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This was late afternoon earlier this month when that odd hot spell oozed its way into the East and New York temperatures climbed near 90 and I was hurrying across town to West 47th Street and the Barrymore Theatre.

It was Monday, a night when Broadway is usually dark, but Paul Simon had taken over the Barrymore for the evening to promote a musical called "The Capeman" soon to go into previews and to open the end of the year or early in '98.

I was doing a piece on Simon for Parade and the press agent, Dan Klores, insisted I ought to see and hear something of the new show before meeting Paul or else we wouldn't have that much to talk about. You know me, I hate having to go anyplace I don't really want to go and stay away from the West Side whenever I can. Besides, you sit there during a backers' audition or anything of that sort and what can you say but, "It's great! Tremendous!"

After all, you may be sitting next to the playwright's mother or just behind the angel who's just plowed four hundred grand into this turkey.

But I went. And ended up having a pretty good time. Mostly because I was out of the Barrymore in an hour. But also because for that brief period I'd been exposed to some major talent (Mr. Simon himself, in a baseball cap, got up there to sing one number, which he won't do during the show) that included Ruben Blades, the big Hispanic star, whom the director, narrating from the footlights as we went along, kept pronouncing, "Blah-dess."

Anyway, they can pronounce it Blades or Blah-dess; it's their show, and I have a hunch from the sample I heard that it might just be pretty good. And might be a hell of a lot better than that. It's called "The Capeman" and it's all about a young Puerto Rican who, in the 1950s, went about Manhattan in a dramatic, homemade cape, bumping off people.

Odd material for a musical? You bet.

During those same late '50s I was working as a correspondent in Washington and a guy I knew at the State Department named Al Hudes was a pal of Stephen Sondheim and he said, "I've got tickets for this new musical they're trying out here that's headed for Broadway. Want to go?"

Sure, why not? Washington in the '50s was a pleasant place to live but there wasn't much going on nights except along Embassy Row or at the Carroll Arms Hotel where aging senators took girls from the office. So off we went to see this new musical which wasn't bad, and afterwards we had a drink with Sondheim, of whom I'd never heard. He was not cheerful.

"They'll kill us in New York. Lenny and I think the critics are going to hate it." Hudes and I tried to cheer him up. A couple of days later a favorable review ran in The Washington Post. The Senate Rackets Committee hearings were on and Ethel Kennedy used to sit with the beat reporters, chewing gum and watching Bobby grilling teamster thugs, and during a break we were talking about this play Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein were doing. It is 40 years later and I can still hear Ethel: "I dunno, kiddo. Who wants to watch a musical about Puerto Rican gangs?"

Well, the point is, that's what "West Side Story" was all about, though based largely on "Romeo and Juliet," the rivalry of two gangs, one Puerto Rican, one Anglo, and that's what "The Capeman" is about, a Puerto Rican gang tough who goes too far and kills two people. It isn't the source material that makes the thing work on Broadway, it's the artistry, the talent, the genius you bring to it.

Without that, you've got just another flop that closes Saturday.

After I saw this preview of Paul Simon's "The Capeman," I strolled across town to Sixth Avenue, past the Fox TV studios with their bright red zipper of news, to have a refreshment at Hurley's. This is a big NBC hangout and it is always good to be there, even if it is on the West Side. Mike the bartender was just getting off but he bought me a drink and I got a space at the corner of the bar and started to think about Broadway and talent and about writing books and being a writer and the risks you run to try to create something, and the joy you reap on those rare occasions when you really hit it. All that pleasant stuff that goes down so well with a cocktail.

A day or so later in The New York Times they reported Congress was once again going to fund the National Endowment for the Arts with another hundred million or so. "But the agency's survival came with a political price: giving Congress a greater say on how arts money is distributed."

Which is why I'm dubious about taking a dime from Washington to fund theater or writing or any of the other arts. "Puerto Rican gangs on Broadway? Horrors, Mr. Chairman!"

Let Broadway sink or swim as it always has with artists like Paul Simon and Bernstein and Sondheim. Let theater and all the arts raise money the old-fashioned way. Get an angel, kite checks, starve in garrets, borrow on your plastic, and to hell with government watchdogs. Take their money and they own

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