Before we get into what you’re all eagerly anticipating based on the title, let’s get into a few ground rules about what my new column, Broadway Beginner, will be.
For starters, it’s a bit of a misnomer. I’ve heard a few recordings here and there and I’ve seen a few film versions of the most popular shows. I’ve listened to Hamilton enough at this point to join in a sing-along of “My Shot” with the best of them. I know enough to pick up on the basics.
But calling me an expert is absolutely wrong as most of what I know are basics that pretty much anyone could recite from living in American society. But, thanks to Hamilton, I’ve become interested in it as a storytelling medium and as a mode of artistic expression. So, thanks to a library card and the need to give my opinion on things, I’ve decided to plunge in and talk about some of the great (and not-so-great) Broadway musicals of our time.
I’m unfortunately not wealthy nor do I have any secret access routes, so for now, none of these will be based on live shows. Everything I’m reviewing is based on whatever is publicly available. If there is a DVD or cast recording that I can get my hands on, I’ll evaluate based on that. I know it’s not the full picture, but I figure it’s something.
Now, let’s start with
AMERICAN PSYCHO: THE MUSICAL
Book: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Music & Lyrics: Duncan Sheik
Reviewing: The Original London Cast Recording starring Matt Smith
Why start with American Psycho? Not only is it incredibly new, having debuted in 2013 and starting on Broadway on March 24 of this year, but it’s definitely not a classic Broadway production. Voices are small and often very…situationally appropriate and the music is all icy and sparse electronics.
Well, for one, because this is the one that inspired this column. I checked it out from my library and by the end of listening knew that I had to talk about his bizarre thing somewhere.
For second, because American Psycho is actually one of my top 10 films of all time, and if there’s anything that could ease me in, it’s being able to compare the production against a text that I know inside and out and have also had to defend inside and out.
Let’s start there, because understanding how to read American Psycho is honestly pretty crucial to understanding the success or failures of this musical.
Real quick summary for you all: American Psycho is the story of 80s businessman Patrick Bateman (Matt Smith). Bateman is possibly insane, lost in a world that seems to force anonymity on everyone, and begins to indulge his insanity by brutal serial killings.
American Psycho is a high-wire act of satire, perhaps one of the most absolutely difficult to read dark comedies that has ever achieved a modicum of success. It tears into the 80s-era upper-class culture with remarkable viciousness and precision, but must also play as an absolutely straight rendition of that culture. It must also be a horror film that may not be happening within the bounds of that satire, and it must never be clear which mode it’s in.
Functionally, American Psycho is a text that must be absolutely straight-faced while winking heavily. You must never have a question that it is happening while simultaneously not believing a word our narrator says. It’s a comedy so pitch-dark that you can’t see the jokes.
It’s such a difficult act that I don’t think the original Brett Easton Ellis book even got it correct. The book is too in love with its own narrative devices to really deep dive into the possibilities, often stuck in irritating product lists and grotesqueries for the sake of shock.
Mary Harron’s film is, however, I think the version of the American Psycho text that earnestly understands what it needs to do. Partially because it becomes lean enough to shove Ellis’ narrative devices into scenes that are actually moving forward. Partially because the cinematic use of POV becomes far more effective at conveying the “is it happening, is it not” of Bateman’s crimes. Plus, the near flawless lead performance of Christian Bale doesn’t hurt.
Unfortunately, I think Duncan Sheik’s musical leans more towards Ellis’ book than Harron’s film. Now, to be fair, it’s taking a lot of influences from Harron’s film. But it misses the delicate act that American Psycho has to be in the endeavor to switch into a form of storytelling that has to hit the back of the rafters.
Now, let me sing praises before I allow the words of an fanboy to dissect this work. Matt Smith is a really strong stage Bateman, giving him an icy chill that announces him the second he utters his first words and gripping for the whole of the runtime. The integration of the jukebox songs (“True Faith,” “In The Air Tonight”) are really thematically clever and a good way to stick in the 80s culture within the story being told. And as soon as Bateman starts killing, the whole story snaps into focus and it definitely has a stronger second half than its first.
Let’s start with what’s aesthetically wrong and move down.
First, I’m of two minds about the music. I get what it’s doing, and it’s effective on some level. The electronic coldness of the score is a way to represent an emotionless world with an emotionless protagonist. And it definitely feels unique and really does work on some songs (“Not A Common Man” shines in particular, as does closer “This Is Not An Exit”).
But it seems far far too modern for the 80s sheen that American Psycho needs to be as specific as cutting as it is. This is modern chill club music, and to feel of the period, there really needs to be more of a Giorgio Moroder flair to it. Something to signal this as taking place in the 80s. Music in American Psycho was period-signaling, and outside of the jukebox songs, this absolutely isn’t that.
Plus, DAMN do some of these tracks hurt to hear. While second half is largely strong, some of those openers almost had me turning it off right then and there. “Cards” in particular is really infuriating to listen to, and “You Are What You Wear” is obnoxious. I understand what they’re doing, integrating two of the most popular bits of the text into the musical. But they legitimately read like the kind of songs made to parody a Broadway musical.
I don’t mean like textually, like American Psycho might have done to address the oddity of making this story into a Broadway play. I mean that they legitimately feel like something a really low-rent writer’s room would come up with if the joke was “American Psycho is a Broadway musical” in some sketch show late night on Comedy Central. Ugh.
I don’t just rant because I hate those songs. It’s also because they begin to speak to the fundamental problem of American Psycho: The Musical.
American Psycho, believe it or not, is a text of subtlety, of threading a needle through a number of different purposes while looking like the biggest most obvious thing on the planet. In the endeavor to turn it into a musical, Sheik and Aguirre-Sacasa lose a lot of that subtlety.
What must have been played quietly to the camera becomes loud and huge. Barely caught winks must now go for the length of a full song. The business card sequence is great because of the layers that it could be played with, but the musical must play it with a full-throated ridiculousness or it’s gonna be lost. And that’s not what American Psycho is built for.
It also extends to the unfortunate way that Smith must play Patrick Bateman. He’s gotta play him as ridiculous and unreliable, again, so that it will read in this format to the audience. You never have a question that Bateman seems insane, and the rich subtext of disappearance is all lost. It’s the fantasies of an insane person playing out, not the bizarre thread asking whether or not anyone would care if he really was murdering.
What this musical loses is the balance. American Psycho plays at the edges, but American Psycho: The Musical plays straight down the middle. It’s not a story designed for this much drama, and the writers didn’t seem equipped to bring the delicate handiwork required.
This musical simply exists just a little too much.
Next time: FUN HOME! Get ready to cry.