Here’s What ‘American Psycho: The Musical’ Has To Say About Society ... And Why It Matters

How a musical based on one of the most controversial novels ever written exposes social problems.

In 1991, Vintage Books published American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, then 26. The novel, set in the 1980s, is narrated in first person by Patrick Bateman, a Manhattan Wall Street executive and serial killer, also 26 years old. 

Vintage picked up the project after Simon & Schuster chose to not release it due to concerns about the novel's graphic depictions of violence, particularly against women. According to the Los Angeles Times, the decision came shortly after Time published an excerpt describing a woman being skinned alive.

Upon its release, the book launched a storm of controversy, with some booksellers refusing to carry it. The late Roger Straus Jr., then chief executive of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, told Entertainment Weekly that, "to say that [American Psycho] has any redeeming social value, or that mainstream film and television contain equally offensive material, is bullshit. The horrors perpetrated on women in that book go far beyond anything that has either been written or depicted. I'm sorry. I just don't see the thing as being defendable."

The novel's violence eventually led to a call for a national boycott of all Vintage and Knopf publications from the National Organization for Women. The Los Angeles Times reported that Tammy Bruce, NOW's Los Angeles chapter president, called it "the most misogynistic communication we have ever come across," and "a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women."

In a 1991 interview with the New York Times, Ellis argued that the violence in the novel served a symbolic purpose, saying that "Bateman's actions and especially his reactions to what he does symbolize, at least to me, how desensitized our culture has become toward violence." 

Whatever the intentions of the novel's critics and detractors, American Psycho became a cult classic. In an interview with Ellis conducted in 2011, Publishers Weekly noted that the book sold more than a million copies in the U.S. alone and had been reprinted 53 times. 

In 2000, 'American Psycho' was adapted for the screen by two women: screenwriter Guinevere Turner and director Mary Harron.

"It seemed to me very clear that there's a difference between a description of misogyny and being misogynist," Harron told The Huffington Post"It seemed to me like he was making fun, like it was an attack on these Wall Street guys. It wasn't endorsing their behavior as great stuff, you know?"

American Psycho's most recent — and perhaps unlikely — incarnation, however, aims to bring audiences back to the spirit of the novel. 

Enter 'American Psycho: The Musical,' which opens this month on Broadway.

Benjamin Walker (as Patrick Bateman) and cast of American Psycho.
Benjamin Walker (as Patrick Bateman) and cast of American Psycho. Courtesy of Jeffrey Richards Associates

Adapted for stage by Tony and Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik and produced by Act 4 Entertainment founder David Johnson, American Psycho: The Musical is heading to Broadway's Schoenfeld Theatre following a successful, sold-out run at London's Almeida Theatre.

The New York show has already caused a minor ripple of controversy in previews due to one scene which, according to the New York Post, left one audience member covered in fake blood. The Post reports that a manager at the theater sent out a memo that read in part, "Last night, a patron came to me to complain about being hit by the stage blood. Not only was her sweater stained, but also her Burberry cashmere scarf and more importantly [she cried when she showed it to me] her leather Louis Vuitton bag. I told her that we will pay for the cleaning of her items."

The irony — most likely unintended — is that Patrick Bateman would have appreciated the attention to detail in the description of the soiled items.

I sat down with producer David Johnson to talk about 'American Psycho: The Musical' and why it matters now more than ever.

Benjamin Walker and Drew Moerlein
Benjamin Walker and Drew Moerlein Courtesy of Jeffrey Richards Associates

"The importance of the novel — and therefore, I think, of the musical — is that, even though it's set [in the '80s], the things that were kind of percolating then and that Bret [Easton Ellis] was talking about are more true now than they were then," said Johnson. "Things that are sort of über-materialistic, sort of funny things, like food being so complicated and so important … but then (also) the other things like the split between the privileged and the non-privileged."

All of this is part of the raison d'être of Act 4 Entertainment, which has also teamed with Matt Damon and Charlize Theron in projects in line with its mission of "creating content that is socially conscious and politically relevant." 

The depiction of privilege in Johnson's production remains close to the novel, with a seductive twist that audiences might not initially notice. While the score hearkens back to the chapters dedicated to music in the book, it also serves as a siren call. "The music adds another dimension," he said. "It's easy and it's fun to listen to. You get into it. You feel yourself enjoying it. It makes you understand and more. You get sucked in." 

In this way, the very consumption of the musical makes the audience complicit in the fait accompli of the social and economic divide. 

An attentive audience will realize that much of what it celebrates comes at a cost. This, says, Johnson, is the reason behind his production company. "We founded Act 4," he says, "with this idea that you can impact the way people feel as well as think about things through art and that you can create change from that."

That idea is just one way that the musical differs from the movie.

Harron's film, which starred Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman and grossed $34 million worldwide against its $7 million budget, interpreted the novel as black comedy. The result was far less graphic and disturbing than the novel, sanitizing Bateman into a caricature of a caricature. Rather than igniting controversy, the film iconized Patrick Bateman as something approaching an aspirational figure, immortalized, as pointed out in a recent New York Times article, in memes, action figures, and perennially popular Halloween costumes. 

But whereas the film recreated and reformed the murderous yuppie to the point where 25 years after Rolling Stone questioned the character's "incredible vocabulary of barbarity and viciousness" in an interview with the author, the same publication would teasingly refer to "lovable psychopath Patrick Bateman." The musical retains the dark psychology of the novel's homicidal narrator. 

Johnson's production explores society's willingness to identify with the amoral, disconnective aspects of Patrick Bateman as part and parcel of social aspiration.

Benjamin Walker
Benjamin Walker Courtesy of Jeffrey Richards Associates

Ellis has defended the novel on numerous occasions, stating that it was intended to be social commentary satirizing the materialism and conspicuous consumption of New York in the '80s. The graphic violence is a logical, if absurd, extension of Bateman's obsession with superficial details and approached with the same emotional detachment. "I was writing about a society in which the surface became the only thing," Ellis told the New York Times in 1991. "Everything was surface — food, clothes — that is what defined people. So I wrote a book that is all surface action: no narrative, no characters to latch onto, flat, endlessly repetitive. I used comedy to get at the absolute banality of the violence of a perverse decade." 

"It's a very complex novel and it's a complex musical," explained Johnson. But within the complexities of the character are opportunities to address the social issues so sharply critiqued by Ellis.

For Johnson, the stage is the perfect vehicle to deliver the sense of interiority necessary to Bateman.

The musical strives to preserve the complexities of the character of Patrick Bateman that couldn't be communicated in the film. "The idea was to make the character as complex in the musical as it is in the novel," said Johnson, adding, "It's easier [in theater] to make things more 'of the mind' than it is in a film. ... so I do think there's a more natural affinity between novel and stage, especially when you're looking at something that is supposed to be a lot about somebody's interior."

In an interview with Oregon Live in 2010, Bret Easton Ellis elaborated on how his experiences of living in Manhattan played a role in the creation of the book. "It initiated because [of] my own isolation and alienation at a point in my life. I was living like Patrick Bateman," he said. "I was slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself, but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself." 

It's that same consumerism that now drives people to view Patrick Bateman as an aspirational figure.

Twenty-five years later, the tedious banality of Bateman's obsessive descriptions in the novel is lost in an era of Instagram, vapid stream-of-consciousness tweets, live media feeds of mass violence, and the rampant narcissism enabled by the internet. If anything, American Psycho was ahead of its time.

"There are aspects of Patrick Bateman that are attractive to a lot of people," Johnson said. "He's handsome, he's fit, he's wealthy, he has a good background. He's smart. He is all of those things. I think people are attracted to that. I think that's kind of the point." 

"The reasons I was drawn to [American Psycho] is that, one, it's this individual message about personal responsibility: don't live a non-purposeful life," Johnson said of his motivation for bringing it to the stage, "and then there's this broader societal message that there's this incredible economic divide in this country."  

Bateman represents a predatory strain of human nature that recognizes nothing but itself. Johnson points out "The way you see it in the musical is that there are a few people who are his peers that he interacts with and then there's everybody else."

It is the existential vacuity so deftly embedded in the novel that Johnson hoped to capture in the musical's presentation of Bateman (played by Benjamin Walker). Discussing the theme of surface that supplants any singular narrative in Ellis' work, Johnson was quick to point out that although American Psycho is about surfaces, that doesn't mean that the novel is by any means superficial. 

"The surface is all about materialism and a certain kind of life," Johnson said. "There are times in the novel — but certainly, more obviously in the musical — where you feel [Patrick Bateman] might not only be questioning it, but that he might go on a different path; that he worries that this doesn't have any meaning, this doesn't have any substance ... and then there's the assistant who kind of fills the non-materialistic role of the nice person of substance, but not of the right pedigree." 

That moment of questioning occurs during Bateman's date with his assistant Jean (Jennifer Damiano) towards the end of the novel. For Bateman, however, it only leads him to the dark truth about his emptiness, expressed in what amounts to an inner monologue that runs parallel to the conversation he has with Jean as he contemplates what a relationship with her might be like after she tells him she is in love with him:

"It did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one's own taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person's love or kindness. ... Surface, surface, surface, was all that anyone found meaning in…this was civilization as I saw it ..."  — American Psycho

The ultimate result of this "non-purposeful life" personified by Bateman is, Johnson says, "success without substance."

Benjamin Walker, Alex Michael Stoll, Dave Thomas Brown, Theo Stockman and Jordan Dean.
Benjamin Walker, Alex Michael Stoll, Dave Thomas Brown, Theo Stockman and Jordan Dean. Courtesy of Jeffrey Richards Associates

Ellis would seem to agree. In a 2016 article inTown & Country, he writes "American Psycho was about what it meant to be a person in a society you disagreed with and what happens when you attempt to accept its values and live with them even if you know they're wrong. Well, insanity creeps in and overwhelms; delusion and anxiety are the focal points."

In the book, these focal points vividly manifest in brief glimpses of recognition in Bateman who senses that something is very off, at one point articulating his feeling of disconnectedness:

"There wasn't a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being — flesh, blood, skin, hair — but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure."
Benjamin Walker, Jennifer Damiano and Alice Ripley
Benjamin Walker, Jennifer Damiano and Alice Ripley Courtesy of Jeffrey Richards Associates

At the end of the day, Johnson hopes that his productions, including American Psycho: The Musical, will inspire as well as entertain audiences.

"The most transformative change comes from people and the public, rather than from government. And if you look at the big shifts [in society] that's been true. I think that should be inspirational," Johnson remarked. 

"Hopefully, you come away thinking, ‘Gee I really enjoyed it, I’m going to tell my friends to go,’ but also thinking, ‘I should make sure my life matters.’"

American Psycho: The Musical opens on April 21.