Max Von Essen: High-Notes in High-Heels

By: Jan. 14, 2008
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In a midtown coffee house, Max von Essen sipped tea with honey, enjoying his week of vocal-rest.  Just days earlier, this Broadway tenor stormed the barricades for the final time in Les Miserables.  Now, Von Essen prepares to trade his proud French regalia for a white-trash brassiere. 

Max will make his Carnegie Hall debut as Tremont, the exclamatory transsexual in Jerry Springer – The Opera in Concert… pumps and potty mouth in-town.

Beginning rehearsals on Tuesday, January 15, Max took a moment to chat with BroadwayWorld's News Desk Editor, Eugene Lovendusky, to laugh at the pending political-incorrectness and share his excitement of portraying a role unlike any he's attempted before!

Eugene Lovendusky: Break down your role for us… you're Tremont, a transsexual in a love-triangle...?

Max von Essen: It's actually a love-quadrangle! [laughs] There's a guy named Dwight, who is engaged to Peaches and he's brought her on "The Jerry Springer Show" to tell her that he's been having an affair with her best-friend, Zandra.  Of course they fight about it, but he continues to sing: "There's more. There's something else I need to tell you." Jerry Springer welcomes the next guest: Tremont! I come out singing. My first phrase is "I'm a man!" and the song is called "Talk To The Hand." The whole chorus is singing "Chick with a dick." Incredible!

Eugene: How did you even get involved with Jerry Springer – The Opera?

Max: I was asked to audition. It's a crazy soprano, and singing as a man as a woman. But for many years, I was on the road in Chicago as Mary Sunshine, so I can do that.  I didn't think there was any way I was going to get it – it was so far out of my comfort-zone. There's was no pressure on it for me – I just went in and had fun. Whatever Jason Moore, the director, asked me to do, I did it! I ran around the room acting like a crazy guest on "Jerry Springer" and yelling at the audience. I just went for it.

Eugene: Is there anything in-particular you're using as inspiration for this character?

Max: Yeah, a combination of things. For one, I have a friend living as a woman. But she's almost too "normal," to be quite frank.  I'm not relying on her, because "The Jerry Springer Show" has such huge characters. I'm trying to come up with a little more dysfunction than that.  For instance, my friend would never go on the show to air her dirty-laundry. But Tremont is outrageous! I've been watching a lot of clips of "The Jerry Springer Show" on YouTube (I can't tell you how many clips there are!) I get to witness these men going through the process to become women and what they're sharing. My character is pre-op. She's had the breast augmentation but still got "the goods" down there.

Eugene: Did you ever expect yourself to be talking about this kind of a character.

Max: I absolutely never thought I would! But it's something to look forward to in my career. I'm not just the young, leading guy who falls in love, simple and naïve. Even just doing Enjolras recently in Les Mis. I used to cover Marius and thought: "Oh, that's simple. What I should be doing." But then when I got Enjolras, I hadn't even thought about it. He's more powerful, sure of himself, a leader. It was nice! It was much harder singing, passionate, declamatory. Which was awesome – and now this!

Eugene: Even harder yelling!

Max: This is a challenge vocally but also dramatically. To be doing something so different from anything I've ever done before. I love it.

Eugene: Is this your first time in Carnegie Hall.

Max: First time. First time… in drag.

Eugene: Congratulations! Do you find some sort of guilty pleasure for singing such explicit lyrics in such a hallowed ground?

Max: A little bit; but I think that's going to be part of the real appeal of this concert because it's so out-there and vulgar.  But if you get a kick out of "The Jerry Springer Show," you're going to love it! The idea of hearing these lyrics and profanities – like the chorus at the top of the show – the idea that we're going to hear it in Carnegie Hall is just genius. It's been written with real care! It's not some crappy little musical that somehow found its way off-Broadway with vulgar-intentions. This is really beautiful, operatic music. It has a place in Carnegie Hall.

Eugene: This isn't the easiest music to sing…

Max: Are you kidding? Not at all. The music director, Stephen Oremus, was telling me: "I hope you've done your work." We only have ten days rehearsal. The music is no joke. My solo singing is not that hard. But the stuff I have as part of the choir or as a "Dead Guest" in the second-half… I'm singing some really incredible chorus stuff that I haven't done in a long time. It's extremely difficult.

Eugene: Tell me about this cast you're sharing the lime-light with!

Max: I've worked with Emily Skinner and I've seen Linda Balgord's work. I saw Harvey Keitel at the call-backs. But generally I don't know many people. They're not only good performers; they're really good singers! This show is for people who have more of a history in reading music. From what I already know about the ensemble, it's going to be great. And I can't wait to meet the rest of them. They're the real deal.

Eugene: Have you ever worked with the esteemed creative team members?

Max: Jason Moore I know because he was the resident-director of Les Mis the first time I did it. But he's a great director for audition purposes too. He gives you adjustments and if he sees potential there, then he'll try to get it out of you. I'm excited to work with him fully. And Stephen Oremus… talk about the "hot go-to guy" for music direction!

Eugene: You start rehearsals Tuesday. What are you most looking forward to?

Max: I want to get a handle on the music. There's only so much you can do alone. I want everyone else there. I can't wait until we feel we've got it down and we can really figure out what it's all about! I can't wait to meet Harvey Keitel, too! I'm so used to working with musical theatre people… I'm really curious how he works. He's the only one that doesn't sing in the show – he acts and weaves himself through the show as the ring-master. I hope I learn something from him.

Eugene: Are you going to be in costume?

Max: We will be costumed, but I don't know how fully.  The costume person has already called me for measurements, asking for a bra-size? I have no idea! I decided a while ago that I would have to be dressed-up. My role is almost a sight-gag. I have to be a woman to sing the lyrics "I am a man" to have it be a joke. I start the lyric in a male-register and a whole coloratura up into a soprano. And other points in the show… like the guy who likes to be treated like a baby and wear a diaper!

Eugene: We've got trannies, the Ku Klux Klan, and men in diapers… Is there any chance someone is going to take real offense, or should they know what they're in for and leave the baggage at the door?

Max: I'm a New Yorker. I'm liberal and open-minded. Things don't really shock me. But I was reading the second-act today and thinking that if you're religious, you could be. But you shouldn't be! You can be extremely religious and have your faith and still be open-minded to art. Because this is art. That's part of the excitement. It literally is "The Jerry Springer Show" on-stage set to beautiful operatic music.  That's what's so incredible about it!

Jerry Springer – The Opera is the historic four-time winner of London's Best Musical prizes (Olivier Award, Critic's Circle Award, Evening Standard Award and What's On Stage Award) - no other show in West End history has achieved this distinction.

"Jerry Springer – The Opera is inspired by America's most lurid TV talk show host who brought worldwide television audiences episodes including "Pregnant by a Transsexual," "Here Come the Hookers" and "I Refuse to Wear Clothes." The production originally premiered in London at The National Theatre on April 29, 2003, where it broke all box office records for a new musical. Following its engagement at the National, the show transferred to the Cambridge Theatre in London's West End, where it opened on November 10, 2003.

Tickets for Jerry Springer – The Opera in Concert are $175.00 - $59.00 and are available now through CarnegieCharge at (212) 247-7800 or or by visiting the Carnegie Hall box office (57th Street & 7th Avenue).  Performances are Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 8PM and Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 8PM.