“Making a killing on Wall Street” is taken to extravagant and literal extremes in American Psycho, the Broadway musical that Duncan Sheik and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa made of Brett Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel and Mary Harron’s 2000 movie. It arrived April 21 at the Schoenfeld Theatre, helmed by Rupert Goold, who originally directed the show’s sold-out premiere two years ago at his Almeida Theatre in London.
Benjamin Walker, the former Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer—though decidedly un-Presidential here—is dead-on in the title role, one Patrick Bateman, a New York investment banking exec working in mergers and acquisitions (or—as he puts it—“murders and executions”).
Arriving center stage in his Ralph Lauren underwear, he begins putting on his designer armor for another hard day of stock-market trading—almost ritualistically, like a matador preparing for a little death in the afternoon—guiding us through his narcissistic toilette, tossing out chic brand-names and success tips essential to being Top Dog in the dog-eat-dog world of high finance on Wall Street of the 1980s.
As corporate climbers go, Robert Morse’s window-cleaner on the rise in How To Success in Business Without Really Trying seems positively quaint now, getting ahead with just guile, charm and chicanery. Bateman is in the advanced class of Interoffice Backstabbing, leveling the field with a little decapitation and chainsaw-massacring.
The world in which he functions and/or dysfunctions has been colored by designer Es Devlin in subdued pastels—blue-gray, gray, white, silver and, almost without fail, just a splotch of blood-red for ominous punctuation. For the big massacre production number in which Bateman eliminates the entire ensemble, Devlin begins with pristine white walls and splatters them red. Not since Carrie has that trick been pulled. For the first-act finale, a plastic curtain is lowered to shield the audience from bloodshed.
“It would hit the balcony if they didn’t put down that curtain,” said Drew Moerlein, whose blood is spectacularly spilled in the scene. He makes his Broadway debut as Bateman’s archrival at work, Paul Owen, a good guy the audience never really gets to know. “He’s an extremely honorable, confident, well-bred, well-mannered investment banker who really does want others to succeed—and I don’t think there’s anything that gets on Patrick Bateman’s nerves more than that.”
Well, a few things—like a clinging mistress who happens to be engaged to his office associate, as Morgan Weed can readily attest. Her favorite scene involves Bateman and a pink teddy-bear. “It’s pretty wild and weird,” she allowed, “and it’s not something that you know you’re going to be asked to do on Broadway. I love it.”
Her character’s fiance, played by Jordan Dean, likewise has the hots for Bateman, and one of the show’s running gags is how stubbornly he clings to this dream with less-than-zero encouragement. “I love how this character is truly in love with someone, and it doesn’t matter how much the person doesn’t like him,” said Jordan Dean, the actor playing this gay comedy-relief. “A little thing like that is not going to stop him from hoping.”
Two of the supporting cast picked up Outer Critics Circle nominations earlier in the week. One was Heléne Yorke, who plays Bateman’s callow fiancée, who heads for Elizabeth Arden to unruffle her feathers whenever she gets stressed. “I like that the rehearsals left a lot of this character open for me to explore, and I was given a ton of freedom to do that,” she said. “Being in front of an audience, obviously, was incredibly informative about what was funny about my character. You discover what people laugh at, which is that this is somebody pretty obsessed with herself and with time and her image. That’s what’s been so exciting about building it.”
The other OCC nominee was Walker’s understudy, Dave Thomas Brown, who was cited for his title performance of an Elvis impersonator-turned-female impersonator in The Legend of Georgia McBride. In American Psycho, if he’s not slicing and dicing the ensemble in Walker’s place, he’s just one of the guys at the office.
Even from that perspective though, he’s having a good time: “It’s a wild ride and a blast to do—to do something that’s never been done before, something that is pushing the limits of the genre. People are surprised and exhilarated by it.”
Alice Ripley, who won a Tony playing a mother-in-meltdown in Next to Normal, has three distinctly different characters to play here—and one of them (Bateman’s mom) allows her a scene and a song with her Next to Normal daughter, Jennifer Damiano (Bateman’s secretary who is spared the office shredder).
Keith Randolph Smith, is spread across two different roles—the homeless derelict that Bateman practices murder on and the detective investigating the killing spree. In effect, he plays crime and punishment.
It’s a wild, un-ruled world these Wall Streeters operate in. Pound for pound, American Psycho has the best bodies on Broadway—and the biggest body count.
Walker, of course, sets the bar in the buff department. “Knowing that you’re going to spend a third of the show in your underwear is an enormous incentive,” he confessed, “but it takes a lot of work. If you have a bunch of producers breathing down your neck and paying for a trainer, you could do it, too. Anybody could do it.”
The actor admitted he was drawn to the project by the music. “I grew up in the ‘80s, and I love that music. It was a very exciting time in America—kind of a dangerous time, but also a wonderful time. We grew a lot as a country during that time.”
Golden oldies like Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” and Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to Be Square” keep the disco ball twirling and the colored lights going. And an original score is slipped into the show by Duncan Sheik, who did his share of ‘80s pub-crawling before his Tony-winning Spring Awakening. He remembers it well.
“Initially,” said Walker, “Duncan was what attracted me to the show. I worked on Spring Awakening in its infancy way back when, and I trusted him to use those sounds and take them as storytelling tools.” And, indeed, the composer did create some inventive ditties from dueling business-cards and elite name-brand labels.
“I’d been making electronic music since I was a teenager,” said Shiek. “I was like a bedroom closet electronic-music fan because I didn’t really make music like this until later, but I’d been wanting to pull out the drum machines and synthesizers from my closet for a while, so when this opportunity came up, I thought, ‘OK, everything is coalescing and telling me I need to create a score of electronic music.”
It certainly made Lynne Page’s choreography a lot easier. ”Duncan’s music is just extraordinary,” she said. “There are steps that I sometimes try to different pieces of music, and it doesn’t work, but whatever I seem to try to Duncan’s music works.
“It’s so intricate and so clever. I get big ideas in my head every time I listen to one of Duncan’s tracks. I just see the whole thing in my head because he writes clearly.
“This is a real gift-of-a-show for me because, as a choreographer, I work in the music industry, in fashion, in art, in modern dance, in musicals—but I have never before been given a show where I can use all those influences. It’s right on the nose for me.”
Twenty-five years ago when author Ellis came up with the notion of equating mindless materialism with murder, his publisher Simon & Schuster flatly refused to publish his findings. In record time, Viking stepped in, snapped up the manuscript and turned it into a combustible bestseller that was widely damned and praised.
Making his way through the opening-night crowd, Ellis was practically giddy with disbelief it all had come to pass, but he gamely pretended to argue otherwise.
“I always knew this was going to happen,” he’d have you believe. “I knew from the minute I wrote my first draft of the massacre scene it was headed for Broadway.”
It still seemed somewhat surreal to him. “Look, I didn’t write the script. There was this group of people who thought it was a good idea and spent ten years to get it to where it is now. I had my doubts throughout the entire decade-long process.
“Didn’t see it in London. Came here last week. Saw it twice. The first time I was a bit distracted. The second time I really enjoyed it as a show. I’m a contrarian, very self-critical, and I have to say I really liked it. I was surprised they got it. They really did.”
Adapter Aguirre-Sacasa recognized right off the difficulty of creating a song-and-dance murderer. “I saw the movie and thought it was a great adaptation of the novel, which I had read a couple of times. When I heard that they were turning this into a musical, I was really, really surprised but also really, really intrigued. The challenge of it seemed daunting, but I now believe that’s kinda what made me want to do it.”
“My biggest challenge,” he said, “came at the beginning of the process, figuring out the tone of the piece. There is so much violence in it, and there are such dark themes that we felt like we should keep things as satiric and funny as possible. The job was just getting the right mix of humor and darkness.”