BWW Interview: Max von Essen of CALL ME OLD FASHIONED: THE BROADWAY STANDARD at Birdland
Max von Essen is a quintessential Broadway leading man, with movie-star good looks and a rich, full voice and for years his fans wondered why he didn't have a cd. Well, now he does. In fact, Max von Essen Call Me Old Fashioned: The Broadway Standard has been available for purchase since April. The sublime collection of songs from The Great White Way has been delighting people for four months but, sadly, when the musical work of art was released, it had to be done with very little fanfare. There was no release party, no celebration, nothing to mark the occasion, and with good reason: Mr. von Essen was doing his due diligence as a Broadway star and taking Broadway to the masses. Max toured America with Eden Espinosa and Nick Adams in the revered William Finn musical Falsettos. While these three Broadway powerhouses brought one of the most important works to the people who don't get to come to Broadway, his creation came into the light, making merry many Max devotees. Well, the Tony Award nominee is back stateside and a celebration has been planned for August 19th at his musical home away from home, Birdland, where the release of his debut cd will be the spotlight in one of the extraordinary concerts for which he has become so well known. Before that happens, I asked Max if he could field a few questions for me and he graciously said yes.
Max, your return to Birdland on August 19th is billed as a cd release celebration concert, but your cd, Call Me Old Fashioned, was actually released last April, wasn't it?
Yes, the album was released on April 5th, but I was touring with the Lincoln Center Theater production of Falsettos, so I wasn't able to do a concert at that time. Now that I'm back in New York, I can finally celebrate the launch, and do it at Birdland where the inspiration for my album began!
How did it feel going into the studio to record your debut solo cd?
Oh my god, it was a dream. And it fell over my birthday weekend, so it just felt like such a gift. Many of the tracks on the album are songs I've loved since childhood, and many of the Gershwin numbers are ones I taught myself to sing as a kid sitting at my piano, so it all felt very full circle for me.
The CD actually includes some songs you have sung on Broadway, was it fun getting to revisit these songs?
Oh yes! I always knew that An American in Paris would be featured on the album, not only because I'd done it on Broadway, but like I said, I grew up teaching myself the very same songs. I wanted it to be a highlight of the album because the music holds a very special place in my heart. I also loved rediscovering my song from Evita, "On This Night of a Thousand Stars." I never knew the song could feel so romantic and touching and it's easily one of my favorite tracks now.
Speaking of fun, how great was it touring the country with the play Falsettos last year?
It was a thrill, but definitely a major challenge, too. The idea of playing the role terrified me, and that's exactly why I knew I had to do it. Years ago, I'd play it much safer and shy away from a role this massive, this emotional, this complicated to learn and memorize. Now I say go for it, it will work out, you'll come through a better actor and performer. Also, although I've grown very comfortable in my little apartment in Hell's Kitchen, it was lovely to travel the country again and to bring this important show to so many places.
Is there a chance for a future cd of more modern Broadway musicals, like Falsettos?
Absolutely! I mean, nothing in the works just yet, but I'm always dreaming of the next project. I definitely need time to save up the money again, though. (Laughing) Unless you know some producers who want to fund it now?
When you started putting together the cd Call Me Old Fashioned/The Broadway Standard what was the first song you knew you wanted to sing?
I 100% knew I wanted to do a medley of Gershwin songs from An American in Paris, and that the album would arrive at that medley and finish with "Stairway to Paradise." I also absolutely knew I would begin with "I'm Old Fashioned" cause it just sums up who I am, you know? Billy Stritch had the fantastic idea of teaming that song with "Everything Old is New Again" and then we just went from there. Everything slowly started falling into place.
Max, you are constantly in demand as an actor, going from show to show, do you find performing in concert more relaxed than the rigors of playing a role, or more vulnerable because there's no character in which to immerse yourself?
Oh Lord, it terrifies me. (Laughing) And once again, that's why I keep doing it. The more I do, the more comfortable I feel. And it seems like every time I do a concert, about three songs in, I hit a calm and start to really enjoy it. But the build up? Ugh, the worst. The weeks leading up to a concert? Just anxiety building and building. Sometimes I think, why the hell do I put myself through this? (Laughing) You are absolutely right, though, to act on stage for so many years, and then start walking onto a concert or cabaret stage and just be me is scary. There's nothing to hide behind, and you truly have to be comfortable with you, who you are and what you are sharing.
You sing live in concerts and benefits quite often. Which concert venue has been the most exciting to play?
Well, Jim Caruso and Gianni Valenti have been so gracious in kind of giving me a home at Birdland Jazz Club. This will be my 4th solo evening there and I can't even count how many "Jim Caruso's Cast Party" nights and other events I've attended and performed in. I really feel at home and taken care of there. The most terrifying and thrilling venue is Carnegie Hall. I've performed there twice and this January, Laura Michelle Kelly and I will be headlining an evening of Rogers and Hammerstein with the New York Pops, under the direction of Steven Reineke. I am beyond excited (and a nervous wreck!).
When you're starting work on a new song do you go into rehearsal with ideas about the arrangements in your head or do you and your musical director, Billy Stritch, brainstorm together to find them?
Well, we all know Billy Stritch is a genius, but I didn't want to approach him until I had a real sense of what I wanted to do and say and several ideas for arrangements. When he likes an idea and feels inspired, then he just runs away with it. With that said, there were several sections, like the Gerswhin medley, where I knew what songs I wanted to include but had zero clue how to begin. All I had was one idea how to start it, and from there, he did EVERYTHING! He'd sit on it for a few days, and then it just comes to him. He's just amazing like that. Also, for a few songs, we were directly inspired by classic old arrangements that we wanted to bring back to life. The whole album was a real collaboration, one that grew each time we'd do a concert together and figure out what worked best. In the end, though, it would be nothing without Billy.
Max, when will your many fans get to see you back on The Broadway? Any fun announcements for us? Maybe a story I can break?
You know I love being on Broadway, but first I'm heading to Paper Mill Playhouse to play Judy Garland's dad in the new musical Chasing Rainbows. Then I've got some concert work to do. Oklahoma Symphony, New York Pops and some solo gigs with Billy in San Francisco and Palm Springs. But I've been so lucky and continue to be, so there will be a lot more to announce! I post everything on my social media and maxvonessen.com has a schedule with everything as well!