Last year, Alexander Berlage directed his first musical. It was the Australian premiere of the musical adaptation of John Waters’ Cry-Baby and was ultimately a spectacularly successful introduction for Berlage into the world of music theatre directing.
Cry-Baby earned universal critical acclaim and, at the 2018 Sydney Theatre Awards, the production took out Best Musical, Berlage walked away with Best Direction of a Musical, and the show received a further two gongs for Best Stage Design of an Independent Production (Isobel Hudson) and Best Performance by a Female Actor in a Musical (Ashleigh Rubenach).
“We had such a great group of humans and a show that was so irreverent and funny, and I think the response to it was better than I could have ever expected,” Berlage tells Theatre People.
“But I think it’s a testament to what happens when you manage to surround yourself with really interesting ideas, hilarious material, and a bunch of ridiculously talented and lovely people.”
Berlage holds a Bachelor of Dramatic Art (Production) and a Master of Fine Art (Directing) from NIDA. He’s also an award-winning lighting designer with a plethora of credits to his name, including works for Sydney Theatre Company, Griffin Theatre Company, Ensemble Theatre and Sydney Dance Company. His directorial credits include The Shape of the Earth(for Sydney Chamber Opera), Home Invasion (for the Old 505 Theatre) and There will be a climax (at the Old Fitz).
Of course, having begun his foray into music theatre directing with such successful results means expectations are high for Berlage’s next musical venture.
“I feel like we have second album syndrome,” he says. “We have to match that critical and box office success.”
That next production is BB-Arts Entertainment and Two Door Productions’ staging of American Psycho – The Musical, which begins performances at Hayes Theatre Co on 10 May. Based on the 1991 novel by Bret Easton Ellis (which inspired the 2000 film starring Christian Bale), American Psycho is a dark satire about a young, good-looking and successful investment banker on Wall Street, living in New York City in the excessive 1980s. While his daytime pursuits mirror those of his friends and colleagues, Patrick Bateman’s nights are spent committing gruesome murders.
The central themes and their relevance to contemporary audiences made American Psycho the first musical Berlage wanted to direct.
“[It’s an opportunity to] use the form to explore ideas of toxic masculinity, capitalism, privilege and also this idea of existential void that occurs within you when you start to question the way our world works,” he says.
The Australian premiere of American Psycho will be the first production of the musical to be staged outside of London and New York. Rupert Goold directed the world premiere at London’s Almedia Theatre in 2013 and was also at the helm of the Broadway production, which arrived in New York in 2016. The US$8.8 million Broadway production played nightly to audiences in a 1080-seat theatre. Berlage talks about working on a far tighter budget to bring American Psycho to Sydney audiences.
“We basically get to say, ‘How do we strip it down to its bare essentials and really figure out what the piece is saying and how [do we] basically cram it into a 110-seat theatre with much less money’,” he says. “I think it’s such an exciting challenge, but also it forces you to really think about what you need, [in order] to say what you want to say instead of just [using] a million different theatrical devices to solve all the various staging and conceptual hurdles in the piece. You are really forced to come up with something concise and clever.”
Berlage says he can’t wait for audiences to see what set designer Isabel Hudson and costume designer Mason Browne have created for this production.
“I think it really is going to present what you think American Psycho is, from reading the book or from watching the film, but takes it so much further than you ever could take it in a book or a film. And that’s what theatre is – you can really play with ideas of time and space and also, so to speak, fuck with the audience’s perception of what is real and what is not. That’s what really excites me about this production.”
Berlage is also excited to present American Psycho in an intimate auditorium. He recalls feedback he’s received from friends who saw the Broadway production.
“They said that one of the weaknesses of the production was that the venue was too big. They actually felt that it was lost in such a big theatre,” he says. “Automatically, we have that as a benefit, being in such a small space. For the most part, you’re only about one to two metres away from the action at any given point, and I think that’s such an incredible thing about a theatre like the Hayes, is the sweat will literally flick into your face at certain moments – and, potentially, maybe blood!
“You can get those big, sprawling musical numbers – and this show has quite a few of them – but also you can get the intimacy of the psychology of the characters like Patrick Bateman and Jean and all of the other people you’ll meet in this world, and you can really see the incredible work done by these actors.”
While a number of classic 80s hits – from acts that include Tears for Fears, New Order and Huey Lewis and the News – are incorporated into the show, American Psycho’s score includes a substantial number of original songs with music and lyrics by Tony Award winner Duncan Sheik, best known to theatre fans for his work on Spring Awakening.
“Spring Awakening is a musical that I would love to do one day because its music is so beautiful,” Berlage says. “I think it is one of the most incredible pieces of musical theatre of the last 15 years because it is filled with so much heart and such a real human story done in such a poetic way, but also its exploration of these ideas of censoring and intimacy. I think it’s such a stunning work, and so the opportunity to work on a piece with music by Duncan Sheik is incredible.”
Berlage speaks specifically about Sheik’s work on American Psycho.
“The music he has created is so complex … and it really gets to the psychological core of a lot of the characters and the journeys between reality and hyperreality,” he says.
“Today, we were choreographing a number called ‘Cards’. It’s a number where [Patrick Bateman’s colleague] Paul Owen reveals his business card to Patrick. It starts with this almost predator-esque sizing up match between Paul and Patrick, and it ends almost like a Take That boyband number.
“The music is constantly going in these unexpected directions, as the novel does, in both an absurd and also incredibly satirical way. It’s a really exciting and deeply intelligent, funny and beautifully written score … Duncan has this incredible way with music of manipulating you so well. He just has the audience in the palm of his hand.”
Andrew Worboys is the musical director for American Psycho’s Australian premiere.
“Andrew … has created beautiful arrangements based on Duncan’s score,” Berlage says. “Musically, it’s going to be something special, I think almost quite unlike anything you’ve heard at the Hayes before.”
Berlage also heaps praise on his cast, led by Ben Gerrard as Patrick Bateman.
“One of the most important things for us when we were casting the show was … to assemble a really incredible group of performers with a great moral compass and a great sense of the world and politics.
“We’re so lucky to have someone like Ben who is so well grounded but also an incredible human and an incredible actor, accompanied by Shannon Dooley, Erin Clare, Amy Hack, Blake Appelqvist and Loren Hunter and … all these incredible humans … that can help myself and the rest of the team understand this world and present a piece that critiques our wrongdoings instead of just presenting the wrongdoings of the world.
“I think that’s so important with a piece like American Psycho. In the wrong hands, we could so easily just perpetuate and present these ideas, but hopefully with this team, we’re able to present these complex characters and these complex scenarios and ask the audience to come along with us, as we interrogate and critique and laugh at just how fucked up we are.”
The overarching idea Berlage hopes audiences will take away from American Psycho – The Musical at Hayes Theatre Co is the need for more empathy.
“There are so few times in this world where somebody asks ‘How are you going?’ and really means it and really engages on a personal level,” he says. “Here is a world where people are in the fast lane, desperately trying to make their way to the top. So, the one thing I hope the audience takes away from this is that we need to create a more empathetic world … where we engage with one another, we become less self-obsessed, less obsessed with how many [social media] followers we have, less obsessed with how ‘hot’ we look or the thickness of our business card, and more obsessed with how we can, as humanity, just be better. And, to follow that up, at what cost does that come?
“Perhaps to ‘be the best’ needs to be a communal venture, and in order to be the best, we need to be more unified.”
AMERICAN PSYCHO – THE MUSICAL (SEASON DETAILS)
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point
Season: Performances from 10 May 2019
Times: Tues- Fri 7.30pm | Sat 2pm and 7.30pm | Sunday 2pm
Price: $65 Adult, $55 Concession, Previews $60/$50
Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337