Not a Common Man: Duncan Sheik and the Crafting of an American (and London) Pyscho
After winning a Tony for his work on Spring Awakening, pop craftsman Sheik now tackles bringing American Psycho to the stage.
Singing killers are nothing new to the stage, from the murderous anti hero in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, to the infamous real life characters of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, and even the merry murderesses of Chicago, where there's a killing, there's always been someone willing to write a song about it.
But few of the famous musicals about murder, have featured a character as devilishly seductive as the amoral Patrick Bateman of American Psycho, an '80s yuppie who divides his time between looking after his impressive physique, bedding as many women as he can, collecting and discussing music, and killing people in between. After first appearing in Bret Easton Ellis' 1991 novel, Bateman was famously brought to the screen in Mary Harron's 2000 film, which saw Christian Bale give the greatest performance of his career; but perhaps few people thought the sight of a naked Bateman, covered in blood, axe in hand, would make for an ideal night at the theatre.
Enter Duncan Sheik, who fresh off his success in the Tony-winning Spring Awakening took on the enterprise of writing music and lyrics to a show about Bateman (featuring a book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa). While the themes of the plot are all about sleek surfaces, Sheik dives deep into his characters to find a beating heart that finds a commonality between money-driven America in the 19'80s and angsty teenagers in late 19th century Germany, all of whom were lost and tried their best to reclaim their souls in their corresponding eras.
For Psycho, Sheik has left behind the guitar driven sound of Spring to come up with a score that sounds like a long lost masterpiece of the '80s, all thumping beats and lush synths to represent the restlessness of Reagan-era America. The show first opened in London in 2013 starring Matt Smith as Bateman (talk about perverse casting), and in the spring of 2016 the Original London Recording made its debut, just in time for the opening of the Broadway production starring Benjamin Walker as the title killer (Walker had played Bateman in a workshop dating all the way back to 2011).
During this time, the very busy Sheik also put out his first album of new material in almost a decade, the thrilling Legerdemain, which saw him explore electronica through an indie-rock filter. He also has had his hand in other projects including a musical called Noir (which also deals with murder) which was previewed at the National Alliance of Musical Theatre festival in the fall of 2015. We spoke with Sheik during a crucial week in which the London Psycho Cast recording was being released, as the American production began previews.
* * *
How did "Selling Out" from Legerdemain end up in the Broadway production of American Psycho?
I know it's a little confusing. It's the first track in Legerdemain and when I first recorded it I sent it to Rupert Goold and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, and said "Do you think there's a version of this song that could work in American Psycho?" And they both got really excited about it. We actually did kind of a new version of it with an altered lyric that's more specifically meant for Patrick Bateman. It's the first opening number when you see Patrick Bateman's world in the show, but the song indeed wasn't in the London show, it only exists as a bonus track in the cast recording.
Legerdemain in a way is a marriage of your synth-infused Psycho and your more indie-rockish side from Spring Awakening ...
Yes, I definitely saw the record as a battery, one side has a positive charge and the other has a negative charge, but you need both sides to make the whole thing work.
People expect musicals to be campy and kitschy, but American Psycho is nothing if not a sleek tragedy. The characters in the show are terrible people, but as a writer you probably can't just write everyone as assholes, so how do you enter these characters and find their humanity?
[laughs] Yes, I think there is a version of American Psycho that one might make that is very campy and kitschy, over the top and ridiculous, but I wasn't particularly interested in doing that, and that's really why I wanted to get Rupert Goold involved from the get go, I knew he had this more Kubrickian sensibility, and he can do some things that are humorous, witty and clever, but there's a dark humor there, it's not silly. Rupert is a serious, incredibly smart guy, so I knew the material would be handled in a very unique way, and not the kind of usual "evening light entertainment" musical theatre some people might expect.
You've commented before that you have no interest in infusing your music with your spiritual beliefs, but listening to "Common Man" where Patrick sings "I'm needing something more, every pleasure is a bore," and I'm curious, do you wish enlightenment for Patrick?
[laughs] I definitely think that is a very Buddhist song in a certain way, and I have had those sort of moments in my life when everything was going perfectly, I maybe had a lot of money in the bank, and I should have been the happiest person in the world, but when you get in that zone you're just always looking for something more intense, and more pleasurable. It's a crazy hamster wheel where you're never going to be satisfied. So I feel in my very small way I had an understanding of Patrick Bateman, just from the handful of moments in my own life when I've gotten too big for my britches.
I love '80s music, and again, the '80s are a decade that had its music being accused of being too shallow. So two questions based on that, first, even though American Psycho isn't a jukebox musical you use cues and samples from some famous '80s recordings, was it easy to choose which ones to use?
There's so much music in the book, Patrick references so many bands and artists that he's into, he's sort of an armchair music critic himself, with kind of dubious taste [laughs], so I felt it would be good and necessary to have Phil Collins there, and Huey Lewis ... but then I also wanted the music to reflect a little bit more my own taste, so there's Tears for Fears and New Order as well, and also I wanted to use those things in a way where they felt different from the rest of the score, so for the most part they happen in these big a cappella numbers, in particular "True Faith" and "In the Air Tonight", so they're fairly distinct from the other parts of the score which are kind of nominally all electronic music. It's fun finding ways of reimagining them and reinventing them for this piece, and to see what different resonance they could take on as chorale pieces.
Which is what I wanted to bring up next, I never knew Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" could sound almost spiritual ...
I know, it's a really cool arrangement, Jason Hart did that particular arrangement, and David Shrubsole did the other vocal arrangements. I'm very lucky to have these talented guys to work with.
In 2012 you went on the Sunset Sessions Tour to go along with your Covers 80's album, how did that inform Psycho?
I kind of started making music in the early '80s, I got my first synthesizers and drum machines in 1984, and my first four track recorder in 1985, I'm kind of an Anglophile in my musical tastes, so I was listening to a lot of English bands who were using technology to make pop music, in what I thought was a really fresh way. There's a lot of bad throwaway pop music from the '80s, but there's a lot of incredibly cool music from that decade too, that's maybe not as well known. I tried to unearth some of that stuff in Covers 80's, but I think you always in some way go back to the music that first inspired you to make music. That's the most poignant stuff, so I still listen to Depeche Mode and Talk Talk all the time, and Japan ... and I probably always will. That stuff is in my blood.
Speaking of references, in "Cards" there's mentions of Willy Loman, Les Miserables, and Phantom of the Opera which also makes Psycho like an Easter egg hunt of theatre references ...
Yeah, there's all these great references throughout the book that we got to play with, and Roberto the book writer plays with. There are a lot of references in the book to Donald Trump which become very powerful these days too [laughs] hopefully the timing for the show is right.
Spring Awakening and American Psycho are both pieces that take place near the end of their respective centuries. They're both about the same horny people, talking about the same fears, and I'm curious, in your research, did you find any interesting elements about the ways in which people approach ends of centuries?
Yeah, the fin-de-siecle in Germany was an incredibly weird place, because there was all this stuff going on, on the one side it was very bourgeoisie, and Lutheran and conservative, but on the other hand you had women who were supposedly hysterical, going to the doctors and they would stimulate them to orgasm as a cure, you also had nudist colonies, the beginning of psychoanalysis, and the opening up of ideas, and the beginning of Marxism and all these ways of thinking about economics. It's a completely fascinating and strange time in European history, and I won't say there is an analogy, but there is a huge shift in terms of what happens in Western culture at the end of the 20th century, which is the beginning of the digital age and the information age and how that affects economics and our relationships to people in the social realm. These were both periods of huge upheaval really.
Yeah, I had this moment listening to "Hardbody" where I thought these were probably the great grandkids of the people in Spring Awakening!
[laughs] Yeah, precisely.
How did the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening help you fund the cast recording of American Psycho?
I definitely was able to pay the bills for it thanks to that production, which was nice. I was able to make the record myself with the producers of the show, on our own dime, since that time we got a proper record deal for it, but it was a labor of love in the first place. It was incredibly difficult to get the English cast recorded because when we finished that show in London, they all went to their very busy and varied careers, so it took like a year and a half to get everybody on tape.
Let me ask you a Woody Allen-esque existential sort of thing; you first started doing records which by their very nature will always sound the same when people play them, but every theatrical performance sounds different, so is the idea of a cast recording, an attempt to capture lightning in a bottle?
That's a great question, because interestingly the London Cast Recording is unabashedly different from the actual performance of the London show. Because I recorded it over the course of a year and a half, there were all these changes that were made both to the music and the performances themselves. Things just happen differently in a recording studio, than they do in a theater space. I'm not terribly interested in slavishly recreating the performance that you see onstage, I really just wanna make a cool record that sounds really good and hopefully represents the show to the extent that it needs to. But listening to a record and seeing the piece onstage, are completely different experiences, so I don't think they need to mirror each other.
That being said, I love the fact that when you go to the theater, every night there are all these little differences in the performance, the sound and your experience of the show. It's never stagnant, it's a living, breathing experience, and I find that to be very refreshing, but I have this old fashioned mentality when it comes to records and how they should just sound as best as they can possibly sound, no matter if it's reflective of the show or not.
Do you discover different things about your work when you hear Matt Smith and Benjamin Walker both taking on Patrick Bateman?
Ben and Matt are very different actors, they have very different personalities, and they made very different Patrick Batemans. There are things that I completely love about Matt's performance and his singing, he's not a trained singer, but I loved his attitude and his approach. There's things about Ben and his incredibly charm and intelligence that he's brought to developing the character that are great. They're different evocations of the character, but Patrick Bateman is a very multifarious avatar of a lot of things that are going on in contemporary culture, so it makes sense that you could have different people playing him, and they're different versions, but they're still effective as this strange kind of antihuman that Patrick is.
Please tell me you're still working on a musical of Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice...
Yes! It's in its very early days, but that's such a great classic movie, and I have some really cool collaborators on that piece. I'm looking forward to having a moment of freedom and clarity where I can really jump into that.