How Duncan Sheik Reinvented Himself From Radio Hits To “American Psycho: The Musical”

With last month’s premiere of American Psycho: The Musical, Duncan Sheik has completed the transition that began with Spring Awakening.


American Psycho has lived many different lives over the years. It started as an “unfilmable” Bret Easton Ellis novel in 1991, before proving its indisputable filmability nine years later, only to be resurrected in London as a musical in 2013, before arriving in perhaps its final form as a re-Americanized Broadway show recently. One of the key people responsible for the last two permutations, though, may have undergone even more reinventions in his life than Patrick Bateman.


When Duncan Sheik first start writing music for the theater, it resulted in several critics having to clarify, “yes, that Duncan Sheik.” Casual fans remembered Sheik mainly for his breezy hit song, “Barely Breathing,” an inescapable staple of mid-90s rock and pop radio. Devotees, however, were likely less surprised when the creatively restless multi-instrumentalist emerged as the architect behind the Tony Award-winning soundscapes of 2006’s Spring Awakening. It was a natural progression for a musician who is constantly flipping the script, whether adding a string section to the sonic palette of his sophomore album, experimenting with scoring films, or the seven-year journey to stage Spring Awakening. The only constant in Sheik’s career has been change, and so of course with American Psycho: The Musical, he has not only embraced a new sound–one indebted to ’80s Chicago house music and New Order–but also stepped into the role of a Broadway lyricist for the first time.

As the play continues its run, Co.Create spoke with Sheik about how he arrived at American Psycho‘s sound, how he fled from early success, and the many musical transitions in between.

Initial Inspiration, 1980s

“I’ve been a guitar player since I was a little kid, and I got my first synthesizer when I was 12 in 1982 and started to make electronic pop music,” Sheik says. “While I was at Brown [University], I was still making music with a lot of synthesizers and drum machines, but I’d begun this transition into using more organic instruments and acoustic guitars and then real drums and string arrangements. At that point, I was really heavily influenced by two artists in particular, this band Talk Talk, which kind of made the transition from being a synth pop band to being a much more avant garde, organic music touchstone. And then David Sylvian, who again had come from the band Japan, which was very synthy, and he started working with a lot of great jazz musicians. I was also listening to a lot of Nick Drake. Those were the things that mostly influenced my first three records.”

The Downside of Early Success, 1996

“’Barely Breathing’ came out and my first record sold a lot of copies, and I was excited about that, but I also felt like I had been put in this top 40 category with a lot of bands and artists that I personally didn’t feel a lot of kinship with. The bands I was listening to at the time—Jeff Buckley and Bjork and Radiohead—were not top 40 artists, even though they were really successful. So in a way I was kind of trying to stiff-arm that categorization of myself, of being someone who makes pop music.”

A Theatrical Awakening, 1999-2006

“I was pulled into theater by this playwright, Steven Sater,” Sheik says. “We got to talking one day about what he was working on and my frustrations with what was going on in the music business. This would have been in 1999. He had lyrics for his play, but he asked if I wanted to write some music for it. I read the play, and it was really great, so I wrote this folk song and recorded it and gave it to him, and he was really happy. Steven at that point was a total workaholic, so he just started faxing me lyrics and within a matter of a couple months he had faxed me 40 lyrics. And that set of material became my third album, Phantom Moon.”

“But while we were writing and recording that, he gave me a copy of Spring Awakening, the translation of the original play, which was written in 1891, and he asked if I wanted to maybe create a musical adaptation of it. And I said ‘Steven, I really don’t like musicals.’ But he convinced me that we should talk about it. So I did read the play. It’s very racy and eccentric and the first German expressionist play, and I said I’d be interested in working on it. But I warned Steven up front, I wasn’t gonna be writing music in the style of what was on Broadway in those days. It’s gonna be music that’s aesthetically closer to what I’m interested in. If you listen to my records, it’s gonna be more in that universe.”


Shifting the Show Tune Paradigm

“In a way, it was my frustration with what was going on in the normal music business that made me want to try something in a different medium,” Sheik says. “And at the same time I went to a bunch of shows with Steven, and I kinda thought, ‘Why is nobody creating a piece of musical theater where the music is stylistically relevant to what people outside of the theater world listen to?’ As well crafted as this music is, it is kind of a small subset of what an audience listens to. I was interested in doing things that were a combination of folk and rock and 20th century classical and electronic music. So I thought, what if you made a musical theater record that wouldn’t sound out of place on the iPods of people who just listened to rock music or indie rock music or whatever. That was my initial idea and hope of how Spring Awakening would turn out.”

Becoming a Broadway Lyricist, 2011

“The first thing I wrote lyrics for was Whisper House, which was a show that I did at the Old Globe in San Diego in 2010, but American Psycho is the first show on Broadway where I’m the lyricist,” Sheik says. “When I’ve been working with Steven Sater, he’s basically dealing with all of the words—so, all the book, all the lyrics—and he would generally just send them to me to set to music. American Psycho was different because obviously I’m the lyricist and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is writing the book. Around the time he was writing the book, though, Roberto was very in demand and working on several TV shows. So he wrote a first act and then I wrote some songs to work with it. And then basically we just had a conversation and we talked about the second act. And I wrote six or seven songs for the second act and he wrote the book around that. So we kind of piggy-backed on each other. I was used to somebody just doing that heavy lifting of whatever the lyrics were supposed to do. In this case, I was asking Robert and Rupert Goold, our director, for guidance in terms of what you want this song to achieve from this character. But once I had a good grasp of the story that Roberto was trying to tell and that Rupert was trying to direct, it became much easier to write the lyrics.”

Reconciling Rock Songwriting Instincts With Musical Theater

“Sometimes a song is moving the story forward and sometimes it’s purely thematic,” Sheik says. “I will be the first to say I’m very naughty in terms of breaking that rule of moving the story forward. Coming from the rock world, I just want a song to sound cool and I want the lyrics to be funny or be moving in some way or deepen that character in some way. I don’t feel like it’s my job to do the storytelling. But of course, in some ways, it is. So it’s just finding that balance of having it still feel like a pop song that can stand on its own but also making sure that the audience is not sitting there, waiting for the next scene to happen.”

Pivoting Away Musically Again

“I’d already done the Broadway musical with electric guitars and drums and indie rock aesthetics. So I thought about the era American Psycho is set in and thought, what if you did a Broadway musical where the band was like Krafwerk or Depeche Mode?” Sheik says. “And at the risk of saying something really obvious, EDM has become popular music. I mean, that’s really what pop music is. And it’s been that way in the U.K. for 25 years but now. It has really caught on in the States. So I thought what if we tried to do something that was connected to the early progenitors of EDM, house music from Chicago and techno music from Detroit in the late ’80s, which is what they were playing in clubs in New York City at that time. And so it allowed me to pull some of that gear out of my closet and get back into that headspace of when I was sneaking into those clubs as an 19-year-old during that era.”

A Transatlantic Shift, 2016

“We had gotten a lot of feedback from London–most of it very positive–but I think there was a sense from the audience that they felt like we were afraid of it being too bloody and overtly misogynist, like we were celebrating those values, which we certainly are not,” Sheik says. “But I think you’re doing a disservice to the property if you don’t go there in some way and in some intense way. So I think bringing the show to America gave us permission to be a little more visceral in terms of what happens on stage and maybe not so polite and not so worried about people’s tender feelings. And let them have an experience of the story because that’s frankly what’s really powerful about it. It is meant to be a really entertaining show, but on another level it is definitely a critique of a certain worldview, the psychopathy that comes when you are so deeply inside a certain ethos. I do think there is a great side to capitalism and there is a not-so-great side to capitalism. And I think the show is certainly about that on some level.”