Max von Essen had dreamed of being a part of the Broadway community as a young boy growing up on Long Island. Now 15 years after making his Broadway debut he is at his prime in the most exciting role of his career, originating the role of Henri Baurel in An American in Paris.
An American in Paris is one of the darlings of this year’s Tony season racking up 12 Nominations including one for Max as a featured actor in his role as Henri.
Based on the classic film and featuring an entirely Gershwin score, An American in Paris takes place in a Paris struggling to find its culture after the Nazi occupation of the city. The characters each have dreams to bring back art and joy to the world. The plot centers around three men all vying for the affection of the same girl, a talented ballerina named Lise.
Max’s Henri Baurel is an aspiring cabaret singer struggling to find his voice in more ways than one. As Henri tries to find the courage to tell his aristocratic family of his musical dreams, he also struggles to speak up on his relationship with Lise who he is hesitant to marry, possibly due to a disinterest in the fairer sex and despite all the pressure from his mother.
In a recent interview with Imagista, Max shared with us all about how he first became interested musical theater as a child and how his love for performing has grown ever since.
Imagista: How did you get into musical theater?
Max von Essen: For me, it was a natural progression. I was mesmerized seeing a music teacher playing the piano in elementary school, so I begged my parents for a piano and lessons. By middle school, I was accompanying the school chorus and suddenly, playing just wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to be up there performing, so I started taking singing very seriously. That led to performances in musicals and plays, and the rest is history. I couldn’t (still can’t) get enough.
Imagista: What do you love about musical theater?
MvE: I absolutely love the live element of theater, it’s addictive. And musical theater is that much more appealing because you ask the audience to really take a leap with you. To understand and accept the fact that when the tension builds or emotions grow, there becomes no other way to express what we are feeling other than to sing or dance. It’s such a beautiful art form.
Imagista: Is there one particular moment that you knew “this is what I want to do”?
MvE: Oh, I knew it the moment I started playing piano at a very young age. It became even clearer each time I saw a broadway show, each time I performed in a school show, basically each time I had an opportunity to perform or see something wonderful. What I didn’t know was if I was going to go for it as a career. I really didn’t have the courage. I performed, I trained, but I wasn’t sure I had the drive and the decisiveness to plunge into the business. I made a quick decision right before graduating from college to go for it and have never looked back. I simply had to do it.
Imagista: Which came first for you, music or acting?
MvE: For me, it all started with music. Playing piano was my first love and that led to singing. Of course, to really dig into a song and perform it, you have to act it or really what’s the point, you know? So I naturally caught the acting bug at the same time. The world of musical theater has always been a wonderful fit for me. I feel at home.
Imagista: Who has been most influential in your career?
MvE: All of my childhood teachers. I was extremely lucky to have some really inspirational people in my life at a very young age. Without my music and drama teachers in school and my piano teacher, I wouldn’t be where I am today. They constantly encouraged and challenged me and are absolutely the reason I’m doing well in my adult years.
Imagista: Is there any particular person you don’t necessarily know personally that you feel has had a huge influence on your career?
MvE: Funny enough, it would be George and Ira Gershwin. I obviously never knew them and never will, but they have had such an impact on my life and my love for music. I was introduced to their songs at a very young age and I can recall spending hours and hours as a child, sight reading through Gershwin anthologies. I performed three Gershwin preludes for my high school piano recital and I have been performing their music for as long as I can remember. The fact that I am now on broadway in an original musical with so much of their music, just blows my mind. Talk about full circle.
Imagista: What are you most proud of in your work?
MvE: Oh gosh, I’m just proud that I work. I make a living doing something I love and I’m proud of that!
Imagista: Which role that you have played is most important to you and why?
MvE: This one right now. Henri Baurel. I feel like I’ll always look back and think of everything that led to An American in Paris, and then everything that came after it. I’ve been lucky, I’ve played some wonderful roles on broadway and around the country, but this one fits in a way I’ve never experienced. To then have this show come together as it has and to be received so successfully in New York has made the whole experience dream-like. It is the coolest moment of my career and I’m trying to soak in every moment.
Imagista: If you weren’t an actor what do you think you would be doing with your life?
MvE: Oh, I’d be working in a bank or down on wall street. I loved math when I was younger and I even majored in Economics in college. I’d be working with numbers somehow, I’m sure. I wouldn’t be as happy as I am now, but that’s what I’d be doing.
Imagista: What’s next for you? Is there anything coming up that you are particularly excited about?
MvE: Yes, having a job for the next year!! Hah. I’ve signed a year contract with An American in Paris, and it looks like the show will be around for a while, so I’m just thrilled I’ll have this wonderful job for a year. After that, who knows? Hopefully originating more roles on broadway, and continuing to dip my feet into the TV and film world.