He’s Got Rhythm
A Broadway Star Is Born: How Max von Essen Found His Voice
The high-kicking star of the new hit Gershwin musical on how speaking out—and singing out—led to his most fulfilling Broadway role yet.
An American in Paris, the swoon of a new Broadway musical based on the iconic Gene Kelly-Leslie Caron film, is love-drunk on romantic, show-stopping dance numbers.
The plot goes down easy: three eligible suitors vie for the love of an ethereal French dancer.
It’s the lavish production—featuring number after number of gorgeous ballet, each born out of the familiarity of a George Gershwin score—which intoxicates you with the blissful buzz. (“I Got Rhythm” and “’S Wonderful” are among the standards repurposed to showcase a company of Broadway’s most skilled ballet dancers.)
But set apart from the elegant and technically flawless ballet dancing, led by Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope in the principal roles, is the big Act Two production number, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.”
It’s a classic MGM, chorus-girl showstopper, a fantasy sequence that transports the action from a jazzy Parisian club to Radio City, with Broadway stalwart Max von Essen’s character, Henri Baurel, gallantly leading the kick line.
Like the splashy number he leads, Broadway journeyman von Essen (Evita, Les Misérables) is a unique element in this play.
This is a show called An American in Paris that is garnering attention for the exquisite marathon ballets that comprise roughly two-thirds of the production. But von Essen neither plays an American in Paris—Henri is a Parisian heir and secret aspiring cabaret singer, closeted in more ways than one—nor does he dance the ballet.
“I go up to my room and relax and stop sweating during the ballet,” he laughs over breakfast in Times Square. “I’m still dripping from ‘Stairway to Paradise.’”
But articulated with the native New Yorker’s adorable, carefully calibrated French accent—no cartoonish “zzzs” and “aaahs” here, merci beaucoup—it’s Henri’s journey that’s the simplest, and therefore the one that the audience feels the most kinship to.
Forget about pirouettes and fautes and pas de deuxs. Henri is a man trying to find his voice: to stand up to his parents; to express his love, and perhaps his true sexuality; to sing professionally; and, most of all, to find his sense of self.
How fitting, then, that 15 years after his making his Broadway debut, von Essen has finally found his voice, too. And not just while crooning heart-melting Gershwin standards, either.
There’s fabulous poetry in the fact that von Essen’s first entrée to the art of the theatrical was the man with the loudest voice (in more ways than one) of them all. When von Essen was in the second grade, his parents took him to his first concert, to see Liberace at Radio City Music Hall.
The entrance in a Rolls-Royce, fountains of water choreographed to the chords he played, the piano covered in mirrors and diamonds—it was all there.
“He’s like, ‘You like my piano? There’s only two in the world,’” von Essen mimics, nailing Liberace’s trademark glittery croak. “And he plays a little and goes, ‘And I own both of them.’”
Laughing at it in hindsight, von Essen says there was something about that night and Liberace’s performance that stuck with him. “I went home and started embellishing things I was learning and adding chords and arpeggios and my piano playing suddenly went to another level,” he says. “It was the over-the-top, flamboyant quality of his. I loved it. I don’t think I kept it with me throughout my life, but there was something about it that inspired me.”
That watch-and-learn mentality carried him through the rest of his musical theater training, too. His piano playing got so good that he was invited to be the accompanist for his middle school’s chorus.
He thought the singing looked fun, too, so he gave that a try. Then came the high school plays, and double majors at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in voice and economics, the ultimate of safety nets.
It was, however, a safety net von Essen never ended up using, thanks to a little bit of courage once he returned to New York, some luck at open call auditions, and Liza Minnelli.
“I hate to sound like a gay cliché, but I was inspired by Liberace and my first gig was Liza,” von Essen laughs. Out of college he was hired to tour the world as a chorus boy in Liza Minnelli’s act at the time.
“I was obsessed with her,” he says. “I remember when I was in callbacks for the job, I was sitting in Central Park with my headphones on listening to her music, almost like I was meditating on it.”
In perhaps the most natural of progressions, von Essen followed up his stint with Liza performing in drag as Mary Sunshine in the national tour of Chicago. In a less natural progression, his follow-up to that was playing Jesus in the Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
He was actually cast as the understudy and thought he’d never go on. But after the first week of previews, he was called up without even his first understudy rehearsal.
He learned the show in seven hours, called his parents and had them rush to get to the theater that night, and suddenly had a Broadway debut under his belt.
Next came a role in one of Broadway’s most notorious flops, Dance of the Vampires, an exhausting amount of regional theater work—from West Side Story to Mame—and roles in both the original Broadway production of Les Misérables and its 2007 revival, the latter time in the role of Enjolras.
Von Essen most recently made a splash as Magaldi in the Broadway revival of Evita, eventually being promoted to the role of Che on dates that Ricky Martin wouldn’t be performing it.
But it’s actually off-stage that von Essen got the most notoriety during the Evita run.
During the 2012 election, he shared a letter he wrote on Facebook to a friend planning to vote for Mitt Romney.
The crux of the letter crystallizes for prospective conservative voters how voting Republican would very specifically harm the gay community.
“I know people are suffering and the economy has not improved at a rate we all wish it would,” he wrote. “Yes, people are suffering but the gay and lesbian community has been suffering for hundreds of years and I am so tired of it. So tired of feeling that I am ‘less than.’ So tired of knowing I have friends on here who will vote for someone who will keep me a second class citizen for my entire lifetime.”
The post quickly went viral. The Huffington Post ran it on its site.
“So many people reached out to me,” he says. “I didn’t even know Facebook had this ‘Other’ inbox for messages where people who aren’t connected to you can reach out to you, and there were hundreds of messages there, from kids and from older gay men who said they’ve never been able to express their thoughts like that.”
“And then my 82-year-old aunt said I had changed her mind in the election, and that she had talked to my uncle about it. My 82-year-old aunt and uncle, their minds were changed.”
Interestingly enough, one of the first facts listed about von Essen on his Wikipedia page is that he is openly gay, something that he laughs about, but clearly doesn’t mind.
“If I don’t get a TV show next year because someone looks up my Wikipedia and it says ‘openly gay,’ then it’s worth the risk because I’ve had so many years being openly gay and proud of myself as a role model.”
“Especially for me on Broadway, of all places, I know people who are gay but living a bit of a lie in my own community,” he says. “And I’m thinking, ‘You’re on Broadway! You do musical theater! Of all places to hide yourself? Are you kidding? Enjoy. Be yourself.’”
It’s a good transition to talking about his character in American in Paris, whose sexuality is jokingly questioned several times throughout the play, even though Henri never actually comes out as “gay.”
Aside from the assorted “oohs” and “aahs” marveling at the play’s final, epic ballet sequence, Henri’s sexuality is the biggest talking point in the lobby once the cast takes their final bow.
“I’m on the side, at the moment, anyway, that I like that the question’s not answered,” von Essen says. “Also, I think there’s such an element in the world today, and certainly when I was growing up, of pushing people to come out, where people really do go through this period in their lives when they don’t know.”
It’s something that von Essen—who lives with his partner in Hell’s Kitchen—can certainly relate to. “I went through that period where I knew I was different, I knew what I ultimately was, but I just fought it,” he says. “But as soon as I had my first experience, I realized, ‘Well, of course this is how it’s supposed to feel, this is right.’ I think a lot of guys to relate to that point in their lives, and to Henri.”
That point in von Essen’s life is an especially interesting one. His father is former New York City Fire Commissioner Thomas von Essen, who held the post during the 9/11 attacks.
For all the talk about questioning sexuality and confidence in being out, it’s worth noting how remarkable this father-son relationship is: a fire chief and his openly gay Broadway actor son, bucking every stereotype of such a relationship by loving each other to the point that von Essen actually tears up when talking about his dad.
“You know my dad and I, we didn’t always get each other or know how to connect or what to talk about,” he says. “But Dad always had the ability to know there was a difference or disconnect and know how to reach out and meet me on my level. To try to understand my interest, or take me to the city to a show.
“It’s not what he knew, but he tried. He may not have understood each step in my life or each decision or coming out even, but he challenged himself to understand it and figure it out, so that it wouldn’t affect our love.”
Tears come several times as von Essen talks about his father, particularly when the conversation veers toward how their family handled the 9/11 attacks.
Jesus Christ Superstar had recently closed, and von Essen was popping in and out of The Fantastiks off-Broadway. Because of who his dad was, he was asked to sing the National Anthem at events, perform at different benefits, and, of course, sing at memorials and funerals.
His neighbor lost a son, and asked him to sing a few verses of “Amazing Grace” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He ended up singing more than 15 verses. “The firefighters just kept coming in,” he remembers.
He recalls his father in the front row, next to Mayor Giuliani, Governor Pataki, his neighbor’s parents. “Like what did I do?” he says. “I sang for them. But I know it meant something to them.”
He tears up again. “I remember the neighbor finding me two years later and—I can’t even say it—but he thanked me and said what it meant to them.”
With the advantage of time and perspective, he’s able to draw a parallel between that time in his life, where he was using his talents for something meaningful, and the role he’s taken on since his Facebook note went viral.
“My work is literally my voice,” he says. “I’m not always good with words and, outside of the letter, I don’t always know what to say sometimes. So my voice is what I use for change.”
He’s been using it now more than ever before, likely owed to An American in Paris being his most high-profile star vehicle yet.
His review in Sunday’s New York Times for playing Henri was a flat-out rave. “Maybe next I’ll originate a role and it will be my storyline and not the supporting storyline,” von Essen says.
“My passion was to be on Broadway and to be part of this community, because I saw what it was like from the outside as the young kid in and around New York, and I would see things like the Easter Bonnet or Broadway Bares, things I would sneak into,” von Essen says. “I was like, ‘Man, I want to be part of this family, I want to be part of this community.’ Now I am and I really love it. So I have to push myself to find new challenges and broaden what I can do as an actor.”
Until then, he’ll always have Paris.