‘American Psycho’ Composer Duncan Sheik on Making a Sociopath Sing
When Duncan Sheik was first approached by producer Jesse Singer, after he’d acquired the stage rights to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, about adapting it into a musical, he said he wasn’t interested. “The last thing I wanted to see was Patrick Bateman breaking out into song,” Sheik says. “I mean, generally, the last thing I want to see is anyone breaking out into song.”
Despite having won critical acclaim in 2007 for the music and orchestration of the hit Broadway show Spring Awakening, which was recently revived this season on Broadway with a stunning production that incorporated deaf actors and sign language, the singer-songwriter still seems itchy when it comes to most musical-theater song-and-dance tropes. So for American Psycho, he decided to do something completely different.
“We had the idea that it would be really cool to do a musical where the band in the pit, so to speak, would be Depeche Mode or Kraftwerk or some variation,” he explains. “I thought, ‘This is really exciting: We could do a piece of musical theater with an all-electronic score.’ I wanted a really sterile soundscape and sonic palette. Also, these guys were going to all these nightclubs, the same ones I was sneaking into as a teenager. So I thought it was cool to have an all-electronic show.”
Sheik’s concept was to have the original score be all electronic and the covers – New Order’s “True Faith,” Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” – be all choral, a cappella arrangements. That held for the most part. “But the Huey Lewis, we had to do it as a diagetic piece,” the songwriter says, “because it’s too much fun to just see white people dancing to that song.”
One of the clever standout tracks, “You Are What You Wear,” is sung by the female members of the ensemble and includes witty lyrics that rhyme fashion with food – “I want blackened shark/Mahi mahi/Works so well/With Isaac Mizrahi.” It’s the sort of “list song” for which musical theater composers typically relish, but it was new territory for Sheik. “I’d never really written one before,” he says, who researched it by mining his experiences and calling up old girlfriends to ask about their favorite labels. “After college, I was obsessed with high-end fashion I couldn’t afford, mostly Japanese designers like Commes des Garçons and Matsuda. And I wanted to rhyme it with food items. Generally I hate when people talk about food in song, but in this case it made sense.”
Ultimately, this Broadway musical – which also includes a new work, “Selling Out,” that wasn’t in the original London production – aims to capture and skewer the capitalist, “greed is good” set of people who thrived during the Reagan era.
“There’s a version of American Psycho that you could do that is campy, kitschy and incredibly broad and comic. I wasn’t interested in that,” Sheik says. “I wanted it to be a little deeper and more ambiguous weird and strange and, hopefully, beautiful.”