When Bret Easton Ellis’ book American Psycho came out in 1991, a lot of people were just not sure what to make of it – was it a misogynistic story that glamourized violence against women or was it a satire of the consumerism and emptiness of the 1980s? Was it a little of both? Add in an ambiguous ending and American Psycho was a divisive novel. The film adaptation in 2000, starring Christian Bale, earned cult movie status but not mainstream success; I am one of the few people I know who both read the book and saw the movie, preferring the former to the latter (I fall into the satire/social commentary camp). A story about a shallow man who works Wall Street by day and kills by night is a lot of things, but doesn’t necessarily scream (ha!) to me source material for a Broadway musical. When I heard that was exactly what was going to happen I was intrigued, as I wasn’t quite sure how they were going to pull this off. It turns out that I didn’t have to wait long to find out; the musical debuted on April 21st and my friends and I were able to snag tickets to the first Saturday evening performance.
Like the book and movie that proceeded it, the American Psycho musical follows the story of young investment banker Patrick Bateman (Benjamin Walker) in the late 1980s. He is a narcissist who is obsessed with appearances and status; the show opens with him walking the audience through his morning regimen and he and his friends spend their time picking out the trendiest places to go for lunch and arguing over who has the more impressive business cards. Patrick has a trophy girlfriend Evelyn (Heléne Yorke) who he doesn’t much care for, an assistant (Jennifer Damiano) who is in love with him and a general emptiness and dissatisfaction with his life. He decides to fill this void, as people are wont to do, by murdering people. A lot of people. Underneath Patrick’s perfect exterior beats the heart of a serial killer.
I was vaguely familiar with Benjamin Walker as he played the titular character in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. He also starred in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which unfortunately closed on Broadway before I got the chance to see it. Walker is really fantastic in American Psycho; he has just the right charisma to pull off a character like Patrick Bateman (and the body to do a lot of scenes in his underwear). Bateman isn’t a likeable character – nor is he supposed to be – but thanks to Walker’s stellar performance you can’t really take your eyes off Patrick. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that you ever emphasize with Bateman, but Walker does an excellent job of bringing this character to life. The musical version of Patrick is slightly different in demeanor than his film personification – a little more man-child than scary psychopath – but Walker sells it all beautifully. The rest of the cast is enjoyable as well; I particularly enjoyed the performances by Yorke and Theo Stockman. The staging and choreography in American Psycho is also quite mesmerizing and helps to advance the story and overall mood of the musical.
What surprised me the most about American Psycho was the campiness of the production. I guess I was expecting an attempt at a more serious or scary tone, but instead American Psycho is much funnier than I would have bargained for. I guess there is now enough distance from the 80s that a lot of what Ellis’ was commenting on when he wrote the book has become something of a joke; we are all much more self-aware in 2016, so making references with a knowing wink is probably the best way to go. As a society we’re still kind of obsessed with wearing the right label or getting a table at the right restaurant, but we at least more openly acknowledge the ridiculousness of it all. Serial killers have also become sort of a mainstay of popular culture, so the inherent scariness of a man that hunts New Yorkers by night is much less transgressive and shocking than it might have been 25 years ago. A certain segment of the audience was definitely looking forward to when the killing actually started; when Patrick puts on his trademark raincoat, a definite cheer erupted from the theater. So when you are going to base your musical around a guy like Patrick Bateman, campy is probably the way to go (especially since a lot of the people that can afford to go see a Broadway show are members of the class that you are poking fun at).
Despite the strong performances and compelling choreography, American Psycho winds up being more style over substance. The story is very uneven and goes on way too long; nearly three hours with intermission is too much to ask of this story or the audience. The second half, in particular, drags a lot and many of my friends were bored by it. The first act is clearly working up to a particular climax, but after that, it’s like the musical isn’t quite sure where it wants to go or what it wants to be. The subplot with Patrick and his secretary in particular took up way too much time and never felt organic to the rest of the storylines. The decision to explore Patrick’s backstory also seemed forced. The ambiguous ending of the book was always going to be a challenge, but I really think that there has to be a more satisfying resolution than they gave us; for me, the final fifteen minutes of the show didn’t work at all and left a disappointing final impression. I’m not a huge fan of Duncan Sheik’s lyrical work – I was underwhelmed by Spring Awakening – and while the songs that he creates for American Psycho were enjoyable enough, they weren’t very memorable. I did appreciated that they used both original songs and pop songs from the 80s in the production (I had threatened to riot if Huey Lewis and the News wasn’t part of the show), but I don’t know that this is a cast album that I would ever listen to again. Like much of the 80s, it is very disposable.
Despite the uneven finished product, I am glad that we saw American Psycho if for no other reason than to satisfy my curiosity of how this could possibly be a musical. While there were aspects that I really enjoyed, ultimately American Psycho just didn’t live up to its potential. Scary seems to be a difficult thing to court on Broadway – Misery wasn’t able to pull it off either- but I think American Psycho would have benefitted from a little more terror and a little less meta commentary. For me, bringing an American Psycho musical to the stage was an interesting but ultimately failed experiment. Perhaps the gravest sin that you can commit is making a musical about a serial killer boring.