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.
“Weirdly, I think Dorian Grey is an ancestral connection to Patrick Bateman. They are both obsessed with style and society, and both are beyond morality,” Aguirre-Sacasa says. “They are amoral at a minimum, if not the opposite of that. They want to be young, beautiful, never want to grow old, never want to interact with people who aren’t of the same class. And Dorian has a big sexual appetite, a pansexual appetite, which I think is also true of Patrick Bateman.”
The creative team originally planned a jukebox musical that included popular songs from the 1980s and early Nineties. Once they brought on award-winning composer Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) to work on the music and lyrics, however, the score went in a new direction. According to Aguirre-Sacasa, they’d wanted to use Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” for a sequence of Bateman killing many people over a passage of time. Then Sheik wrote a sort of homage to the song, “Killing Spree,” which allowed Bateman to explain his internal motivations. Two prostitutes that Bateman tortures were initially going to sing Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through the Night,” until Sheik wrote “Not a Common Man,” a poignant ballad that includes Bateman singing the lines: “There are gods, there are kings / I’m pretty sure I’m the same thing. / I am needing so much more / Every pleasure is a bore, I am something other than a common man / I’m not a common man.” And the new opening number, “Selling Out,” Sheik says, captures that “whole ethos of this late-Eighties, Reaganite set of people. It sets up the whole world in some way.”
The musical still contains a minute or so of New Order’s “Truth Faith,” Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me Baby” and a remix of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” that makes Tears for Fears’ mainstay more relevant than ever. Phil Collins’ song “‘In the Air Tonight” has been reinterpreted in a haunting version that’s sung like a gospel choir and becomes an eerie ode to foreshadow Bateman’s brutality. Only “Hip to Be Square,” the Huey Lewis and the News song that plays a pivotal part in the film, remains untouched. It has Walker gleefully bouncing around onstage before hacking up his colleague with an axe.
Despite the amount of blood and hedonistic acts, the music humanizes Patrick Bateman in a way the movie never could. By having him sing, he seems to have a soul. It’s similar to what Stephen Sondheim managed to do with Sweeney Todd and Assassins – open up the interiors of despised killers – only now with a racist, homophobic, misogynist who appears to slaughter a slew of innocent people as he sings about his impulse to murder.
“You get an extra window into Patrick’s mind,” Walker explains. “He feels things just as intensely as anyone else, he just doesn’t know how to express those feelings. I always get the question: Why do people sing in musicals? It’s because just saying it doesn’t do it. It’s not enough. It’s so intense and personal. It has to be in song. He does horrible things to people. At the same time, because it’s theater, he gets to justify them. In the movie, you see him put a nail gun to the back of a girl’s head, and it feels distant and horrifying. In the musical, he does it and then I can turn to the audience and go, ‘OK, here’s what’s going on with me right now.'”
The fact that American Psycho is being launched the same year that Hamilton has taken America by storm is another irony that’s not lost on the creative team. “I guess in a way, we are sort of a photo negative of Hamilton, the anti-American dream,” says Aguirre-Sacasa. “Instead of the birth of the nation, it’s the death of the nation…. But I think more Ben Walker in his underwear is a good thing for America and Broadway.”
Which brings us to one of the oddest parts of American Psycho: its many references to Donald Trump. In the book, Trump is Bateman’s hero, he recommends everyone read Art of the Deal and he’s obsessed with getting an invitation to Trump’s Christmas party. “The weirdest thing is the ascendency of Donald Trump’s relevancy,” Aguirre-Sacasa says. “There’s a concern that we’re mentioning him too much, but he’s there in the novel. He’s a spectre that hangs over everything, the way Ronald Reagan also hangs over the novel. It’s there, so we’d be foolish not to draw the parallels.”
In the end, the lasting relevance of references to the Donald might be the scariest thing about this unlikely American Psycho reboot. “It couldn’t be more timely,” Walker says. “People ask if we put them in, but he was huge in the Eighties and big in the book and a huge influence on who Patrick Bateman wants to be. I think Patrick would be contributing to his campaign right now. It’s just purely coincidence that Trump’s also running for president right now. A chilling coincidence.”