Entertainment » Theatre

Max von Essen :: 'Call Me Old Fashioned'

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Thursday Apr 25, 2019

In some ways, Max von Essen feels that he was born too late. Not that the 45-year old actor doesn't engage in today's world, but easily admits owning a strong affinity to popular culture of the past, specifically the time when actors like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly danced on the screen and Judy Garland introduced songs to the hit parade.

He finds expression for that affection with his new CD, "Call Me Old Fashioned: The Broadway Standard," currently available on all digital platforms, which features a set list of songs — most of which written before Von Essen was born. It was a project that he has wanted to do for years, but was always working (on Broadway and off-Broadway in productions such as "Les Miserables," "Evita," "Death Takes a Holiday" "Hello, Again" and, most recently, "Anastasia") and couldn't find the time.

Broadway audiences know him best for his breakout role as Henri Baurel in the multi-Tony-winning "An American in Paris," the hit stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning Vincente Minnelli film that played Broadway for 18-months three years ago. Essen was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor in a Musical Tony Award for his portrayal of Baurel, who is given more depth in Craig Lucas's adaptation of Alan Jay Lerner's screenplay.

He also got the show's biggest number — a Follies-inspired version of "A Stairway to Paradise" — that had him in top hat and tails emulating a style that would have been right at home in a MGM musical from that studio's golden age.

After the show closed, Von Essen focused on a solo show, which he introduced at Birdland a year ago. From that came this CD, which was released last month. Not that he has time now to promote it: he is currently playing Marvin in the acclaimed Lincoln Center Theater revival of William Finn's "Falsettos," currently in Los Angeles as part of its national tour.

In a review of the CD, the critic of the website BroadwayWorld.com wrote: "Broadway voices have changed too - but there are a few who still sound like they stepped right out of the past. With his new album 'Call Me Old-Fashioned,' Tony nominee Max von Essen proves that he's found the perfect balance between modern Broadway star and golden age elegance."

EDGE spoke to Von Essen recently about why he thinks of himself as old fashioned, coming out, traveling to Paris with "An American in Paris," and how Liberace influenced him to play the piano.

Why 'old fashioned?'

EDGE: Why do you call yourself "old fashioned?"

Max von Essen: I prefer the idea of "call me old fashioned," as opposed to being "old fashioned" because that implies grandma's living room, or something like that. But I want to be a little more playful with "call me old fashioned." Like, listen I can't help it. I am drawn to other eras. I feel like I was born in the wrong time. I feel like a Hollywood leading man or a crooner. I am just drawn to songs from another age and the Golden age of the musical theater. So, you know what? Call me "old fashioned", I don't want to be embarrassed about that. What can I do? That's what I am. I just connect to another era. And these are the kind of songs I wanted to sing.

EDGE: And those songs fit your voice perfectly. How did the album come about?

Max von Essen: For years I wanted to do an album. For years I want to do a solo show. But I knew doing my own album, it had to be what fit me properly, authentically. I think a lot of it had to do with "An American in Paris." Being involved with all that Gershwin material which I always loved since I was a kid. I had taught myself a lot of these Gershwin songs when I was a kid. I fell in love with them when I was in elementary school. I got this big Gershwin book and would play these songs on piano. Then when I did them so many years later at the Palace Theatre, I felt that they were already inside me. I have this love of Broadway and the American Songbook. These songs just felt like the right fit, certainly for my first album. This is the material I was born to sing. It just feels right.

EDGE: How did you choose the setlist?

Max von Essen: This is essentially the setlist for a show I did about a year ago with Billy Stritch. By the time we did the show about 10 times we were at a place where the show felt just felt right. Then we looked at each other and said, "this is an album." The show had about 15 songs, so we had to take a few out. I think it works as an album because I put the songs together in an order that I think flowed. There are moments that have excitement, and moments that let the ear relax where the music washes over you in a lush, romantic way. We did have to cut down the Gershwin medley because I tried to sing every song from the "An American in Paris" Broadway version and we definitely had to cut some of that out. And I also sang "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables" from "Les Misérables" because when I was younger I was in two Broadway productions of that show where I understudied Marius, but never got to go on. So it was a song that I always dreamed of singing, but never got the opportunity to do so in the show; but did have to take it off the album because it was this real dramatic moment that wasn't fitting the flow of these other songs, which all sound like standards. Even "A Night of a 100 Stars," which might not be considered a standard, has the style of a standard in my version, so it fits; whereas "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables," it was like, "Nope. It's gotta go."

'A beautiful song'

EDGE: In "Evita," the song "On This Night of a Thousand Stars" is a pastiche song, but you treat it as a lush, romantic love song. You sing it with such emotion...

Max von Essen: Well, thank you very much. I owe that all to a good friend of mine, Carole Haber, who was a producer of Broadway revival of "Evita." (Von Essen played Magaldi in that production.) She said to me that there's a beautiful song in there. And I said," No. It's showy and over the top." "No," she said, "slow it down. It can be very romantic." But I never did. Then 2 or 3 years after the revival, I found the music sitting on the top of the piano; so I started playing the chords softer and singing it lightly. And I thought, "this is actually a beautiful song." And I immediately thought of string instruments, and I have a friend who is an incredible cellist, Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf, and she's on the album. It is probably one of my favorite songs on the album. It was the real discovery for me. This is a beautiful song. I am very proud of it.

EDGE: Most of the songs on the CD are on familiar, except "Shimmy Like They Do In Paree." Where did that come from?

Max von Essen: It is written by Maury Yeston (Tony winning composer/lyricist for "Nine" and "Grand Hotel"). And that was from his musical "Death Takes a Holiday," which Roundabout Theater did a couple of years ago. I had a small role in that. And again, though it was written a couple of years ago, Maury Yeston wrote a song that fit the time of the show -- which was in Italy in the 1930s. Maury wrote it to have the feel of a song that was written in the '20s and '30s. I always love it. I love the counterpart -- the two different themes that are set up and weave together when the two singers do it. I thought it would be fun for me to do with Billy Stritch. I was really struggling to find more active, uptempo songs, things like "The Trolley Song" "She Loves Me" and "Shimmy in Paris."

An early inspiration

EDGE: You also sing a great, but lesser known Judy Garland song from her version of "A Star is Born" called "Gotta Have Me Go With You." It is a great, swinging song that no one ever sings. How did you come to do it?

Max von Essen: I always wanted to sing that song. I loved that movie when I was a kid. Also I always had this secret desire to sing "The Trolley Song" too. It is such a fun song, but I am a guy, so when I am going to get to sing "The Trolley Song?" But there was this album with the song on it by Lainie Kazan of all people, which is very similar to the arrangement we do. It is an absolute love letter to Lainie's version that Billy Stritch puts his own twists to it, and obviously I do sing it as a man singing about another man. I thought, "why can't I in my own show or my album sing about the boy on the trolley? Why can't I sing about a guy? In this day and age, why not?" I love both those songs, and if I had to pick a song on the album that I love best it is "Gotta Have You Go With Me" and "The Trolley Song."

EDGE: Is it true that you saw Liberace when you were a kid and he was a big influence on you?

Max von Essen: (Laughs) It was. I was very young. I didn't know it was his last show. It was at Radio City Music Hall. His lover drove this big Rolls Royce onto the stage. I was too young to have known any of that. He just came on stage and larger than life and flamboyant and played the crap off the piano. He played his fingers off. I had just started piano the year before - I think I was in second grade - and I was blown away. When I look back it was so cool because I was so innocent. I would take sheets and make my own cape and I'd sit at the piano and add little embellishments to very simple songs I was struggling with. It was really at this point I started to flourish on the piano. Then years later when he died and I learned who he was and what he died of, I remember being in tears. I felt like it was such a loss. He was so unique and an incredible player who played his butt off. It inspired me to become a really good piano player, which I am not any longer, but that's what led me to singing and my love of singing. To sit down with the Gershwin book at the piano and learn those songs. It helped form the artist that I am today and I am not embarrassed to say that Liberace was an amazing, early inspiration for me.

Playing Marvin

EDGE: You are now in the national tour of "Falsettos" playing Marvin, whose story of complicated relationships, love and loss before and during the early days of the AIDS epidemic is told in William Finn's through-sung musical. What has this experience been like?

Max von Essen: It has been incredible and it has been really challenging. What I was most worried about is endurance because the show isn't short. It is these two one act plays that put together to create this full musical that runs two and a half hours. And with only 5 characters in the first act and 7 in the second, it is a lot of everyone to carry. And it is completely sung through. I said, "Oh my God, how I am going to do this?" What's great is that when you take on challenges like this the muscle memory starts to kick in and after the rehearsal, it starts to become a part of you. It has been incredible. Now it is not so much the endurance that I am worried about, it is more the emotion and the long-term effect of doing this role because it has been taxing. It is such an ultimately beautiful story, but there is so much loss. It was written at the start of the AIDS crisis. And it is hard because the show really is beautiful and challenging and we have to experience it as realistically as possible. It has been emotional, and a huge challenge and probably the most rewarding show I've been a part of it.

EDGE: What's been the favorite show you've been part of?

Max von Essen: Different shows are different experiences, and "Falsettos" has been very difficult, so it is hard for me to call it my favorite. But it has been an amazing, rewarding challenge that I am really proud of. But if I am going with a favorite, it has got to be "An American in Paris" because it wasn't an incredibly taxing role, though I certainly worked my butt off, but I was able to step back and say, "oh, men. this is fun!" Everything fell into place in such a beautiful way. I loved the role so much. I loved that I came full circle with all these Gershwin songs that I loved as a kid at the Palace Theater and in Paris, where we did our out-of-town tryout. Every step of that journey was too good to be true. That one will live on for a long time as my favorite experience thus far, as far as favorite is deriving a lot of joy from it and being really proud of it.

Playing 'Paris' in Paris

EDGE: What was trying out in Paris like?

Max von Essen: OMG. We were there for over two months. From Thanksgiving through the New Year. Winter in Paris. And it was not like we were trying out some random show, we were doing "An American in Paris" in Paris. Everybody was so excited about it. The city really embraced us. It was nothing they had had before. A Broadway show trying out in Paris and that show being "An American in Paris". The movie featured a great French singer, Georges Guétary, who played Henri, the character that I played. The city had a lot of connections to that show and a lot of pride. Everything found its place in a way that would be hard to recreate. It was one of those once in the lifetime experiences.

EDGE: "An American in Paris" was a beautiful production, but it must have been a very complicated one to be part of. What was that like?

Max von Essen: It was very difficult to do too. Our director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon wanted the show to just dance by. There were very few things that were motorized. The general set that was created -- from cafe tables to a desk to a grand piano to a window unit - they were sort-of danced on by the ensemble and the principals as well. Everyone was constantly working, constantly moving, and it made for a really beautiful show but also a very complicated and exhausting show. But I felt the effort was well wroth it because every moment danced. When you have a choreographer from the ballet world like that taking on his first Broadway show it was hard for it not to have that feeling. That's what you want, It would be a waste to have him if the whole show wasn't going to sparkle and dance?

EDGE: And what was it like having the show's showstopping number and doing it every night?

Max von Essen: OMG. I am still the little gay kid who was in love with Liberace and Judy Garland movies and "Singin' in the Rain" and "An American in Paris" and all those classic MGM musicals. It's funny, you watch these old MGM musicals as a kid and you dream about being in one in your head, but as you get older, you know that is never going to happen in real life. And yet I got to play a character from one of those films and had a number like that. It is everything that little kid dreamed it could be. It was hard work, but so, so thrilling. I had the opportunity to stand there in the theater and look out at the audience and imagine them looking back at me and these showgirls in feathers as the guy in the top hat and tails while the whole stage transformed into this old school, MGM musical number. I was able to soak it in as I was doing. It was a dream.

Life goes by so fast

EDGE: You're out in your personal life. Has that had any effect on your career?

Max von Essen: I don't think about it too much. For years I will say I just had this thing like, "I don't have to talk about it too much. I don't make a big thing about it. No one is going to ask me." Then after a couple of years of that, I was tired of being guarded. I certainly wasn't hiding it. I was out. Everybody knew. But I wasn't wearing it proudly. I thought, "what am I doing? Life goes by so fast." I didn't think it was authentic of me not talk about my partner, or how I connect with roles as an out man, especially in a gay role. And I realized too that if I am not fully out and confident about that then what kind of a standard am I setting for young people who come to see me in a show and might need a little bit of inspiration or a little bit of help to get through a tough time they are going through as teenagers or something. So I have come to embrace it and not just let it be a small part of me. It is part of me. It is who I am. And I want to be a role model for young people who are struggling because I wish I had that when I was a kid. I wish there had been more people who were out and confident, and that I could have looked up to.

But I don't think it has affected my career one way or another. It possibly could be that I haven't been brought in for a lot of roles because maybe it is held against me that I am out and proud. But I don't notice it helping or hindering my career, but I feel like it is part of who I am and I just move forward confidently with that.

EDGE: What's next after "Falsettos?"?

Max von Essen: Nothing long term at the moment. But I have quite a few concerts planned. I am going to be doing a kickoff concert for my CD. It will be a little late because of the tour, I have to do it in August in Birdland, which is where I started doing my solo shows. I am excited about that. I have some symphony concerts coming up with Oklahoma City Symphony, then early next year I am doing a big night at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops, which I am really excited about. It is me and Lauren Michelle Kelly ("Mary Poppins"), she's the female soloist. It is a night of Rodgers and Hammerstein, which is another thing tailor made for me. It's a dream to be singing these songs. But that's about it for right now. I am going to celebrate my CD, promote it, and do some concerts, such as an upcoming one in Palm Springs.

For more information on Max von Essen, including how to purchase "Call Me Old Fashioned: The Broadway Standard," as well as to learn of his upcoming concert dates, visit his website.

"Falsettos" continues through May 19 in Los Angeles, California at Center Theater Group LA, Remaining dates on the tour are Chicago, May 28—June 9; Washington, DC, June 11 — 23; and June 25 — 30, Charlotte, North Carolina. For more information about "Falsettos," visit the show's website.

Watch Max Von Essen sing "Being Alive":

Watch Max Von Essen sing a medley from "An American in Paris":

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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