Duncan Sheik: How He Went From 'Spring Awakening' to 'American Psycho' on Broadway

Duncan Sheik
Shervin Lainez

Duncan Sheik

Don’t make Duncan Sheik choose between being a recording artist and theatrical composer. Other than having to juggle a packed schedule, he’s quite happy living a double life. The “Barely Breathing” singer/songwriter won two Tonys and a Grammy Award for writing the music to 2006’s Broadway smash Spring Awakening and on March 24, his latest project, a musical adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, begins previews on Broadway. The following day, the original London cast recording from American Psycho’s sold-out run at the Almeida Theater comes out on Concord Records. 

Sheik, 46, talked to Billboard about breathing musical life into American Psycho protagonist Patrick Bateman, balancing two careers, and why he’s put Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda on warning.

What was your way in to writing the music and lyrics for American Psycho

I had read the book when I was in college when it first came out in 1991. Frankly, the idea of turning American Psycho into a musical seemed pretty daft to me in the beginning. But when I re-read the book [in] 2009, I had one of those lightbulb-over-the-head moments where I thought, this will be really cool to create a piece of musical theater where the whole sonic palette was electronic music because basically all these characters were going out to nightclubs in New York City in the mid-to-late 80s. It was when early house music and early techno and EDM from the U.K. and Europe was starting to happen here in New York. I remember that time really well because I was sneaking into those same clubs as a teenager. 

In some ways, this is as much a period piece as Spring Awakening. It’s the 1980s vs. the 1890s. 

Exactly. I definitely tried to use a lot of gear and technology from that era, specific drum machines and synthesizers that were popular around that time. I’m not being slavish to the era in the same way that Spring Awakening is certainly not slavish to its era, but I am playing with some of the tropes and sounds that people would have been messing with making pop music at that time.

How did you come up with the exhaustive list of designer and brand names for “You Are What You Wear?” And then make them rhyme.

I called some of my old girlfriends. All of us were, to some degree, clothes horses during that time. So I [said], “just list all your favorite designers from 1987, 1988, 1989.” I thought it would be really funny to try to rhyme everything with food items because so much of the talk in the book is these lists of clothing items and designers and then these lists of restaurant menu items, so that kind of become this absurd, but very fun, idea for a song.

You’ve lived with this play for six years. What is it like having a killer in your head for so long? 

I talked to Bret Easton Ellis about this early on in the process and I asked him if Patrick actually commits these atrocities in real life or whether it’s something in his imagination and Bret wouldn’t really answer the question. I’m a Buddhist and I’m not a big fan of horror movies. I like to think of Patrick Bateman as someone who’s an incredible fantasist, like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I see it as the pathology of the culture that he’s in and the pathology of late capitalism. I personally feel like this is the crazy stuff that is happening in his own head. I don’t really think he has the stomach to pull this stuff off.

The play incorporates covers of ‘80s songs like Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” New Order’s “True Faith,” and Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” How did you reimagine them? 

I felt like it would be churlish to not include some of the iconic songs of the era since Patrick Bateman goes on these rants on various bands and artists and musicals and they’re some of the funniest passages in the book. There’s a Huey Lewis song in there that’s completely diegetic. We mostly use the recording. The rest of them, I had this idea that it would be really cool if the score was electronic, that these quote-unquote cover songs would be a cappella with these very cool arrangements that David Shrubsole and Jason Hart did. It was a way of creating a different sound world when we went to these very familiar sounding pieces of music and reinventing them in some way for the stage.

How involved were you in the casting of the Broadway version? 

I’m in the room every day during casting. This was a particularly difficult group in terms of coming to consensus on the casting because we’re very diverse and we all have our different aesthetic ideas and agenda, frankly. I respect my creative team enormously, but we’re all unique individuals with an enormous amount of head butting to come up with this cast. We knew that Ben Walker (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) was going to be Patrick Bateman, but the rest of the ensemble cast is extraordinary as well, so maybe that was a good thing. (laughs)

What changed from the London version to the Broadway version? 

We wrote a new song in the opening. I cannibalized one of my own songs and turned it into an American Psycho song, “Selling Out.”  That really has made a much more compelling and exciting first 15-20 minutes of the show. I continued to work on and refine the arrangements of all the songs [to] make it a little harder and a little muscular and a little cooler. Musicals are never really finished, they just close at some point.

Do you now look at composing as your day job and being a recording artist as moonlighting?

It’s very much 50/50 especially over the past 18 months where it’s really been devoted both to [2015 album] Legerdemain and American Psycho equally. I hope to do a lot more touring this year to support Legerdemain and to go to Europe and Asia and South America, but I do have a lot of theater commitments coming up as well. This is a very high-class problem. (laughs)

The Secret Life of Bees is your next musical adaptation. How is it going? 

I’ve definitely starting writing. In some ways, it’s polar opposite of American Psycho. I love synthesizers and drum machines, but I’m excited to write some music with some real instruments. 

Spring Awakening brought a whole new generation into the theater and we’re seeing it again with Hamilton. It must be very gratifying to be part of that.

[Collaborator] Steven Sater and I secretly harbored the hope that we could do that. I don’t know why we thought we could, but we sort of had that dream secretly inside us and the fact that it did happen was just this amazing gift. I’m very proud of the fact that I was able to get a new set of people excited about musical theater and I’m thrilled for Lin-Manuel [Miranda] that Hamilton is doing as well as it is. He just needs to remember that Patrick Bateman is coming for Alexander Hamilton now (laughs).