‘American Psycho: The Musical”s Composer and Director Discuss Their ’80s House-Scored Theatrical Adaptation

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At the Duke Theater on New York’s 42nd Street, in the quiet beyond clusters of Sbarro-grease-caked Elmos and ads for Madame Tussaud’s newest wax Whitney Houston, a giant cassette tape has been carved into a makeshift rehearsal stage. Like its referent, the massive thing can turn and reveal a story. That story is American Psycho: The Musical, and the cassette will soon be running in the Schoenfeld Theatre, carrying the play’s stylized set around — through Wall Street investment banker/serial killer Patrick Bateman’s apartment, into full-stage manifestations of his twisted mind, into nightclubs, into Christmas Parties, and into New York City streets seemingly brimming with blood-lusty beefcakes. The musical’s version of theatrical, testosterone-and-cocaine propelled ’80s Downtown New York will get to meet the contemporary carnival of Midtown when previews start on March 24.

But late last week, in preview for those previews, a gaggle of musical theatre actors gathered to enact fragments of their upcoming Broadway production for the media. Theater writing legends like Michael Musto commingled with the generally theater-apathetic blogging community. For, like more and more shows nowadays, American Psycho has the draw of not only being a play, but having — for better or for worse — been both a cult film and canonized novel.

The glowing reviews from London critics and its sold-out success at the Almeida Theatre (whose artistic director, Rupert Goold, also directed this show) led to this subsequent Broadway preparation and retouching. It’s got a new cast, with an Abraham Lincoln who hunts vampires (Benjamin Walker) replacing a Dr. Who (Matt Smith) in the role of Patrick Bateman. Time Out captured the preview on video:

The musical numbers displayed at the event — all written and composed by Spring Awakening‘s Duncan Sheik — all seem to be manifestations of some of the book/film’s most iconic moments. The first number entails Patrick Bateman introducing himself and his empty world — “I may be dealing with a nameless feeling, but everybody’s saying that I look amazing, so I don’t know, don’t know.” We see him visit the dry cleaner and argue about the removal of a massive bloodstain. We see him renting A Nightmare on Elm Street. He throws money at the audience. He humps an audience member’s leg. He compares his business cards with his colleagues — their ridiculous colors, their fonts — “Oh baby baby you’re such a card — you make it look was when I know it’s fucking hard.” His fiancé Evelyn (Heléne Yorke) plans a party for him, singing the praises of fine dining and haute couture — “I’ll have blackened chard and mahimahi — goes so wells with Isaac Mizrahi.”

Audiences will either be thrilled by, or turn their noses at, reiterations of scenes from the book, set to house music, early techno and, as Sheik puts it, “various other subgenres of EDM that’ve proliferated since the 80s.” The unconventional music underpins rhyming, quippy lyrics and the more emotive vocal performances that are often affiliated with musical theatre.

American Psycho, in book and film iterations, is campy and tawdry, but underlain by a sobering critique of an industry that both seems to court and sculpt sociopathy, that we’ve seen reiterated widely — and in lesser form (Wolf of Wall Street) — in the lead-up to and aftermath of Occupy. Because film usually hides rather than flaunts its performativity, the disturbing theatricality and deliberate heavy hand of Mary Harron’s film made it transgressive. Musical theatre, however, acknowledges its own theatricality, and thus often thrives on archetypes. One might therefore wonder if setting American Psycho in musical theatre form would make it seem typical rather than critical. One also might wonder how a new American Psycho‘s critique might stand, now that it’s no longer setting a foreshadowing precedent, but rather caught in a mass of voices saying the same thing in a critique that’s finally (and luckily) even been mainstreamed in a U.S. election.

But though hearing of the formula American Psycho = Musical might leave you incredulous, the concept likewise seems to have done so with its composer, Duncan Sheik, at first. He told the audience, before the performance of select numbers began, that when the producers first approached him “about working on this piece, [he] scratched his head a little bit,” thinking, “‘Why should American Psycho be a musical?” In a talk with both Sheik and director Rupert Goold following the presentation, I followed up on why they ultimately decided it should.

Left: Heléne Yorke as Evelyn Williams, Right: Benjamin Walker as Patrick Bateman. Img. Credit: Flavorwire

Flavorwire: Theatre is rooted in an openness to repetition and interpretation — but in a time when we’re seeing so many productions based on films or books, what do you think theatre — and particularly musical theatre — can add to those preexisting narratives? What does it add, specifically, to American Psycho?

Rupert Goold: I don’t think there’s any dialogue in this show that’s from the movie and not the book. But our story is different, it’s a little more narrative whereas the book was episodic; [the musical] has a slightly Faustian shape to it.

There’s something about being in the room with [Patrick Bateman]. Part of the power of the film is that it is a film — you watch it in a dark room while you’re on your own. Whereas you’re in a public environment with him when youre in a theater, you’re all in one room with his very sexually present energy. It’s like Phillip Glass or Depeche Mode in that it moves heavily and intensely, with a chill, but the emotional payload at the end is incredibly powerful, because we haven’t been belting our hearts out at each other throughout the whole thing, and Patrick’s ultimate self-awareness and crisis I find really moving and deeply emotional, particularly in the final numbers, because we have compressed everything up until then.

But generally it’s an unconventional musical theater architecture — [for example], where is our “Want” number? I may be being naive, but I feel like there’s been a greater blurring between what a play is and what a musical is. Ours does have aspects of a David Mamet play at times.

Duncan Sheik: Or an Oscar Wilde play, for that matter. I actually prefer plays to musicals in general — and I say that as a composer. I’m always wanting there to be more scene and I’m not interested in a song continuing to tell the story. I want the song to be this really cool event that deepens the character in some way and explains the world they live in, and let the scenes tell the story.

What made you decide that an electronic score was the best way to tell this story?

Sheik: Growing up in the ’80s, I was more of a fan of the British side of things — Depeche Mode, New Order, Tears for Fears, Talk Talk. But I spent a lot of time going to nightclubs in New York City in the late ’80s, and a lot of that music was coming from Chicago and Detroit, and Europe as well. It was an interesting mixture of electronic music and guitars, an interesting hybridization, so I tried to have the score reflect that. Maybe in [the London production] the sounds were more specifically late-’80s and ’90s, and now I’ve opened it up for this version, in some way. The clinical aspect of it is what I really like. Rupert often talks about Stanley Kubrick when he talks about this particular show, and there’s something really clinical about his films, and getting into the psychology of these characters in a way that only Rupert can do. That’s the part of it that’s fascinating to me, and I wanted the music to reflect that psychology.

The discourse surrounding and general cultural indictment of Wall Street has obviously evolved since American Psycho was first released in 1991. How has the value of American Psycho changed with it?

Sheik: I actually reread the book in 2009. I read it when I was in college. That was right after the ’87 crash. So then reading it in 2009, right after the 2008 crash, and just thinking, “This guy, he’s predicted something in the culture that’s just continued to get worse and worse,” and the material just seemed really trenchant.

Goold: Culturally, that period was in the doghouse for a long time — both politically and aesthetically on some level. And now there’s been a reappropriation of that period by fashion and music, and in ideology as well. There’s an unapologetic nostalgia about some of it. New York itself has obviously changed, too. The book is one of the great millennial novels in the sense that it feels like the end of days, the fall of Rome — that something was coming. And yet I feel that that anxiety of late capitalism is very current.

One can read the book in a very materialist way and say it’s a critique of a certain kind of value structure surrounding market economics and how that biases personal identity. And also it was pre-internet and pre-social media, when people were really defined by brands more than by discourse. But I suppose that’s a cold reading, on some level. But for me, I’m more drawn to a slightly more universal Dostoyevskian story of a man who is desperate to fit in, and yet knows somehow, fundamentally, he’s not part of the world today. Some of us turn to creative industries or to alcohol or medication or children to escape those things. [Bateman] happens to turn to murderous, psychopathic pathology. But that’s more metaphoric.

I think it being here is different than in England, and I think it being two years later is different. Who knows what we could get [in the election?]. We could have Trump — a young venture capitalist of the ’80s — if that came to fruition, or a Bernie, who would, like, bring them all down.