The giants of a generation, from Paul Simon to Keith Richards, are still rocking into the autumn of their musical lives
As rehearsals of Broadway musicals go, today’s performance is not unlike any other preopening run-through. In a second-floor, loft-style work space in downtown Manhattan, before a small group of invited guests and investors, the singers take their places behind microphones, and the two dozen musicians tune up and adjust their sheet-music stands.
Eventually, the show’s composer, a low-key, diminutive man in a baseball cap, ambles over in front of the elite gathering. He explains the story line of the musical, the true tale of a Puerto Rican teenager who murdered two white kids in New York in 1959. At one point, he motions to a series of 35 sketches hung on a nearby wall. ”If you get a chance,” he says, ”those are some of the set designs,” and the crowd turns its head as one for a peek.
The double-take twist this late-summer afternoon is that the composer is Paul Simon, and the work in progress is The Capeman. Simon’s first-ever musical, it opens on Broadway in January — three months after Simon turns 56.
Yes, it’s true: The first wave of classic-rock musicians — which includes Simon, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Elton John, and Joni Mitchell — has passed 50 and is now staring, with whatever concurrent loss of vision, at 60. If that isn’t problematic enough, these weathered but durable monuments are being forced to answer questions far more vexing than ”Are you going to Scarborough Fair?” Do they, like Simon, pursue more adult outlets? Do they continue to compete against hip-hop and alt-rock whippersnappers who are the same ages as their children? Or, in the face of indifference from the industry, do they carry on, but on the fringes and with lower expectations? These questions and more will be addressed this fall in a flurry of boomer-rock activity (which includes new releases from Dylan and Elton John, a hits package from Billy Joel, and a Fleetwood Mac reunion tour), as a generation of graying musicians figures out how to grow up — or not.
THE GREAT WHITE-HAIRED WAY
”You get bored,” Simon says two days after the preview of his Capeman score. ”Well,” he corrects, ”you don’t necessarily get bored. The formats are boring. None of the formats on radio apply to me, with the possible exception of public radio. Almost none of the mainstream interests me. So where do you go if they’re not interested in what you’re doing, and you’re not interested in what they’re doing?”
That place is Broadway, which has suddenly become a viable outlet for a generation of rockers who have never before written anything resembling a show tune. The musical version of The Lion King, featuring the Elton John songs from the film, opens on Broadway in November and will be joined in the near future by John’s first Great White Way-tailored production, an as-yet-untitled musical based on the opera Aida. Pete Townshend is sorting out which Who album will be the basis for a follow-up to the Tommy musical, which recently enjoyed a successful two-year run. Early this year in Miami (where else?), Jimmy Buffett unveiled Don’t Stop the Carnival, a musical cowritten with novelist Herman Wouk, about a man who experiences a midlife crisis, moves to a Caribbean island, and opens a hotel. Buffett is currently pitching it to potential investors. And Billy Joel, who’s announced he will now focus on classical pieces, is pondering a Broadway revue based around his hit songs.