American Psycho: The Gay Musical?
By Kevin Clarke
When a musical version of Brett Easton-Ellis's American Psycho was announced a year ago, many believed it was a bad joke. Then the show premiered in London and turned out to be a smash hit. With Doctor Who star Matt Smith as the loveable psychopath Patrick Bateman. The show closed on February 1 and now there's speculation as to whether it has a shot at a Broadway transfer—and if Smith has the chops to make it a success.
Originally the jokes went something like this: "Patrick Bateman live on stage? Bring your raincoat.” After all, it was clear that there would be blood splashing around in this musical adaptation of Ellis's cult 1991 novel. The question was: How much blood? Plus, who would play Bateman, the 26-year-old Wall Street investment banker who says of himself: “I feel like shit, but I look great.” In the movie, of course, it was Christian Bale, who dissected his one-night stands with a chain saw, only to then relax under his sun bed in white Calvins. Indeed, it was a sight to cherish forever.
London’s historic Almeida Theatre in London's Islington neighborhood—far away from the commercial entertainment world of the West End—landed a real coup when it was able to announce that Matt Smith would play the serial killer lead role. He’s famous for being the most recent Doctor Who. Which is probably why all performances in the 325-seat theater were immediately sold out. Desperate housewives from all over the UK wanted to see their mysterious idol, more or less nude. As did the British gays who remembered Smith from Christopher and His Kind in which he played the title role. It prompted some worried Doctor Who fans to ask online whether Smith was gay. (Don’t get your hopes up, he’s not.) Still, it was quite amazing that he would take on the role of the ambivalent Patrick Bateman, the bizarre creation of one of today’s most successful and controversial gay authors. And, I must say, yes, Smith looked dazzling in white briefs. Maybe not quite as sensational as Christian Bale, but then again, this stage version with a book by gay playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and music/lyrics by Duncan Sheik is a million times better than the film by Mary Harron from 14 years ago.
Aguirre-Sacasa is one of the regular writers for Glee (and the scribe brought in to salvage Spider-Man when Julie Taymor was booted from the troubled Broadway production), and he's obviously mastered the art of gliding in and out of songs with the greatest ease. He tells the twisted story of the book much better than the film—especially the gay aspects of the story concerning Bateman’s colleague Luis Carruthers (played here by Hugh Skinner) are dealt with more sympathetically and seriously than in the film. Actually, you could say that the entire new musical version tells the story better and with more emotional depth than the movie, which managed to skip over every single great aspect of the book without making an impact. (Bale’s semi-nude scenes apart.)
It is rather amazing that such a tiny London theater could have come up with such a technically brilliant production and such a star-studded cast line up. The success is certainly also due to Rupert Goold’s slick staging that manages to tell the epic tale in a flowing and easy way, without ever losing its sense of elegance and humor. And bite. Goold, Aguirre-Sacasa, and Sheik don’t reduce the gay character to a caricature, like the movie, but take Luis’s longings and frustration seriously. The scene in the locker room, after a hilarious aerobics class, is one of the crucial turning points of the story and this staging. From then on, the gay subplot remains central. And touching. Right to the bitter end.
The songs and lyrics are by Spring Awakening composer Duncan Sheik (remember, that little show Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele originally starred in?), and his music for Bateman’s world of horrors is a lot less memorable than Spring Awakening. Instead, it’s full of references to '80s pop icons such as Phil Collins, and it’s filled with artificial synthesizer sounds that are befitting for the emotional emptiness of the characters. Numbers such as “Hardbody” (“I like them like that”) and “You are what you wear” (a list song of fashion labels) have the potential to become classics. And the pre-interval Christmas finale, “Mistletoe Alert," is simply hilarious. In part, this is because Susannah Fielding as Bateman’s fiancée Evelyn is so incredibly bizarre and fun to watch. (Much more impressive than Reese Witherspoon in the movie.)
Contrary to the movie, the stage version places Bateman’s relationship to his secretary Jean at its center. This gives more emotional credibility to the story and leads to the crucial moment where Bateman invites Jean out on a date. He breaks it off when he realizes his feelings for her, and he fears he might kill her if she stays too long. Rushing her out, he calls the police to turn himself in and stop the endless killing. That then turn out to be nothing more than a hallucination.
Maybe American Psycho: A New Musical Thriller isn’t the typical family friendly show London and Broadway are full of at the moment (such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, Emil and the Detectives, etc.), but that cocaine storm Christmas party in the new musical is definitely an enduring highlight. The British press was mostly enthusiastic about the show that is obviously destined for greater and bigger things but whether it will ever reach Broadway remains to be seen. And some think Matt Smith couldn't pull off a Broadway run. If that's the case, maybe Sheik’s old star Jonathan Groff will try out Bateman and give a new twist to his post-Looking career? We'd certainly pay to see that.
By the way, I wanted to also note how many gay subplots currently fill West End musicals. In Tim Rice’s From Here to Eternity, the gay aspects of the novel are completely played out, in total contrast to the famous movie version. This gives the story an emotional power that Hollywood in the '50s didn’t dare to even hint at. Also, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new social comedy Stephen Ward, about a political (sex) scandal in the early '60s addresses gay aspects (such as prostitution and blackmail) without making them silly aside jokes.
While Stephen Ward has just come out with a cast recording—not sounding anywhere near as glorious as the music did in the theater, it should be noted—the other two shows have not been recorded and/or released. But both are absolutely on my personal wish list for 2014. Though American Psycho is most likely more impressive if you saw the production. And that's not just because yummy Tom Kay as Sean Bateman, the hero’s brother, is a sight to behold anytime he's on stage—not just when he flaunts his muscle legs in that aerobic class.