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A Revealing Interview with Max Von Essen

When you sit down with Max von Essen, you don't feel as though you are meeting a stranger – in fact it's just the opposite, you feel as though you are already his friend. 

Sitting sideways on a velvet couch, clutching a pillow to his chest, Max, in a pair of brown cords, a blue shirt and a grey zip-up sweater, may be away from his home in New York, but you can tell the aura of Los Angeles is beginning to have an effect on him. "I love it, I just hate driving." And despite having to drive from one audition in the valley to another audition in Santa Monica (a trip that can take more than an hour despite it being just about 20 miles), "I'm so happy, I can't believe it."

But it has been a long journey to the West Coast. Over the course of the past few years, Max has had his share of high profile roles in some of the most successful musicals in Broadway history, as well as one of the biggest flops on the Broadway boards, but dismisses any notion that he is some sort of overnight success. "I wish it were that easy."

Max has always been performing, and despite being an economics major in college (a fact a lot of people are surprised to learn), he viewed theatre as his hobby. While some people play athletics, Max made the stage his playing field. But he never thought it would become his career.

Despite being courted by investment banks to become an analyst in their Wall Street firms, Max choose to come to New York to follow his own dream. He allows that he may have been "naïve," but he felt he owed it to himself to give it a year to just "see what happens," as he tried to make it on Broadway. 

After just a few months he landed a job as one of three featured performers, touring Europe with Liza Minnelli, a job that not only was a great start to his career, but one that "would make for great stories for the rest of my life. Touring with Liza? Who wouldn't?"

After Liza, he made his debut as Tony, in a European tour of "West Side Story," before returning to the states to tour with the acclaimed production of "Chicago," where he played Mary Sunshine.

He finally realized his dream of being on Broadway, when he was cast as an apostle in the 2000 revival of "Jesus Christ Superstar." He also understudied the role of Jesus, which he got to perform much sooner than he ever thought. After just the first week of previews, he had to go on – before he even had his first understudy rehearsal. At 12 noon, he was called and told he was going on that night. "I learned the show in seven hours, and called my parents and told them to come that night, not knowing if the actor playing Jesus would ever get sick again!"

It was "perfect for a New York family," Max recalls, to have their son starring – if just for one night – in a Broadway show. Though, he admits, this particular role was tough for his mother to watch. "Think about it," Max said, her son is "being crucified" in a really intense and brutal fashion. And despite some hyperventilating by Mom, he knew his parents were proud – Max had achieved his dream.

Walking out on stage last, playing a title character, during the curtain call made Max realize he had "made it." Though it was just a taste – and one he knew he wanted more of. 

Unfortunately, the next major lead role Max landed was in the critically panned musical, "Dance of the Vampires," where Max played Alfred, after having performed the role in the show's development and subsequent readings. But it takes just as much hard work and effort to put on a bad show, as it does a good show, and this experience was no exception. The show had, in Max's words, " experienced Tony winners, high caliber people," involved. "Everyone wants it to be a success," but sometimes it just doesn't happen that way.

Luckily, while the show was savaged, Max's performance was not, and he claims – and rightly so – proud of his work in the show. Plus, like his Liza year's, it gave him good fodder for stories: "I was in the biggest flop . . . I did it big! Now, I will always have something to talk about!"

Ironically, he went from the short-lived "Dance of the Vampires" to the long-running, "Les Miserables," where he was the last actor ever to be put in the show, playing the role of Jean Prouvaire, while covering the role of Marius. While some thought it odd that this "leading man" would take an ensemble role, Max was excited simply to be a part of the musical he says was "one of the most influential" of his life. Since the show was closing, it was one of those rare opportunities that he did not want to pass up.

Since that time, Max has been doing a variety of workshops, such as the high profile, "The Vampire Lestat," the new Elton John/Bernie Taupin, musical based on the Anne Rice character. While initially hesitate to avoid being some sort of "vampire musical boy" – especially coming on the heels of "Dance of the Vampires" – he enjoyed performing in front of Sir Elton and Ms. Rice. "That was cool."

He also did a reading of "Dorian – The Musical, " which is what brings Max to Los Angeles, where he is playing the title character. If you're unfamiliar with the Oscar Wilde novel on which it is based, Dorian is a man who wishes to be youthful forever, and gets his wish when an artist paints a portrait of him. When Dorian places the portrait in his closet, the artwork ages in real time, leaving Dorian free of the ravages of time. 

If ever there was a character Max had a certain affinity for, it was Dorian. "I thought it would make a great musical. When do you have a chance to play a character that is in their 20's in Act One, and 40 in Act Two? It's an amazing opportunity."

There are also dangers in playing Dorian, Max admits. "My friends say I am Dorian," a crack perhaps at his youthful appearance, or his want to avoid growing up. "I just like to have fun." But he, nor the theatre world, need fear that he will become like Carol Channing playing Dolly: "If this show isn't picked up, it's time for me to move on. I'm getting a little old to play 22," he says with a laugh.

So what's next for Max? One BroadwayWorld.com reader wanted to know if he had any plans to record an album. "I keep thinking about it," but admits, "it's way to much to think about right now." He would want time to really think about the kind of songs he would want to sing, but offered that it would be less Broadway and more reflective of his influences – from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald – sort of old school standards.

And while Max would like you to believe he is all old school - after all he is very eloquent, thoughtful and mannered - you know lying just beneath the surface is a wicked sense of humor ready to catch you off-guard. Which is what makes Max both fun to talk with and fun to be around.

To get a sense of his personality, we played a little word association game, which often reveals a lot about a person based on their preferences. For instance, given the choice between Coke and Pepsi: Coke; Britney or Christina: Britney ("she's cleaner"); between dogs and cats: definitely dogs, despite being allergic. He chooses Michael Jackson over Janet ("I'm more old school") and admits one of his vices is Starbucks coffee – which he sadly can't indulge in when performing (not good for the vocal cords). And since he's in the city of Angels, would it be New York or LA? "I'm such a New Yorker at heart." 

Which is exactly where Max is headed after the run of "Dorian," having just bought an apartment in the theatre district. And while that may be a full time job (as any homeowner can attest), let's hope it doesn't keep him off the boards too long.

You can catch Max in "Dorian – The Musical" through November 21st at the NoHoArtsCenter in North Hollywood. Tickets are available through TheatreMania.com.

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