Over a week ago, "American Psycho: the Musical" packed up and left Broadway after only four months of performances. The musical received mixed reviews during its U.S. run: nearly unanimous praise for its lead, Benjamin Walker, but mostly "meh" responses to all its other elements.
In all fairness to Duncan Sheik, the show's talented composer and lyricist, the best songs in "American Psycho: the Musical" ("Not a Common Man," "Opening (Morning Routine)" "Hardbody/Hardbody Luis - Medley" and "Don't You Want Me?") are fantastic, but the show as a whole will never match "Spring Awakening," his debut musical with Steven Sater—or, for that matter, "Hamilton," Broadway's latest darling. (I believe this contributed to some of the negative comments from critics.) On top of that, the source material makes an odd choice for a musical.
Bret Easton Ellis' writing career didn't start or end with "American Psycho" (it was actually his third published novel) but it made him famous, and most people only know him for it. The deeply controversial novel does not make for pleasant or easy reading, but muscling through the book is worth it. Once you let it settle, Ellis's multilayered satire and amazing social commentary on the high life in late-1980s New York begins to break down, and the themes rise to the top.
Along with conformity and privilege, "American Psycho" explores what scholars call the "ism" family: racism, classism, sexism, ageism, ableism, etc. All of them could be explored in-depth, but I am choosing to focus in on classism, defined as "prejudice against or in favor of people belonging to a particular social class."
Ellis never answers the "Why?" behind Patrick's prejudices and sociopathic predilections—something which makes American Psycho stand out further from its successors, which feel the need to supply every detail of an evil character's backstory. (How to classify Patrick in terms of literary structure could be another whole article. Is he an antihero? Unreliable narrarator? Both?) Based on the information given in the novel, I believe his classist attitude comes from a dangerous cocktail of privilege and entitlement. On top of the innate privilege granted to him as a straight, white, young, fit male in New York high society, our protagonist works at Pierce & Pierce, a Wall Street investment firm "earning a fortune to complement the one he was born with," to quote Ellis. Because he never needed to worry about money—and never will—he does not understand the lives of the middle and lower classes around him, and therefore looks down on them. Something must be wrong with them if they cannot achieve the same lifestyle he takes for granted. As Patrick's fianceé, Evelyn, says "everybody's rich" meaning, everyone who matters.
Palling around with his coworkers doesn't help any. This group of equally entitled and privileged white men and their girlfriends spend more time eating out, drinking and clubbing than working. (During one of these dinners out, the check comes to $475—a total which pleases the group because it's less than they anticipated.) Even though they have six-figure salaries, they still complain that they're not earning enough. Besides spending money as fast as they earn it at New York's most exclusive, expensive restaurants and clubs, another of the group's hobbies is tormenting homeless people—usually by offering them money, and then withdrawing it at the last second. This gets Patrick into trouble once when he sees a young woman with a cup of coffee sitting on a step, and, assuming she's homeless, drops a dollar into her cup, not seeing that it's full. He chooses to give her money because she doesn't look like a typical homeless person, but more like the kind of person Patrick would associate with—because she is.
When separate from the group, Patrick continues this cruelty towards homeless people, but he takes it much farther than his friends do. For them, it's an amusement. For him, it's a vendetta. While his friends see these impoverished street people as a pathetic joke, just there for their entertainment as they pass from an overpriced restaurant to an overpriced and crowded nightclub, Patrick is disgusted by their existence. He doesn't want to laugh at them—he wants to eradicate them.
Even if Patrick does not see the homeless as just something to entertain him, he does see other people that way. One night, Patrick hires a young prostitute (whose real name we never learn; Patrick tells her to answer to "Christie," and labels her with that moniker throughout the rest of her time in the book), and, after sleeping with her, tortures her. Even though the experience scarred her—mentally and physically—Patrick still manages to get her to return multiple times before her death at his hands because of the amount of money he's willing to pay her. Christie is not financially stable enough to refuse the large amounts of cash, even though no amount of money is worth what she has to endure. Bateman continues this pattern with several other women (mostly unnamed), dehumanizing them through torture, dismemberment, and murder. It's almost as if he rationalizes his behavior because these woman are "hired help." But even the upper-class women he knows aren't safe.
For the most part, Patrick manages to keep his psychopathic urges in check when around his peer group. He does kill one colleague out of jealousy, and he attempts to strangle another, but that failure has unintended consequences. When he kills an old ex-girlfriend, it's because he feels threatened, too, since she's dating the head chef at an expensive restaurant he always tries—and fails—to get into. The people he knows are insulated by their wealth and social status. Patrick even admits this before a date: "It could be that she's safe because her wealth, her family's wealth, protects her tonight, or it could be that it's simply my choice."
"American Psycho: the Musical" best encapsulates Patrick's classist attitudes in one moment: through a cover of the Human League's "Don't You Want Me." It tells the story of a man who met a cocktail waitress and turned her into a superstar, and is now offended when she no longer wants to see him, threatening to take her fame away. The original alternates the man's perspective and the woman's, but Sheik's version, eliminates the female perspective. This causes the song to exemplify Patrick's classist views.
Despite its dated cultural references, the book still has a lot to teach 21st-century readers. American Psycho both satirizes American culture and warns against its excesses, including excessively egotisticial and offensive views.