Bret Easton Ellis practically had to resign from the human race when Simon & Schuster dropped his novel “American Psycho” in 1991. (Vintage quickly came to the rescue to publish it.) Who knew that such a scandalous book, condemned by Gloria Steinem for its depiction of women and labeled as violent porn by many others, would turn up on Broadway as a musical comedy, which opened Thursday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre?
“American Psycho,” the new musical by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Duncan Sheik, is not the novel or even the 2000 film starring Christian Bale. Investment banker and serial killer Patrick Bateman, as performed by Benjamin Walker, is still obsessed with the font of business cards, the tassels on designer shoes, and his accessibility to certain high-end boites around Manhattan.
But frankly, Claire Danes’ Wall Street exec in “Dry Powder” at the Public Theater is a truer model of soullessness. Patrick, on the other hand, has grown a conscience, even if he’s still stuck in the heartless 1980s.
One could argue that Bateman in the novel has a heart; otherwise, he’d be content to pursue his rampant materialistic ideals like every other character in Ellis’ book. Killing is his way of dealing with the pressure of having to obtain too many upscale possessions.
Sheik’s music gives Bateman a soul. It’s the nature of musical theater. It’s why Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades” is different from Pushkin’s short story. It’s why Verdi’s Lady Macbeth is more sympathetic than Shakespeare’s: One gets to go out singing “Una macchia,” the other doesn’t. Which is not to say that Sheik isn’t very good at serving up funny odes to materialism, like “You Are What You Wear,” that use nothing but designer logos for its lyrics.
Walker emerges as far more tortured than Bale, who becomes a touch more manic in the second half of the film. Musicals need more narrative drive than movies, and Walker (with help from Aguirre-Sacasa) supplies it.
In 2002, the musical adaptation of “Sweet Smell of Success” tried to give an arc to an equally callous character, J. J. Hunsecker, who took lives not with a knife but his gossip column. Under Rupert Goold’s direction, Aguirre-Sacasa and Walker do a much better job of telling their story, and in the musical’s second half, Bateman is a far more vulnerable (and blood-spattered) hero than the confident Young Turk we meet in the opening number.
Es Devlin’s set design also provides a marvelous journey. The Manhattan claustrophobia of her boxes-within-a-box set in the first half gives way to the open spaces of the Hamptons, only to be replaced by a very different kind of cyclorama at the very end: multiple doors that open to expose Bateman’s many victims.
Depending on how you look at “American Psycho,” it’s either horrifying or a hoot that audiences applaud when a musical number ends in mayhem. Goold and his book writer sometimes scrape the bottom, especially with the too easy references to Donald Trump and a scene with a pint-size Tom Cruise. An orgy with projections of cartoon fornicators is also pretty silly. Then again, the Metropolitan Opera has been doing orgies on stage for decades, and I’ve never seen one there I’ve wanted to join.