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InDepth InterView: Max von Essen Talks AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, Tony Award Nomination, Paris Vs. NYC & More


Today we are talking to a spectacularly talented triple threat who has made a prominent name for himself on Broadway in numerous notable roles over the last two decades, 2015 Tony Award nominee Max von Essen. Discussing all aspects of his integral role in the celebrated new stage adaptation of classic movie musical AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, von Essen opens up about what the part means to him and his influence on its development from its early roots at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris to its opening on Broadway earlier this year. Additionally, von Essen shares his extreme enthusiasm for receiving a 2015 Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor In A Musical for his performance as Henri in the dynamic and dazzling musical spectacular, while also offering his affection for his fellow nominees in the cast and on the production team. Besides all of that, von Essen offers up stories about how his own life experiences have shaded his complex and moving characterization of his performance and the intrinsic part his own coming out has had in shaping his detailed and thoughtful acting work as well as breaks down the various elements that combine to create one of the most unforgettable showstoppers in a musical positively packed with them, the iconic "Stairway To Paradise". All of that and much, much more in this extensive conversation with one of Broadway's best!

More information on AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is available at the official site here.

Also, check out my career-spanning chat with Max von Essen from 2010, as well, available here.

Stairway To Paradise

PC: "Stairway To Paradise" is such a coup de theatre moment as staged in this production - was FOLLIES an influence? It has echoes of "Loveland" in how it builds and eventually explodes.

MVE: I know that Chris [Wheeldon] kind of lives in his own world, so FOLLIES might not have been a major influence on him in how designed the number and how it plays, but I know that as they developed the character and made changes from the movie in how it was presented that they realized that it might be more interesting for Henri to be portrayed differently. Instead of being an already well-known performer in France, now he is someone whose desire and his dream was to perform onstage. So, they wanted to have this moment where he just flourished and became this incredible performer right before our eyes - and we do it in "Stairway To Paradise". They basically wanted it to be a journey and have it be a number that just builds and builds...

PC: And, boy, does it!

MVE: I know! They worked it all in - Craig Lucas on the book and Rob Fisher and Sam Davis on the arrangement, with Chris guiding it all, it all finally transpired. Obviously, you can imagine how much I love it and love doing it.

PC: Was it always designed as being a total amateur number building to something so elaborate and polished and perfect?

MVE: Yeah, that was the intention. When I did the workshop over a year ago now, it was already arranged like that and had that build - and, truthfully, other than the dance developing and some tweaks to the arrangement, it's been basically exactly as it was then ever since. It was working then and we just sort of tried to fill it out and let it develop and get even richer as we have gone along - Chris would tweak his choreography, trying to enrich it all, but it has all been basically there in that form for over a year, since the workshop.

PC: Your SEX & THE CITY 2 cast-mate Mario Cantone was sitting right next to me at the performance I attended and I was curious if you two spoke about the show, given its themes?

MVE: Oh, my God! Mario ran back to come and talk to me and he was literally tearing up! He was talking about me and my character and how lucky I am to portray this character and this storyline for this guy - you know, a lot of people ask me, "Is he gay?" and I say, "I think he will be, but he's not yet."

PC: What a fascinating differentiation to make.

MVE: I definitely think he is questioning his sexuality. I've had similar experiences, but I try to imagine myself in this different time, going through the war with these conservative parents who fought for the resistance and had this religious upbringing and is expected to take over the family business and to marry this girl - he is trying to do what he is expected to do. And, he has real love for this woman he is with, but he hasn't had life experience yet - he hasn't met that person where it is more than love; that electricity and that click where it is like, "Oh, this is what it is supposed to feel like!"

PC: The ping and pang of true love.

MVE: Exactly. So, I like that he is at this transitional period and this questioning period of his life - this is who he is and he is being who he is supposed to be and I find that so much more interesting to play than anything else. It's been awesome working on that. And, to play someone dealing with these experiences at such a different time and place and imagining what it must have been like for him - with his family; with the war - has made it so interesting for me to play.

PC: It's so rich.

MVE: It really is. And, you know, I didn't want to be this sort of gay cliché or some sort of joke, either, where it's like, "Oh, he's obviously hiding in the closet," or whatever. I didn't want it to be campy at all - I wanted it to be really truthful and try to make the audience ache a little bit for this guy who doesn't know; he just doesn't know yet. And, so, I found that really interesting to play.

PC: Act Two is really your showcase as Henri. As a performer, do you sort of conserve your energy as the show goes along to be able to soar later on as you eventually do?

MVE: [Laughs.] Yes, I guess so - in a way. Honestly, I don't really think about it too much - you just sort of jump on the rollercoaster and the build is so natural that when I get there I am ready. But, I am sort of interspersed throughout Act One and that's when you are introduced to Henri and then in Act Two - you are totally right about this - I basically don't leave the stage. There are a few times when I go to have a costume adjustment or a brief scene off-stage here or there, but I really don't leave the stage until the final ballet in the show. And, I have to say, I just love that!

PC: Why so?

MVE: Well, because I am constantly in it - right in the action. And, it builds so well to that huge number and the fantasy sequence - to start off tentative and frightened after my conversation with the character of Adam and then what I am feeling in having just been made aware that my fiancée is in love with the leading character, Jerry; it just gets so complicated. And, so, everything is just right there for me - I don't have to ever leave the stage and put myself in a mental place to come back on with the right emotional baggage, I just am there; right there. So, I think Act Two is built especially well, particularly for my character, so it's like a train that I just jump on and go with. I love Act Two.

PC: On that note, another major feat accomplished by this show is that it moves so fleetly and swiftly despite its length, even with extensive dance sequences. Are you yourself surprised by how fast it moves along every night?

MVE: Oh, that's really nice to hear, Pat! Honestly, when we first started doing this show I had no idea what the response would be, but I did know that we were all a part of something that is truly unique - and that's rare to be able to say. I mean, I do a lot of musicals and I am always proud of what we do, but this was one that had some really unique challenges.

PC: Such as?

MVE: Well, if the foundation is based in dance, that's one thing, but to take on three ballets, essentially - the opening, the end of Act One and then the final ballet - is a lot of dance; a lot of storytelling through dance and also a lot of time being spent on it. So, with that much dance in the show, that means that there is simply less time for dialogue and verbal storytelling. I think one of the toughest jobs of anyone in this process has been for Craig Lucas - you know, he didn't have the luxury of having a lot of exposition and adding lots of coloring to a scene; he had to be really conservative and precise.

PC: The book is absolutely seamless and moves along so well.

MVE: I am very happy to hear what you're saying about the show moving so swiftly and the book working so well - Craig in particular had a very difficult job because we are doing something so different and so unique. It's nothing like anything that's ever been on Broadway before and certainly nothing like anything on Broadway now.

PC: You can say that again.

MVE: To have as much dance and as many dream sequences and ballets as we have in this show is really wild. It's incredible for me to be a part of this show. I am also so incredibly happy that the response has been so strong and that it is selling so well and getting so many award nominations - that's fantastic for everybody, obviously - but I always knew that I was part of something really unique and something that was going to shift the landscape of musical theatre at this particular moment. It's so nice to be a part of a show that is doing that and at the same time is also a success, as well. It's all coming together really nicely.

PC: Were you familiar with the film before joining the show?

MVE: Yes, I was aware of the Vincente Minnelli film and I had seen it as a child, but I certainly didn't have any specific recollection of it. So, when I was first auditioning for the show - interestingly, for a different character - I quickly watched the film again and that was it. Then, I was asked to come in for Henri a little while later and I was like, "Thank God! This is the character for me!"

PC: A perfect fit, obviously.

MVE: After that, I was cast in the workshop and then we did some readings and I just decided that what we were doing was exactly what Chris and Craig had been saying all along - we were doing something completely different than the film. It was a tribute to the film and obviously had the same basic plot, culminating in the ballet - and they used the bright, powerful imagery in a similar way to the film - so I knew it was going to be a love letter to the film but at the same time be something truly different. So, I tried not to revisit the film after I realized that and committed to it - I wanted to use Chris's guidance and come up with my own unique performance.

PC: So, have you revisited it between Paris and now?

MVE: Yes. A bit after Paris, I decided to watch it again - and I am so glad I did! I mean, it is so beautiful - and, I saw a couple of moments and a couple of scenes that really beautifully parallel our story where they decided to connect it directly to the film; and, I notice a lot of character traits in Georges Guetary's performance that are actually very similar to mine.

PC: Such as?

MVE: Oh, a sense of showmanship and a bright quality to both our voices and things like that. When I was watching that, I just thought, "Oh, this is so fantastic!"

PC: It's fate!

MVE: It really is. I mean, I was giggling in a couple of places, too, where he would add little laughs in his songs. There were so many similarities and little things we both did - I hadn't focused on it, but it just happened organically. So, then, I actually tried to incorporate a bit more of what he did in the film in my own performance once I had seen that - as a sort of a tip of the hat to him and his performance, because he really is so lovely and charming and wonderful. I've purchased some of his recordings since and I actually met his daughter in Paris.

PC: What was that meeting like?

MVE: She came to see the show several times, actually - and she kept calling me dad!

PC: The true sign of approval, no doubt.

MVE: Definitely! She would introduce me to people and say, [French Accent.] "Isn't this wonderful? He is just like dad! He is my dad," and I was like, "Oh, my God!" And, then, she would tell me stories about her father performing on the stage of the Chatelet right where we were and I would just sit there in awe, like, "Oh, my God! I'm performing on the same stage where he performed, doing the stage version of a film he did."

PC: What a meta-narrative!

MVE: Obviously, I am so honored to be filling his shoes - I wasn't as aware of his work before, and, now, I feel honored to be the only other person to play this role besides him in the film. It's so great. So, I am trying to walk the line of having my own performance but also tipping my hat to him, too - after watching the film after having done the show, I just love his performance even more; I love it so much.

PC: How do you compare performing at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris versus at the Palace Theatre on Broadway?

MVE: We were in Paris for two months and we did six weeks of performances there and we have been doing just about as many here now in New York. You know, they have both been like dreams - truly. They have both been incredible experiences for me. I mean, I have done a lot of Broadway shows and this is what my dream was as a kid and I am beyond thrilled to be back. I always fantasized about being just a part of the theatre community, let alone like I am now in the role of a lifetime on Broadway, but I never thought I would be trying out a Broadway show in Paris.

PC: A very unusual trajectory, needless to say.

MVE: It is - it definitely is. So, for me to have that experience and for it to be like this - I mean, it's not like we are over there trying out a revival of GUYS & DOLLS! We are doing AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, in Paris, at the Theatre du Chatelet, and we all already knew at that point that we were coming to Broadway after that, so it was sort of like all of the many facets of this experience were truly too good to be true.

PC: As good as it gets.

MVE: It is - it really is. If someone were to ask me, "What would be a dream theatre experience?" I couldn't even piece this together - I wouldn't even have it in my creative conscious to put this all together in my mind! It's just been, step by step, an absolute dream come true. I mean, when you do interviews you always try to be as positive about the experience as you can be, but for this one I haven't had to reach for things at all - this one has been the most incredible experience thus far in my career, one-hundred percent.

PC: The apotheosis.

MVE: Yeah - from now on, for me, it will be: what I did before AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and what I did after AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. I have never had this great of an experience in a show in New York - I have never gotten this positive of a reaction. It's marking this moment in time for me in a way that I have never had before. It's just remarkable - Paris, New York; it's blowing my mind.

PC: Do you feel a kinship to period roles such as Henri? Obviously, you just did BOARDWALK EMPIRE and excel in period pieces given your debonair style and general savoir faire.

MVE: I agree one-hundred percent, Pat! One-hundred percent. I feel like this role was made for me. And, it's funny that you bring up BOARDWALK EMPIRE because I remember being onset and having the costumes built especially for me and how they did my hair and my make-up and everything and feeling at the time like, "Oh, my God! This feels really right." I feel like it is part of my creative mind or something - it's a perfect fit. Musicals like this with top hat and tails and canes and tap-dancing - these are things I dreamed about as a kid!

PC: And now you are living that dream.

MVE: I am! I mean, I grew up with the movies of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and Judy Garland - these are the kinds of shows and the kinds of numbers in shows that I dreamed of being in and doing when I was a kid. And, I actually really haven't been in them in my career up until this point.

PC: This isn't DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES or even EVITA, that's for sure.

MVE: [Laughs.] It feels more comfortable to me than the other things I have done, which is really interesting to me. I mean, with this one, as hard as I am working, it feels more right to me than anything I have done in the past - it feels like a really natural fit and I don't feel like I have to do too much research or watch too many old films to understand what the sensibility was or to see how the character would have carried himself or how to wear the clothes right or how to speak properly - I just feel a natural connection to it. I feel like I am in the right show, in the right place, at the right time.

PC: And how many kids will see you in this and have the same experience you had with those great performers in those films? "I want to be like Max von Essen in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS someday."

MVE: Oh, my God! That's the best - that's the best.

PC: You're the best and this was sublime, Max. Thank you so much.

MVE: Thank you so much, Pat! This was so much fun and I appreciate it so much. Bye bye.

Photo Credits: Walter McBride, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS On Broadway, etc.

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