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'American Psycho,' 'A Time to Kill' go from page to stage

The cast of "A Time to Kill," which opens on Sept. 28 on Broadway.

"American Psycho" is many things: A novel by Bret Easton Ellis, a film starring Christian Bale, a story about a psychotic Wall Street playboy named Patrick Bateman who has an obsessive attachment to his personal possessions and a murderous approach to his dating life. It’s also a musical.

Or rather, it will be in London, this November. The brainchild of musician Duncan Sheik (who wrote the music and lyrics) and writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (who penned the book, and is best known for his work on Fox's "Glee"), “American Psycho” is “absolutely not campy,” Aguirre-Sacasa promised TODAY. “It is not a sendup or a spoof. It is very dark.”

Movies-turned-musicals are a dime a dozen these days (“Once,” “The Lion King,” just to name two) but it’s less often that a serious book becomes a serious play or musical. Yet “Psycho” isn’t alone: Another American novel is getting a big roll-out starting Sept. 28. John Grisham's "A Time to Kill," written by Rupert Holmes (yes, the guy behind “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”), is set to open on Broadway.

Neither adaptation was easy to make, however: The hack-and-slash nature of turning a book into a play involves first passionately feeling committed to the novel, then almost ignoring it entirely. Notes Holmes, novels contain multitudes: “A novel can do anything it wants,” he said. “It can span 50 years and jump ahead 20 years instantly, there’s no reason not to have a cast of thousands if you so wish it.”

What both Aguirre-Sacasa and Holmes had to do, separately, was find the play-within-the-novel. In Holmes’ case, he distilled Grisham’s characters (he suggests there are “over 100” in the novel with “200 more who are referenced”) into a courtroom drama, which he says is a “natural vehicle for the stage.”

Aguirre-Sacasa also worked with a liberal paintbrush. After determining who his favorite characters and scenes were in “American Psycho,” he also had to put the story through the “filter of what would work best in a musical,” he said. “What works great in a musical? A love story.”

So “American Psycho” became about Bateman and his “unrequited love story with his secretary.” It’s not a plot point that’s alien to the novel, but in the musical it takes on a much greater importance, as does a trip Bateman takes to the Hamptons. In the book, it’s a page. In the musical, it’s a set piece.

“You have to condense the book, which is a 500-page novel, into two and a half hours of stage time,” said Aguirre-Sacasa. “It’s about finding the narrative spine that will carry you though an evening, and tell a story that’s satisfying.

That approach worked for the long-running “Wicked," a musical adapted from Gregory Maguire’s novel. Winnie Holzman was nominated for a Tony for writing the adaptation, and says they had to take the original novel with a grain of salt. 

“Gregory has this brilliant premise, that we don’t know the true story of what happened in Oz,” she said. “We took that premise and asked what would be the show we’d like to see? So we didn’t use the novel as a bible. It’s got to be a new thing.”

Holmes says that relying too much on the source material or the author him or herself can lead to disaster. “It’s almost impossible for an author to let go,” he said. “It gets unmanageable, and you end up creating a highlight reel. It’s as satisfying a form of writing as watching a movie trailer.”

“Time” has Grisham’s blessing, if not direct involvement; “American Psycho” has Ellis'. But anyone opting to spend an evening “reading” a novel from the stage of a theater should consider themselves warned: What they’re watching is only inspired by the original — and is, as Holzman puts it — a “new thing.”

“You’ve got to accept that you’re not going to be able to put everything in a book into the play,” said Holmes. “If you try, you’re going to end up with a medley of souvenirs — a scrapbook. Nobody wants to go see that.”