Why do people love Patrick Bateman? It’s a question that the sexy sociopath in Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial American Psycho asks himself, and it remains at the core of the new musical adaptation now on Broadway. Published 25 years ago, the stream-of-consciousness novel was originally condemned by a broad swath of critics (on both the right and left), before it gained a cult following of devoted fans (mostly men) and was adapted into an indie film (directed by a woman) starring Christian Bale. Since then, the concept of the antihero has gained popularity on television, in shows like Dexter, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, so that the villain with a heart no longer appears so outlandish. But what is it about this murderous narcissistic Master of the Universe that continues to make him so relatable?
Or, as Benjamin Walker, the six-foot-three hunk who plays Bateman in the American Psycho musical, asks, “How do you make something entertaining that is, basically, you in your underwear killing hookers and singing about it?”
At its core, the story is about a privileged white man who, despite all his social benefits, fails to connect with the world around him, so he feels like an outsider, a misfit. Rather than rebel or create art, Bateman goes on a violent killing spree – first killing nameless men and women from the bottom rungs of society, and then eventually exacting revenge on his peers.
“I cannot as the actor, look at Patrick and deny that there’s a little bit of Patrick Bateman in all of us,” Walker says. “I think most people think horrible things on a daily basis: when they’re frustrated, hurt, afraid. If you could play their internal monologue or read it, you’d see horrible, horrible things in there. Patrick has no censor. We have to learn not to behave like that – to not behave like animals – but for some reason, he can’t disconnect.”
During recent performances, audience members cheered when the title card reading “American Psycho” was projected at the beginning of the show. They whooped when Patrick Bateman appeared on stage in the iconic raincoat or wielded a chainsaw. Knowing chuckles erupted when he repeatedly says, “I have to return some video tapes,” in order to get out of uncomfortable situations, an absurdist line from the film that became an Internet meme. At the London production, young men showed up dressed like Patrick Bateman, similar to the way generations embraced The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“Patrick’s judged by a totally different standards, which is interesting to put at the center of a Broadway musical,” says the show’s playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. “His relationship to reality in the novel and in the movie, and definitely in the musical, is tenuous at best. We don’t know what is real or not real, and I believe he doesn’t know what is real or not real or doesn’t know for sure.”
Aguirre-Sacasa actively pursued the gig after he read producers had acquired the rights to the book. At the time, he’d been working on a contemporary retelling of The Picture of Dorian Grey, and perceived a shared heritage between Bateman and Oscar Wilde’s creation.