A Broadway Psycho: A Conversation With Duncan Sheik
    • TUESDAY, APRIL 26, 2016

    • Posted by: Don Saas

    "Initially, I was a little confused or even bemused about the idea of turning American Psycho into a musical."

    Duncan Sheik is no stranger to the Broadway stage. In 2006, he and writing partner Steven Sater released the rock musical Spring Awakening which helped to usher in the Broadway renaissance we live in now with the smash success of musicals like Hamilton and The Book of Mormon. And although Sheik hasn't slowed down in his production of new tunes and even new musicals, this year's American Psycho adaptation marks the return of his work to the Broadway stage.

    "I read the book in college and was and continue to be a Brett Easton Ellis fan, but I didn't see it as a musical at first flush. But then in 2009 when this came up and the producers of the show came up to me and asked if I'd be interested in working on it, I said I'd re-read the book and see if I have some approach that might make sense. When I re-read the book, I loved it much more as a 39-year-old than I did as a 21-year-old. I understood the social satire more, and the fact is, the book is ahead of its time, and it's really kind of an amazing document.

    The other thing I realized is that Patrick Bateman is kind of this armchair music critic with a very suspicious taste in music. But they were going out to nightclubs in New York City in the 80s, and that was something I was also doing as a teenager, kind of sneaking into these clubs, and I thought this could be interesting. Maybe do a piece of musical theater where it was all electronic music, and the band could be something like Kraftwerk or Depeche Mode or something like that. After re-reading the book, I got really excited about these ideas, and creating a piece of musical theater that had a very different sonic pallet."

    The soundtrack for American Psycho is out now and Sheik was successful in his attempts to capture the robotic narcissism of Reagan America though this sort of music is a far cry from the guitar and string driven pop music that initially made him famous in the 90s.

    "I've always been a little bit of a closeted electronic dance music fan. When I was 16 years old I got my first Juno 106 and my GR-909 drum machine, and I've always been making electronic music in some way, shape, or form, even though it's been under wraps and it hasn't been part of the records I've made so much. Over the past five or six years, I've become more interested in having fewer guitars and fewer string arrangements and having more overt use of technology in music that I make. So this dovetails really well with this project.

    The thing about writing lyrics for these characters is that it's actually really fun, because as Duncan Sheik I wouldn't be able to write a song that's basically a list of fashion designers and food items, but in the context of the show it's something that's a necessary evil, and a really fun necessary evil. It's great to have the opportunity to write from the perspective of these insane characters, and it's not Duncan Sheik writing the 200th song about some girl that doesn't like me anymore."

    Any adaptation of American Psycho has to deal with the fact that Ellis generated a lot of heat when the book was released in the 90s with accusations that the novel was misogynistic and while it's clear that Ellis was satirizing the misogyny of his characters, Sheik went into his production of the musical with those concerns in mind.

    "Trust me, there were very many conversations about that aspect of the piece. Certainly, when we did the show at London, and the producers at the Almeida theater, there were lots and lots of very smart women who were involved in that production. We really did think about this stuff and talk about it a lot.

    But the truth is, American Psycho is not a celebration of misogyny; it's a very intense critique of male behavior. It took Brett himself a long time for people to really understand that. He had to go on talk shows and say 'Patrick Bateman isn't me; I'm shining a light on what's really the dark heart of late capitalism and what it's done to the male psyche.' Interestingly, I think we might have been too careful with how we did it in London, and here in New York, we took it further with the show, and it is darker and more intense. I think it's going to make some people angry, and that's the intent of the piece."

    With the Broadway renaissance that we're living in, it was clear that Sheik would have thoughts about why young people are flocking back to the theatre en masse for the first time in decades.

    "There have been a few of us who have been trying to bring in a new, younger audience to see shows. Whether it's on Broadway, or off Broadway, or just musical theater generally, I think it's really healthy for the medium that we have this new set of people coming in to see shows, and I think Spring Awakening did that to some extent ten years ago and I'm really proud of that. With American Psycho, it's kind of another approach and a very different approach to what an American musical might sound like. It's also something that hopefully is really entertaining, and I think the audience is responding to it in a great way and laughing at the material, but it is dealing with a pretty serious subject and delves in ideas that I think are really important to think about. That's really the great thing about theater, what theater can do. It can be really entertaining but it can also make you think really deeply about important issues."

    And as someone who's adapted one of the most famous books of the 90s, we wondered if Broadway was invading pop culture or pop culture had invaded Broadway."

    "I'm sure it's a little bit of both. It's interesting because I came from a 'normal' music distance, throughout my teens and twenties. I wasn't actively looking to work in theater or write music for theater. I wandered into that space by a happy accident. Frankly, I didn't think about musical theater throughout the 90s.

    When I started working on Spring Awakening and started looking at what was going on on Broadway and in the West End...it's amazing because people don't look at shows like Mamma Mia! or Wicked, or Jersey Boys and realize that these are franchises that make billions of dollars. We think of musical theater as the red-headed stepchild of the entertainment industry, but it's actually an incredibly vital medium. That's only grown over the past ten or fifteen years. It's just natural that talented people from the 'normal' side of the music business would come in and want to start working in this medium because it's such a powerful form."

    American Psycho is playing now on Broadway, and the soundtrack is available on iTunes here.

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