Simon's no one-trick pony
Empty"We are losing our virginity with Paul Simon," says Joseph Melillo, executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He means it figuratively, but that's still a bold statement for the 147-year-old organization -- America's oldest continually operating performing arts center. "If you gotta go, it's not a bad way to go," he adds.
Melillo is referring to the first monthlong residency at BAM, which inaugurates with revered singer-songwriter Simon. Throughout April, Simon is slated to perform and participate in the Visa Signature-sponsored "Love in Hard Times: The Music of Paul Simon," which comprises three separate sets of concerts: a revisiting of select songs from his 1998 Broadway show "The Capeman" and two themed concerts called "Under the African Skies" and "American Tunes." Each set of performances includes Simon and a number of like-minded musicians including David Byrne, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Josh Groban.
"I don't want it to be one of those tribute concerts," says Melillo, who has been in discussions with Simon since 1999 about putting such a project together. "I said (to Simon), 'I want you to be entrenched here at BAM so that we have a full view of who are you, and what is your art.' "
After nearly 10 years, Simon bit. And having done so, he has been heavily involved with producing the shows, driving out to Newark to hear Little Anthony and the Imperials to find that authentic sound for "Capeman," for example. "Every single choice, we've been thinking about, talking about, laboring about," Melillo says. "He's not cavalier about his music. He's a special guy."
That's an opinion shared by many, particularly the musicians brought onboard for the shows, which will be performed in the 845-seat BAM Harvey Theater from April 1-6 ("Capeman") and the 2,000-seat Howard Gilman Opera House ("African Skies" from April 9-13 and "American Tunes" from April 23-27).
"It will be a joyous few nights in Brooklyn," says Joseph Shabalala, leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which performed with Simon on his Grammy-winning 1986 album "Graceland." "His songs are so pure and filled with joy and important meanings."
Groban, a fan since childhood, has included Simon's "America" in his repertoire since 2003 and is expected to include it in his three-song portion of the "American Tunes" shows. "There's a vulnerability to (Simon), and his nature is such that he invites you into understanding everything he's saying. He's one of those people who have been able to write words where everyone says: 'Yeah, that's how I feel. That's it.' "
"Capeman" is another story. Oliver Hernandez, director of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, arranged the original Broadway show and served as musical director, then watched it implode after just 68 dates on the Main Stem.
"I had my qualms about going back to this stuff because I've moved on with my life," Hernandez says. " 'Capeman' had big mistakes and problems, but on one level it was brilliant."
Today, Hernandez is more than happy to work with Simon again, and he's pleased that "Capeman" -- which originally was intended to launch at BAM -- finally has come home.
For Melillo, having Simon in the house under any capacity is a welcome addition to the theater, and he notes that negotiations are going on to create an album from the series of concerts.
"I can't think of anyone better as a New Yorker, as an American, as a singer-songwriter to be able to provide a portrait of his work for us," he says. "We need to embrace American artists now. We don't need to hear more about the war or how much money is being sent abroad. If there's anything we need right now, it's art."