It’s hard to overstate how much American Psycho was loathed in 1991. Even before publication, Brett Easton Ellis’ satirical novel about a homicidal yuppie banker was being called “moronic” and “worthless.” After an outcry from feminists like Gloria Steinem, Simon & Schuster pulled the plug on publication, despite having paid the author a handsome $300,000 advance. When Vintage published it as a paperback, Ellis received death threats. After the novel hit the New York Times best seller list, The Times nonetheless said the book was so offensive, it would be removed from the bestseller list.
Today, 25 years later, American Psycho has sold well over a million copies, and Patrick Bateman, its protagonist, has gained cult status, inspiring clothing lines, action figures, and an intense fandom that ensures it lives on. In 2000, the book was made into a dark, comedic film starring Christian Bale. And just last week, “American Psycho: The Musical” opened on Broadway, featuring lyrics and music by Tony-award winning composer Duncan Sheik (“Spring Awakening”).
“How does it feel? It feels kind of surreal,” Ellis said, in an interview with Fortune. Seeing the musical for the first time was “akin to waking up, turning to your partner, and saying, ‘I just had the weirdest dream,'” he added.
The movie, musical and novel all share the same basic plot. The protagonist is Patrick Bateman, a 26-year-old New York banker living in 1980s Manhattan who idolizes real estate developer, Donald Trump. He and his Wall Street pals spend their days chasing status — designer clothes, exclusive clubs and trendy restaurants. But late at night, Patrick pursues his blood lust. It’s not clear if he actually murders or just fantasizes about it as part of a mental breakdown, but Bateman describes grotesque attacks, such as using a nailgun on one of his victims.
“The notion of a banker as a serial killer is a very suggestive idea for a lot of people,” said Ellis, “but I just think he is something more universal: We all look normal, but behind that surface, there are complicated, dark things going on.”
Writing the book in his 20s, Ellis said he wanted to depict a character who, like him, was alienated and felt trapped in a materialistic society with which he disagreed. “Whether these murders really happened or they’re just explosions in Patrick Bateman’s mind, they reflect his frustration at this fake society, with these fake values,” said Ellis. “He’s really sort of a tragic character.”
It wasn’t until the Hollywood movie came out in 2000, though, that Bateman was widely embraced by the public. When Jesse Singer saw the movie, he went back and read the book and he decided he wanted to turn it into a Broadway musical. “I just saw that with the pairing of music, fashion, food and art it would be entertaining and have a deep connection to where we are as a society now,” he said. In 2013, Singer launched a Kickstarter campaign, raised about $150,000, and used it as “development money.” The production opened in London where it was a hit, before moving to Broadway.
One of the sponsors is the men’s fashion site, Mr Porter, which also has a section of the site devoted to showing men how to dress like Patrick Bateman and his friends.
Ellis has had little involvement in the creation of the musical (or the movie), but he said that if he were writing the novel now, he probably would set in Silicon Valley. Bateman might be “palling around with [Mark] Zuckerberg and dining at the French Laundry,…wearing a Yeezy hoodie and teasing girls on Tinder,” he wrote in an essay in Town and Country.
Still, the story of a banker who reveres Trump, steps over homeless people and is a pretentious foodie has an eerie relevance in 2016. “He seems to be an example of the 1% at its worst in a way,” Ellis acknowledged. “Even though he’s obviously having a nervous breakdown constantly about being in the one percent.”
The Broadway production has gotten some mixed reviews; the New York Times complained it was neither “scary nor sexy.” But if American Psycho ends up touring across America, it shouldn’t surprise anyone. “American Psycho has had a very long history,” Ellis said.