adjusts; the first step, he knows, is winning Simon's confidence.

Walcott, too, has plenty of suggestions. As Susana Tubert suspected, he is interested in directing the play. Based on the advice he's now passing on to Simonson -- from the too- literal to the too-vague -- Walcott would hardly seem the right man. Simonson, after a few run-ins with Walcott, suggests it might be better if Walcott made himself scarcer. But he refuses, and Simon makes it clear that Walcott has a right to watch over his work.

Mark Morris, meanwhile, is practically reduced to cheerleading. As the choreographer, there's not much he can do until the direction takes shape. He's growing frustrated with the slow pace, and that only adds to Simonson's discomfort.

Still, the show is getting on its feet, and Simon tells Simonson he's happy with what he's seeing. I ask Simon if he's surprised at the progress -- and I hear in my voice the same cautious tone that has become the norm here.

''Yeah,'' he says, ''surprised and amazed, even though I put an awful lot of forethought into writing all the parts. But still, in my experience, forethought rarely excludes the possibility of a disaster.''

By December of last year, the first act is set for an unveiling. Forty carefully invited guests -- the producers, a few agents, friends and family -- are cramming themselves onto the wooden bleachers in the big room at Westbeth. This is only a run-through, no costumes or sets, but after seven years of private, painstaking germination, ''The Capeman'' is poised to receive its first opening night of sorts, and the room trembles accordingly.

Simon didn't know so many strangers would be here today. The stakes are suddenly higher. He sits at a long table next to Walcott. They are both wearing baseball caps, and they are both gripping pencils, hovering over yellow legal pads.

The first song, like most in the show, is a deft hybrid: a plaintive American pop melody weaving in and out of a Puerto Rican lullaby. This first melody, so gracefully sweet-sad-sweet, is unmistakably Paul Simon. The guests lean forward in anticipation. The staging is still rudimentary, but each song creates its own world: the Puerto Rican Day Parade; the shack of the Santeria priest in Puerto Rico who predicts Sal's murderous future; the New York barrio where Sal falls in love and takes up with the Vampire gang; the Hell's Kitchen playground where he kills the two teen-agers.

Simon watches impassively. He takes pages of notes. He seems, as always, to be paying more attention to the band than the actors. During one song, he wades over and barks a few words to Bobby Allende, a percussionist. In a minute, Simon is on his feet again, waving his arms frantically: Allende is supposed to be playing the maracas here. Two songs later, Simon is back in Allende's face, handing him a tambourine, glaring.

By the end of the last song, a minor-key shouter set in a Pentecostal church, the audience has been won over. Simon is surrounded. ''My people are going to love it!'' says a woman from the ad agency that will handle the Latin market. ''It's authentic, it's terrific!''

Dan Klores is wearing a wild grin. I ask him how he thought it went. ''What are you, kidding me?'' he crows. ''It was fantastic. Once the scenery comes in, and Mark Morris gets some more dance stuff in there, whoa! It's hot, it's gonna smoke.''

Derek Walcott, too, is beaming, as are the producers and the actors. Simon, after he's been congratulated by everyone, ends up standing alone near the drum kit. ''You must be happy with what you just saw,'' I say.

He looks like he just swallowed some paste. ''No,'' he says quietly, ''I didn't like it at all.'' I ask him what was wrong, but he can only shake his head, and I find myself in the uneasy position of feeling sorry for Paul Simon, a man whose sense of hearing and of himself are so finely calibrated that anything short of brilliance is catastrophic.

After the rehearsal space had emptied, the ''Capeman'' brain trust held a postmortem. Everyone sat around a table but Simon, who paced. ''The fear in the room,'' Simonson would recall, ''was just so thick.''

Simon was invited to speak first. ''You shouldn't ask me,'' he said, ''because I didn't see anything up there that I liked.'' He then ran off a list: The actors weren't retaining their steps, they were singing the wrong notes, there wasn't enough physical movement.

Simonson assured Simon that those problems would be addressed -- they were a natural result, he explained, of having such a young, inexperienced cast. The workshop is a process, he told Simon, and it takes time to evolve.

That night, Simon and Mark Morris held their own meeting at Morris's apartment, along with Barry Alterman, who has managed Morris's dance company for 13 years. Alterman had emerged during the workshop as an ally of Simon's, an amiable but straight-talking partisan.

Now Alterman said he thought the run-through was a disaster. ''You've made a huge error,'' he told Simon. ''You have to just throw out what you have and cut your losses, view it as money down the drain or money well spent to see a mistake, a million-dollar mistake.'' Alterman said he suspected that Simon was so nervous about having his vision of the show altered that instead of hiring a director with a strong point of view, he'd hired someone with no point of view at all.

Simon was crushed -- and relieved. Most of his objections to the workshop had to do with the band, and those he could articulate. But he didn't have the vocabulary -- or the confidence -- to critique the staging. Alterman had in essence given Simon permission to feel how he really felt. ''Well,'' Simon said, ''I guess you guys know a lot more about this than I do.'' The meeting lasted four hours. Alterman suggested canceling the workshop while they looked for a more dynamic director -- he was adamant that Morris was still too busy to take the job -- but Simon thought that would break the cast's morale.

At 6:00 the next evening, Eric Simonson was summoned from rehearsal by Stephen Eich, who knew Simonson well from Steppenwolf. They went to Ernie's, a restaurant on the Upper West Side, where Eich told Simonson he was out.

Simon decided that Morris and Walcott would stand in as co-directors for the final two weeks of the workshop. The cast immediately took to Morris. They found him more charismatic than Simonson, more biting but more fun. ''Get worked up,'' he'd tell the actors before a scene, ''but don't break a blood vessel.'' And then, after a foul-up: ''It's better to be ready before something happens than after it's begun.''

But, with Walcott also staging some scenes, Dan Klores was worried. If Walcott nominated himself to direct the show -- surely no one else would -- Simon's loyalty might make it hard to say no.

Klores knew better than to confront Simon directly. Instead, he planted a seed with Barry Alterman: Are you sure Mark Morris can't make time to direct this show?

Simon, meanwhile, was so despondent over the run-through that, although he told no one, he was ready to pull the plug on the project. His confidence was shattered; he couldn't sleep well, couldn't break down the show's problems. He felt he had no one to talk to: he wasn't close enough with Morris, and Walcott wasn't on the same musical level.

Simon had to push himself to start meeting with directors again. At rehearsal one day, he told Barry Alterman that two big-name directors were interested. Alterman asked if he could speak with Simon in private. All the rehearsal rooms were full, so they huddled in a stairwell, garbage around their ankles.

''I think Mark Morris should direct this show,'' Alterman told Simon.

''Whoa,'' Simon said, ''I thought he didn't want to direct.''

''He doesn't know about it yet,'' Alterman said.

Simon was thrilled with the prospect. He'd admired Morris's taste and energy from the start. That night, over beers at the White Horse, Alterman sat down with Morris and floated the idea, even sketching out how they would have to adjust Morris's schedule for the next 12 months.

''Well, you know,'' Morris said, ''I could direct it.''

''Do you want to?'' Alterman asked.

''Well, yeah.''

Simon's crisis of confidence ended the day Morris agreed to direct the show. Alterman was right: Simon, as he now admitted to me, had been reluctant to hire a stronger director. I asked him why. ''Because it was going to divide participation by another member,'' he said. ''I picked as a director someone who I thought would collate the information of the team, and somehow funnel that information to the company. But I found out, that is absolutely not the way it works.''

Simon was finally ready for a director with a big vision. He saw that the show needed a savior, and he hoped Morris was it. The workshop ended with another run-through, which Simon deemed a success. ''I couldn't look at one thing that happened under Eric and say, 'I really liked that,' '' he said. ''But Mark, he constantly does something that makes me feel like, 'That's right, he understands,' or, 'What a nice way of expressing that.' ''

Now there were other problems to address. Morris was booked solid through late summer, so the production schedule needed an overhaul. There was talk of abandoning the out-of-town run and pushing back the Broadway opening. Simon and Walcott would use the extra time finishing the second act and reworking the first. There would also need to be another round of auditions: Simon was dissatisfied with many of the performers in the workshop, especially Priscilla Lopez, whose traditional Broadway approach had so much appealed to him at first. Lopez and 21 other singers and dancers, out of a total of 45, were let go.

And the money, true to Broadway gossip, had got out of hand. The budget was ballooning its way to $13 million, and investors were staying away in droves. The first producer to back off was Nederlander, who downgraded his commitment from two-thirds of the budget to a flat $1 million. Joe Rascoff pulled out entirely. No one in the Broadway community blamed them -- by now, ''The Capeman'' was being viewed as an exercise in authorial arrogance.

As the business end fell apart, though, a momentum had been recaptured on the creative end. Bob Crowley presented a model of the set designs, bold and colorful and often surreal. Simon loved them, and felt the show had suddenly shifted into a higher gear. Next, Simon found his Esmeralda: Ednita Nazario, a vivacious Puerto Rican pop star whom Marc Anthony had been prodding him to consider. Then Simon, re-energized, decided to release his own ''Capeman'' record, mostly the doo-wop and rock-and-roll songs but also ''Born in Puerto Rico.'' (Klores, fearing attacks from Latino critics, tried to talk Simon out of singing that song himself, but he held firm.)

Finally, Simon took on two men who would be responsible for, respectively, raising money and herding the show to Broadway. The first was Kenneth Starr (not the prosecutor), Simon's business manager; the second was Edgar Dobie, the president of Andrew Lloyd Webber's American production company. Dobie was hardly known as an enforcer -- Lloyd Webber, like Simon, is not one to give in to a producer. But on Dobie's watch, the budget did shrink to about $11 million, thanks mainly to a decision to cancel the out-of-town run; Dobie also cut some fat from the physical production budget and renegotiated the theater lease (with the Nederlander Organization). The new budget, according to Dobie, would allow investors to recoup within a year of sold-out performances -- although those investors didn't exist yet, and the production was still playing largely with Simon's money.

Simon now admitted he'd made a mistake in not hiring an experienced Broadway producer at the outset. Having already seen the failings of his director-as-collator idea, he'd come up against another set of Broadway realities, and the realities won.

In August, I sit down to catch up with Simon at the Hit Factory, where he was finishing up his record. The last few months had been madness; the next few would be even more so. Mark Morris had just reconvened rehearsals, back at Westbeth. The ''Capeman'' marketing team was struggling to come up with a sales pitch that neither glorified nor glossed over the murder. Investors were starting to come around, but Simon had to do his part, sitting down for dinner with, for instance, the chairman of Banco Popular. And Salvador Agron's main accomplice, dubbed the Umbrella Man, turned out not to be dead, as Simon thought, but living in the Bronx, so Simon would have to do some rewriting.

But Simon is as calm as I've ever seen him. He talks about his kids, the Yankees, how comfortable he is with Mark Morris as director. He has always prided himself on picking talent, and he now tells me that Morris and Walcott and Crowley are, in his opinion, as good as it gets. ''The nature of collaboration is such that you can't have everything the way you want,'' he says. ''But the exchange is, you're getting a whole bunch of ideas that are better than yours. So there are times when I have some kind of difference with Derek, say, or even Mark, and I ask them, 'Do you really love it?' And if so, I say, 'Go ahead, change it, it's not holy.' ''

Simon plays me the new ''Capeman'' songs he's written: a low-slung Jimmy Reed shuffle, a doo-wop number juiced up with a West African guitar riff. I ask if he's finally excited about the show, about unfurling this new chapter of his career.

''I think of it not as a new chapter, but as a kind of a summation,'' he says.

''A summation?''

''Yeah. I'm using all the techniques I learned as a songwriter, as a recording artist, as a bandleader. And my little bit of thinking that's gone beyond this show has been -- well, what about the family, you know? We'd like to have more children. I'd like to learn how to cook. I love to watch Derek paint, and I think, Well, that would be fun, I wonder if I could do that?''

Cooking? Painting? I feel like I've stumbled into the epilogue of ''Spinal Tap,'' in which Nigel Tufnel, a lifelong practitioner of heavy metal, contemplates a future in haberdashery.

''Are you through performing?'' I ask Simon.

''Absolutely.''

''And recording?''

''That's sort of my thinking at the moment,'' he says. ''I'm thinking of this show as a very big ending.''

As ''The Capeman'' hurtled toward Broadway, Simon ceded more and more control to Mark Morris. ''The thing has left my hands,'' Simon told me, for the first of many times, about two months ago. ''I know the sets now, I can hear where the band is, where the singers are. There's no cloud on the horizon at the moment. Everything is very musical. And now the piece will take on its own life, with ownership by everybody.''

His actions, however, would repeatedly betray his professed tranquillity. There were the rehearsals when he'd tell Morris that, no, no, no, here's how Marc Anthony should sing that line. There were any number of scoldings to be delivered, any number of grimaces he wouldn't try to hide.

On Monday, Oct. 27, five weeks before the first preview performance, it is finally time for a full run-through at Westbeth. Simon sits not at the director's table but in the front row of folding chairs, arm around his wife. The show is still rough, and a few songs haven't even been rehearsed yet. Simon takes several pages of notes, but it's mostly small stuff. Late in the second act, he even ducks out of the run-through (a manicurist has arrived to fix one of his guitar-picking fingernails). He returns for the end, watches Mark Morris deliver some terse notes to the cast, then goes home to put the kids to bed.

That night, on the phone, Simon tells me he's satisfied with what he saw, that it's plainly Morris's turn to sweat. ''Mark's starting to sound like I used to sound,'' he says with a short laugh.

He asks me if I think the show will be a hit. I plead impossibility: without sets and costumes and lights, ''The Capeman'' barely looks like a musical yet.

As of the end of October, the show was selling only moderately. On Broadway, Simon's name alone has not produced the box-office blitz he's accustomed to. Simon has heard the inevitable Broadway sniping -- the show will flop, say the whispers, under the weight of Simon's creative control; the music may be great, they say, but no one involved knows how to put together a musical.

Simon tries not to listen. He's hoping for a hit, of course, but he's already poking into another layer of reward. He talks about his father for a while, how Lou might actually approve of this project. ''Way toward the end of his life, he'd always say, 'Teach, teach, that's the only important thing.' He'd say, 'O.K., you made all this money, you gave it to everyone in the family and everyone loves you, but that's not the purpose.' So now I'm starting to think, without getting too maudlin and psychological, that this whole 'Capeman' thing is about teaching. There's no doubt in my mind that I'm something different than what I began. More at ease, more confident, but older. Seven years is a long time in a person's life.''