Friends and I went up to NYC to attend a Broadway performance of the long-running revival of Les Miserables in the final week before Alfie Boe departed the show. One of our party, an actress, introduced a discussion about actors who sing as opposed to singers who act (we put Boe in the latter category).
I saw Les Miserables the first time in London more than 30 years ago after its switch from the Barbican—it had received good-to-mixed reviews and was in no way yet the phenomenon it would prove to be, so we scored seats for that night’s performance. Must have been 1985. In those days in London, you could select what you were seeing the morning of the show—except for Cats—I suspect Cats has the ignominious distinction of starting the theater ticket hysteria that led to today’s ridiculous fiasco of getting theater tickets a year in advance. In London, that is. The crush for four-figure tickets to Hamilton on StubHub is pure Americana—like standing ovations for anybody who takes a bow at the curtain call. Premium seating. Ticket lotteries. Historic productions. Every stage production is historic today, just as every performance is now iconic. Hype. Anyway, in those days, my wife and I traveled to London frequently—it was our favorite city—and we spent about 10 New Year’s Eves in a row in London. We would see a big musical play to welcome in the New Year. We did not see Les Mis on New Year’s Eve because we figured (correctly) it would be a downer.
What does Patrick Bateman say about Les Mis in Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, American Psycho, “It’s long, but good”? More to the point, one could ask what doesn’t Patrick Bateman say about Les Mis in American Psycho? I like American Psycho—the novel has some problems, but it is brilliantly conceived and written. When I read the novel the first time, I did not note the frequency of references to Les Miserables. This is not the confession of a cavalier reader—there must be about 50 references to labels, designers, restaurants, and music per page. And of course in 1991, Les Mis was not yet Les Mis. I guess you could say I am a fan of American Psycho the movie; I know I am a fan of the musical. The musical debuted in London in 2013 and after a sell-out limited run, made some changes for a Broadway production. The musical has problems, but it is consistently exciting and frequently compelling to watch. Benjamin Walker who plays Patrick Bateman in the musical is an actor who sings; I say this because he played Brick in a recent Broadway revival of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (another feline-titled play), and Brick is not a singer—but whatever his singer:actor ratio, Walker is quite good on stage. American Psycho the play is also well-directed, as was the movie. Mary Harron did a good job—that reminds me, when I was a kid in high school, I knew her father, actor Donald Harron—but that’s another story.
American Psycho on stage runs like the proverbial well-oiled machine with a take-no-prisoners attitude. The wardrobe of Patrick Bateman never wavers from sartorial perfection. The sleek sets are brutally on-the-mark. And the transparent splash curtain is a provocative and discomforting stage device—a monumental decor. Like the Grand Guignol stage was immersed in stalls, confessionals, and statuary of the Paris chapel of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, American Psycho builds its Gothic world on stage, as well as surrounding the audience in its sound and visual design. While Huey Lewis, “Hip to be Square” throbs, Paul Owen (strangely Paul Owen in the book and musical, Paul Allen in the movie), Patrick Bateman and a chain saw morph behind the gigantic plastic curtain between them and their audience. Is the plastic wall to protect the audience from being splattered by more blood? Or, as in the seating of the Grand Guignol, is the plastic there to prevent the audience—already awash in blood—from becoming over-excited by the gore and violence and rushing the stage?
The show ended its American run June 5, having played a total of 81 performances. Because the novel has a different reputation today than it did at its controversial—even confrontational—publication, and the film adaptation has now attained cult status—I wonder how the musical will be met by audiences and critics two decades from now.