BWW Interview: Max Von Essen on the National FALSETTOS Tour, His Debut Album, and More!
The Tony Award-winning Falsettos is on the move after its phenomenally successful Broadway revival. After winning two Tonys in its original run, it was nominated for five more in 2017, including Best Revival of a Musical. Leading the talented pack is Max von Essen as Marvin, the married dad turned gay man who learns to navigate his new roles and relationships. Von Essen is, perhaps, best known for his Tony-nominated role as Henri Baurel in An American in Paris. He is also a successful film actor and solo recording artist. Fresh off of a run on Broadway as Greb Vaganov in Anastasia, he agreed to speak with BroadwayWorld Sacramento about his upcoming album release, past roles, and what we can expect from Falsettos.
Welcome back to Sacramento! You are an alumnus of Broadway at Music Circus, which is a wonderful summer tradition for our community. Do you feel that working in the round is much different from performing on a traditional stage? Since you've performed in Jesus Christ Superstar on both types of stages, what did you find to be the advantages/disadvantages of each for that particular show?
Oh, I love performing in the round. It's completely different but wonderful. You have an even closer relationship with the audience because everywhere you look, you are connected to them. You see everyone's faces and they just feel more present than in a large proscenium style theater. I wouldn't say there are disadvantages to either, only different advantages. There is something truly magical about performing at the Music Circus and I really hope I can get back there soon!
I suppose so. I mean, it's certainly hard to measure if what I learned has advanced my career, but I certainly think I've become a stronger performer and member of each cast I join. For instance, we all know Liza is known for belting out a signature song, but it was when she'd stand center stage and sing a simpler song or a more story driven song and I'd sit in the wings entranced. It was thrilling to watch her, to witness her simplicity and watch her eyes. You were pulled in, and I'd like to think I learned from that. And Michael, well what can I say? The man is hilarious, naughty, brilliant and extremely talented. I enjoyed simply watching him joke around like an eternal school boy. He also always behaved like an equal, not like a star, and remained extremely positive. It's no secret that the show wasn't a success, but he never showed his frustration, at least not to the cast, that's for sure.
You also have an impressive screen resume. Are you looking to do more of that? Which do you prefer-stage or screen?
Oh, I'll always love the stage. There just isn't anything like performing live in front of an audience and responding to that energy. It's an instant relationship and a give and take that is thrilling. But yes, I'd love to do more film and television. I just want to do as much as I can, honestly. Musicals, plays, television, film, concerts, recordings etc... It helps keep me on my toes and I never get bored.
That must have been incredibly exciting to originate the role of Henri Baurel in An American in Paris (and receive a Tony nomination!) on Broadway. Is there a different energy when you are the first person to bring a character to life?
Yes, I think there is! I mean, obviously our production was inspired by the film, and Henri was played by the well known French singer, Georges Guétary, but the stage version was unique and I really felt like the role was mine to create. It's a thrilling feeling. Also, in An American in Paris, there were a lot of people involved who were all stepping out of their comfort zones. Ballet dancers who had never done theater, musical theater performers who had to step up their ballet skills, a choreographer who had never directed before and people like me, who certainly didn't have to dance at the level of the stars and the ensemble, but what I did have to do was personally very challenging. And even more challenging to have to do it in front of some of the best dancers in New York. And yet, all that created a very safe environment. We were all scared and we all jumped in fearlessly and in constant support of one another. People didn't pretend to have all the answers, actors didn't pretend to know all the dance steps, they asked for help. Dancers didn't pretend to understand every line of dialogue, they asked for help, they worked 10 times as hard. It was one of the greatest theatrical experiences of my life.
How was the show received when you were in Paris developing An American in Paris? Were the locals enthusiastic about bringing the show to the stage?
It was incredible and we were sold out before we even opened. Paris embraced us in a way I have truly never seen. No Broadway show has done their out-of-town tryout in Paris, let alone An American in Paris, so the city seemed very excited, very proud to see their city celebrated. It was a once in a lifetime event that everyone was over the moon about.
An American in Paris is a dance-heavy show. I've read about your early musical training in piano. Did you also take dance while growing up?
Haha, I wish. It's one of my regrets! Every time I have to "dance" in a show, it's a major challenge but always a wonderful feeling when finally I pick up the moves. Thank god I've worked with some VERY patient choreographers. I'll never forget Rob Ashford during Evita when he could see me really struggling. He walked over, patted me on the back and said, "This is why we have six weeks." It took the edge off and I realized that each day I would get better and better and he was right!
You recently left Anastasia on Broadway and now it is touring. Were you ready for new material?
Well, yes, but I really had to push myself to take on something new. I could've stayed at Anastasia for a lot longer, because I loved the role and I loved everyone at the Broadhurst Theater. Truly one of the best places I've ever worked. But I knew that if I booked Falsettos, I'd definitely take it. It's another once in a lifetime opportunity.
You have a debut solo album entitled, "Call Me Old Fashioned: The Broadway Standard," coming out on April 5 and currently available for pre-order on Amazon. What are some songs that we can expect to hear? What drew you to choose selections from old Broadway?
Well, as you might guess from the title, it's a mixture of both classic Broadway and standards from the American Songbook. For years I've wanted to do not only an album but a solo show, as well. I just never knew what I wanted to sing, what music meant the most to me, you know? I always knew I'd want An American in Paris to have an important place, because that show meant so much to me and the Gershwin brothers were the first songwriters I fell in love with as a kid. Well, that was it, the rest is history. Everything just started flowing from there. Broadway songs I've always adored like "Show Me" from My Fair Lady, songs I've sung in the past like "On This Night of a Thousand Stars" from Evita, songs I never had the chance to sing like "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" from Jersey Boys, and standards I've always dreamed of singing like "Fly Me to the Moon" and "I'm Old Fashioned." It all felt so natural, like I was meant to sing these songs, meant to create this album.
We are looking forward to seeing you in Falsettos in Sacramento beginning on March 12. What drew you to audition for the show?
Well, I actually wasn't very familiar with the show other than seeing a wonderful regional production about 10 or so years ago. I loved it, yet still didn't connect to any of the characters as an actor. I connected as a human, I was moved, I just didn't see myself playing any of the roles at that time. Well, fast forward 10 years to the stunning Lincoln Center revival and 10 more years of life under my belt and I saw Marvin and I knew instantly that it would be a dream to play him. I made a mental note that if the show ever toured, I would express interest. Well, I did, I auditioned and it worked out. Thankfully.
Do you see any parallels between your own life and that of your character, Marvin?
Alright, here we go. I've been both excited for this question and terrified. Marvin is complex, he's troubled, he's cruel, he's cold, he can be detached, he's not a great husband, he's certainly not a great father. Overall, that is not me! However, we are all human, aren't we? Have I ever been cruel, cold, detached, angry, unkind to my partner or to another family member? Of course! So it's forced me to really explore those moments, those times in my life I wish I could revisit and be more understanding, more gentle, more loving of myself and those around me. Also, I've struggled with my sexuality my whole life. I'd say it wasn't until about 10 years ago that I finally said, this is me and I love it. Enough already! And if I don't live fully out and proud, then what kind of example am I setting for young kids struggling the way I was? I think I came through my struggles pretty well, but if I had been born maybe 10 or 20 years earlier, if I had less understanding parents, I might also have married a woman, had children, forced myself into a life that wasn't authentically me. Marvin did that and he and those around him paid a price. What's wonderful about Marvin is he grows up. He, in many ways, finally becomes a man, an adult. Just as his son has his bar mitzvah and symbolically becomes a man, Marvin becomes one as well. He takes ownership of his mistakes, he becomes a real father to his child, a friend to his ex-wife and a supporting, loving partner to Whizzer. For all the ugliness I have to explore, I feel like Marvin redeems himself. It's quite a journey to take eight times a week.
What message do you hope that patrons take from this show?
I read something recently and can't recall the exact quote but the idea is that in life, you can't be angry about the obstacles that get in the way, but that the obstacles ARE the way! We learn from them, we are made stronger. Life is imperfect and challenging and filled with setbacks and yet so beautiful. What is more beautiful than family, born or chosen, and human connection? Sharing life and love with one another. You might not see your exact life played out onstage in Falsettos, but you will connect, because we are all human. We laugh, we love, we lose and you'll remember that we are not alone.
Falsettos runs March 12-17 at the Community Center Theater. Tickets start at $31 and are available now at the Wells Fargo Pavilion Box Office, 1419 H Street, Sacramento, or by calling (916) 557-1999; they are also available at the Community Center Theater Box Office, 1301 L Street, Sacramento, or by calling (916) 808-5181, or online at BroadwaySacramento.com.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus