Patrick Bateman is morphing into an antihero for the masses thanks to Benjamin Walker’s portrayal in ‘American Psycho: The Musical’
On the seating chart of American culture, choice tables are still reserved for those who can earn a permanent place in the zeitgeist by way of a big Broadway musical. And this week, Bret Easton Ellis’ Patrick Bateman joins Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Damon Runyon’s Nathan Detroit and Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera in that rarefied company of fictional literary figures so larger than life that they need to break into song.
Bateman is the title character of Ellis’ 1991 novel “American Psycho,” which was notoriously dropped by Simon & Schuster, and then published by Vintage Books, but only in paperback — with protests and threats of boycotts. Twenty-five years after the book first shocked readers, it’s now a sharp new musical featuring an eclectic creative team and cast, mixing Broadway razzle-dazzle with a sleek, alt-pop aesthetic.
Indeed, there was — and that interior life of a perfectly tanned and manicured investment banker who may or may not be a serial killer has grown from four pages to a novel that has sold almost 1 million copies in the U.S., a cult movie hero (courtesy of Mary Harron’s 2000 indie film) and now a singing and dancing, all-American antihero that audiences cheer for and laugh with onstage eight times a week.
But if this musical helps Patrick Bateman advance from cult boogeyman to a mainstream malefactor like Frankenstein or Count Dracula (both of whom have also sung on Broadway stages), it will be due to actor Benjamin Walker.
Walker, who profoundly inhabits the character onstage at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, is the first truly American Psycho. Welshman Christian Bale played Bateman in the movie; Englishman Matt Smith performed the part of Patrick in the first production of the musical in London two years ago.
Smith’s fame from the BBC’s “Doctor Who” made “American Psycho” a sell-out sensation at the Almeida Theatre. Director Rupert Goold credits “the extraordinary nature of Matt’s face, which combined with ‘Doctor Who’ gave a bit of alien to him — which is literally how Bret describes the character in the novel — an alien trying to fit in a human world.”
Walker, who was born and raised in Georgia, created the lead role in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City in 2008 (L.A.'s Center Theatre Group is listed as one of the producers of “American Psycho”), and he performed Patrick in the first workshops of the musical in 2011.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘It’s successful as a book and a movie, why are you doing it as a play?’ And the answer is you get to see the world of the ‘80s and the world today through the eyes of Patrick Bateman,” Walker says. “You can really only do that with direct address, where I’m talking directly to you in person. Narration in film is not quite the same thing. Onstage, when you’ve just about killed someone, you can stop and turn to the audience and say, ‘OK, here’s what’s going on with me.’ It’s what I love about theater.”
In the film, Bale had a whiff of detachment. The actor always seemed to be winking at the audience. Walker aims to thoroughly become Bateman, personifying the meticulousness of Ellis’ metropolitan monster. With an outsider’s awareness of what makes New Yorkers so intense, Walker artfully articulates Bateman’s rage in his voice, both in speech (his “have a great day” is as chilling as when he threatens to crucify a neighbor with a nail gun) and in songs like “Killing Time” and “Not a Common Man.”
The actor says one of the ways he gained insight into Bateman and his compulsive idiosyncrasies was simply watching people on the subway.
“One thing that feels very Patrick to me about New Yorkers is their obsession with listening to music on the train,” he says. “They’re saying, ‘I want to block out the world and create a soundtrack to the life I’m living in my head,’ which is the exact way the show begins: Bateman puts on a Walkman and headphones.”
As the show has been taken to the next level (as Patrick would say, in his management speak) from London to New York, one of the biggest changes is a true Broadway-style opening number.
“For me, I came on this project because of Duncan Sheik,” Goold says backstage, “and I always wanted it to open with a Duncan song.”
That song, “Selling Out,” appeared on “Legerdemain,” Sheik’s solo album that came out last fall.
“As I was recording it, I sent it to Rupert and I said, ‘Look, this track is going on my record, but there could be an interesting version of this song with a Patrick Bateman lyric to it,” says Sheik, who won 2007 Tony Awards for the score and orchestrations of “Spring Awakening.”
The new, upbeat opening number is not an “I want” song, Sheik says. “It’s more like ‘Tradition’ from ‘Fiddler,’ where it’s setting the scene for the world you’re about to experience.”
And although this “American Psycho” is indeed a Broadway musical, with its dense, electronic soundscape and sleek, video-enhanced set, it at times also feels like a rave, art installation and pop culture mediation rolled into one. Some of this eclecticism is due to the desire of L.A.-based producers David Johnson and Jessie Singer not to “Broadway-ize” the material — why many of the show’s collaborators come from the pop world. Besides Sheik and his alt-rock bona fides, the show’s set designer, Es Devlin, has worked with Beyoncé and Adele, and choreographer Lynne Page has worked with Kanye West and the Pet Shop Boys (adding to the 1980s MTV vibe).
The book is eerily prescient, as it predicts not just the lasting fascination with Trump and how America would come to embrace characters who get away with serial murders (Hannibal Lecter, Dexter) but also how Bateman’s obsessions with fashion, youth and extravagant cuisine have moved from moneyed metrosexuals to the culture at large.
“There’s an iconography to Patrick that’s now recognized and accepted,” producer Singer says. “And the moment when he initially appears onstage in his tighty-whities, there’s a recognition, and the crowd applauds that every night — and it’s both exciting and terrifying.”
Aguirre-Sacasa concurs that the cult surrounding Patrick Bateman is only growing.
“When he comes up in the tanning bed and people cheer, it feels like ‘Rocky Horror,’” he says. “There’s a scene in the musical where Bateman goes to his video store and he rents ‘Nightmare on Elm Street.’ And he says, ‘Freddy Krueger is a cultural icon.’ I put that line in there because it’s really a wink to the fact that Patrick Bateman himself is a cultural icon.”
Ellis did not involve himself with the making of the musical, but after seeing it for the first time in New York, he seems satisfied with both the work onstage and the timing of its arrival on Broadway.
“I do think that it feeds into the last gasp of white, male, privileged culture; it’s the 1% going insane,” he says. “And it does really tie into the ‘this is the end of an era’ mentally. And that time is now.”
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