Who Could Ask for Anything More?
Actor Max von Essen: "This has been my dream for a long time."
TAKE A MOMENT to imagine that you’re standing on a Broadway stage. You’re in an immaculately tailored tux, top hat in one hand, a cane in the other. Your tap shoes are laced up and you’re treading the boards with a company of top-of-their-game dancers who fluidly sway to the Gershwin tune you’re crooning. Such a rhapsody seems the stuff of dreams, but in the effusively romantic landscape of the musical, An American In Paris, this is very much a reality.
As the confused yet loveably earnest Henri Baurel, actor Max von Essen lives out that fantasy night after magical night. His is a character full of inner-dissension: one part wallflower, one part stage-bound Dapper Dan. And audiences are eating him up.
That said, the Long Island-raised Von Essen has taken none of this for granted, even as the nominations, raves and accolades (including a Tony nom for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical) have flooded in.
“There’s not a moment when any of it is lost on me at all,” he says.
An American In Paris, directed and choreographed by master choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, has hit all the right notes, pulling in four Tony Awards (from a staggering total of twelve nominations), as well as hoards of people, hungrily filing in to New York’s Palace Theatre.
Michael Raver: You were originally auditioning to play another role in this piece. Can you talk about that journey from one part to the one you’re now playing?
MAX VON ESSEN: The first time I was invited to audition, it was for the role of Adam, the composer. At that time there wasn’t even a full script yet. It was just a treatment and I remember reading it and weeping. A musical of all Gershwin…the few pages of dialogue they had for me, I wasn’t really connecting to it. But the director/choreographer asked me if I tap dance. I’d never had a pair of tap shoes on in my life. Also around that time I had started to get to know Chris a bit socially and he saw me in Evita. He brought me in for a dance call and even when I was failing during it, I had a smile on my face. Somehow, he invited me back to audition for Henri and cast me.
MR: Was there a moment during the dance call that you thought you’d blown it?
MV: I was really upset because I fell in love with the show from the first time I read the treatment. I thought after that dance call that it was over. But having him see me in Evita, he saw that I could clearly do something, even though I didn’t have it in the audition room. This is like a lifetime of work and dreams all wrapped up in one show. The Gershwins have always been extremely important to my musical education. I would sit in elementary school and site-read through Gershwin songs. I became emotionally attached to the show very quickly and I’m not even being hyperbolic about it. I was in LA auditioning when the call came and I started crying. Somehow I got it.
MR: The Tony Awards just came and went. A milestone, yes?
MV: This is my sixth Broadway show and my first time originating a role in a show that’s done well. The show itself has a lot of meaning for me, growing up as a New Yorker and going to see Broadway show. This has been my dream for a long time. I’m super proud of what I’ve done, but the ‘extras,’ the awards, the attention and things like that haven’t really happened for me, ever. So when all of this happened and I was getting a nice response from people, it was a gift. I may have lost, but I still feel like I won.
MR: How do you reconcile the outward acknowledgment with what you actually have to do on stage every night?
MV: It’s nice to have the approval and the acknowledgement of the industry. It hasn’t changed how I approach my work. They’re separate things. Ultimately its about showing up and doing my best. Every night I imagine that there’s one ten-year-old Max Von Essen in the audience that I can connect with and then that’s it. I’m there and nothing’s changed.
MR: There’s an idea in the piece about how artists are supposed to see more and understand more. How do you think that works for actors specifically?
MV: People in the arts have to do so much self-reflection. As actors, it informs what we do. We have this ‘other sense’ of other people’s struggles and desires. We’re perhaps more aware and perceptive, I suppose.
Dancers Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild in An American in Paris; music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon
MR: There are a few artists working on An American in Paris who come exclusively from a dance background. Was rehearsing and developing this piece different in any way because of that?
MV: Everyone was doing something out of their comfort zone. I was amazed at the focus of the dancer’s world. Their quiet respect was amazing. In the theatrical world, we’re a bit more rowdy. All of the dancers were sitting in a huge semi-circle in the corners of the rehearsal room, waiting for the second that Chris would need them for something. They were silent, as though this was a religion to them. But as they spent time with the actors, they began to relax into collaborating with us. And we learned from their kind of discipline. It was a new focus for all of us. We leaned on each other, took our time in this process and it made for something beautiful. I know I’ll never have an experience like this again.
MR: What do you ideally want from a director?
MV: I like to be challenged. I like to be given ideas and for it to be a real collaboration. Some people are working on a level where they need to be set free and can direct themselves. I’m not that.
MR: Do you recall the first moment where you knew you could sing?
MV: I actually knew I could sing when I was very young. I had a good voice before I went through puberty. I would be in my bedroom wailing to a Patti LaBelle song and my family started congregating on the lawn outside, listening. But then I went through years where I thought I couldn’t. I knew I wanted it badly though, and started taking voice lessons all through high school. I wanted to be great so I worked my butt off for a long time. I created my voice, manufactured it.
MR: Meaning you didn’t wake up one day with a finessed voice?
MV: Right. I would lose my voice easily, not have the technique I needed. It took some time and a lot of work to get beyond that. I doubled majored in college in vocal performance. It’s only been in the last five years or so where I felt like I could listen to a recording of my own voice and enjoy it.
MR: Tell me about Henri.
MV: Oh, I’ve fallen in love with this character. He’s the only son of a powerful yet very conservative family. He’s torn because he’s expected to take on his family’s business and marry this young girl, yet he’s confused without even knowing it, regarding his sexuality. He has such a strong desire to perform. I share a lot with him because I grew up without a lot of arts around me. But I asked for piano lessons, I asked for acting classes. It truly came from within and my parents always supported it, though they expected me to eventually go and have a ‘reasonable’ career. I love Henri because he is me.
An American in Paris, which includes the songs "I Got Rhythm” and “'S Wonderful," is currently in performance at The Palace Theatre in New York. For more information or to purchase tickets, go here.
Five Questions with Max von Essen
Q: Rehearsal or performance?
Q: Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams?
A: Tennessee Williams
Q: Essential dressing room accessory?
A: Speakers so I can play music.
Q: Role you’ve played that changed your approach to acting?
A: Giorgio in Passion
Q: Role you haven’t played but are champing at the bit for?
A: Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman
Michael Raver is an actor and playwright. He’s performed classical theatrical roles at Lincoln Center, The Pearl Theatre Company and Tony Randall’s National Actor’s Theatre, as well as regional theaters across the country. As a playwright, his work has been presented by The Martha Graham Dance Company, The Actors Company Theater, The Pearl Theatre Company, Bedlam, Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Playhouse on Park, The Bridge Street Theater, and Sonnet Repertory Theatre. He has served as a judge of the Ferro Grumley Award for LGBT fiction and regularly contributes cultural arts journalism for Classical TV.
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