Duncan Sheik on Scoring the Killer New Musical 'American Psycho'

Jeremy Daniel
Walker (center) in a scene from the musical adaptation of American Psycho.

Duncan Sheik and Benjamin Walker bring American Psycho to the stage

“Flash your smile/Bare your teeth/They’ll never guess/What’s underneath” sing the chorus in American Psycho, the new musical based on the 1991 Bret Easton Ellis satirical novel which took a scalpel to the label-obsessed consumerist culture of the ‘80s. Readers were aghast at the lurid, axe-wielding exploits of Patrick Bateman, the handsome, uber-narcissistic investment banker.  But theater-goers were titillated by the musical version, directed by Rupert Goold and with songs by Duncan Sheik, which became a 2013 London hit. Time had caught up with Ellis’s materialist prophecies.

The Broadway transfer stars Benjamin Walker, the go-to guy for gore and mayhem, having starred in the musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and the film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. “My mother is worried about what I’m doing next,” jokes the 33-year-old actor over drinks at Urbo in Times Square with Sheik, 46, whose descent into this sleek circle of hell is a far cry from his Tony Award-winning coming-of-age tale Spring Awakening.

What’s a nice Buddhist like you doing in a world like this?
Sheik: I look at American Psycho as a fable, as an allegory, as an amazing commentary on contemporary Western civilization. I would never condone any of the violence that happens in the show but the way I’ve rationalized it is that the violence is happening in Patrick Bateman’s mind. And he’s sort of the victim of the world in which he lives.
Walker: I think he gets a bad rap. I feel like there’s a bit of Patrick Bateman in everyone.  Everyone has had those moments when they’re stuck in traffic or are in a long line at Fairway and the people in front of them are driving them crazy.  If you could read the thought bubbles, we’d discover we have more in common with Patrick than we like to think.

What makes you homicidal?

Walker: Um, I don’t know. But my thought bubbles are plenty filthy! [laughs]

Today’s politics make many people angry.

Sheik:  Exactly! What is this insane world that says that this is acceptable? And this show is a commentary to that.

How did you both relate to the surface perfectionism of that world? 

Walker: I was very anti-that.  I remember in high school, if you didn’t have a Tommy Hilfiger shirt with the “TH”, you were not socially acceptable. So my friends and I would photocopy the “TH” and stick them on our shirts as a kind of “fuck you.”

Sheik:  That was much cooler than me. In 1987, I was, like, I need to have that Commes des Garcons jacket. I need to have that X-Y-Z piece of clothing that was going to make me feel like I was completely hip and happening . And when I read the book, Bret was calling me out on the ridiculousness of my behavior and obsession with this stuff.

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

Was it hard translating the book into a musical?

Sheik: The main thing was understanding the world Patrick Bateman was living in and what that music might have sounded like. And that became very exciting and cool to create a piece of musical theater where you had the initial emergence of house music and early techno and then all the things that came out of it.

Walker: Duncan’s really taking ‘80s music to get deeper into what Patrick is feeling and thinking or as an expression of what society sounds and moves like at the time.

Sheik: I found a lot of those bands doing things that were emotionally powerful and not just fluffy at all. Completely romantic and melancholic. But then again, I was an Anglophile, listening to Blue Nile and the Cocteau Twins. And there is this sadness about this character [Patrick] that was really enticing to me. 

Did you find anything redeeming about the book's horrible characters? 

Walker: Oh, yeah. Nobody knows that they’re a jerk.  Even jerks don’t know they’re jerks. The old adage: If you can’t find the asshole in the room, it’s probably you. It’s one of the things we’re scared to think of and Patrick is as well. It gets out of hand, of course, but it doesn’t behoove me to think of him as pure evil. That’s a cartoon.


Sheik: This is much more layered and nuanced.

Walker: You like Patrick. He’s funny. He’s willing to say the things you’re scared to say. 

Sheik: And he does it with great aplomb. 

Ben, is there a scene where you enter in an eye mask and... your Calvin Kleins?

Walker: Ralph Lauren! Patrick Bateman would never wear Calvin Klein! Too gauche.

This article originally appeared in the May 7 issue of Billboard.


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