Broadway’s Max von Essen is arriving in Southern California just in time to celebrate the holidays, kicking off the National Tour of the hit musical Xanadu at the Orange County Performing Arts Center beginning December 15.  Before playing Xanadu’s hero Sonny Malone, Max starred on Broadway as Enjolras in Les Misérables, Alfred in Dance Of The Vampires, and Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. He’s also performed on the stages of Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, and the Paper Mill Playhouse, to name just three renowned venues.  L.A. audiences will remember Max from the 2004 musical Dorian at the NoHo Arts Center, in which he played the title role to rave reviews. We were delighted to catch up with Max on what he’s been up to since that 2004 production.  

Your bio talks about your graduation from the University Of North Carolina At Chapel Hill, but nothing before that.  Where did you grow up?  

I was born in New York City but raised on Long Island. 

So how did you become interested in performing?

I always knew I wanted to be a performer, even growing up in a family of jocks.  I begged my parents for a piano when I was about ten and started studying seriously. That led to singing which then led to acting.  The Arts were my passion and I couldn’t get enough, yet I really never thought I’d go into it professionally.  

Really?  What was your original plan?

I thought I’d put my Economics degree to work and get a job in investment banking or work down on Wall Street. But right before graduating from UNC Chapel Hill, I begged my parents to allow me to come home and audition, like a trial period.  The rest is history.  I’ve never stopped working. I’m extremely lucky!!!

Did you move to New York right after college?

I moved in with my parents, who had moved into Manhattan when I was in college, and just opened up the trade papers and started auditioning.  I didn’t even know how to get an agent or anything. I was just winging it.

I imagine having grown up on Long Island, you’d probably spent a fair amount of time in New York City, right?

Yes, by the time I was a teen on Long Island, I was taking the train into NYC almost every weekend.  I always felt so comfortable there and I knew it would be an easy transition to live there. 

And was it?

It was.  I loved it and still do!  As far as theater goes, it was always my dream, but a secret dream.  I just never thought I could actually do it.  It didn’t seem possible.  When I realize that I’m a part of this community I fantasized about as a kid, I freak out.  It still blows me away. In fact, recently, I’ve started reevaluating and adding new dreams!  I plan on being around a long time, so I figure why not.  Bring it on!  What’s next?

Max in Dance of The Vampires (l.) and Les Misérables (r.)  Photo: Joan Marcus

I’m sure it’ll be something fabulous!  Max, you’ve created roles on Broadway including Alfred in Dance Of The Vampires, and you’ve also taken over roles like Enjolras which have been played by umpteen actors before you. How differently do you approach a new role and an established one? Any preference for one over the other?

Honestly, no preference. And no difference in approach. Sometimes taking over a role is more difficult because you have less rehearsal time and less time to explore the character with the director.  The bulk of the work must be done on your own. I would definitely love to do a new role next, though. It’s fun discovering everything for the first time and having input in the development of a character.

    Max in/as Dorian (with Nikki Renee Daniels)

I saw you twice in Dorian about five years ago, loved the show and you in it.  That was the first of a string of Broadway-scale musicals which my friends James Mellon and Kevin Bailey have been producing, directing, and performing in at the NoHo Arts Center. 

Oh god, I loved playing that role!  There is something so rewarding about such a demanding role and feeling totally wiped out afterwards. Yet I was always so invigorated after each performance. Full of energy, on a high. But then I’d go next door to the bar with the cast and after about fifteen minutes, I’d collapse.  (Max laughs.) Totally exhausted.  Once the adrenaline wore off, I was a mess.

How did your participation in that piece come about?

Two years prior to the L.A. production, I had auditioned in New York for the role and booked it. So I did several readings and helped them develop the role and the show.  I’m sorry it couldn’t have a life after that production and I even loved doing it in that intimate space. 

What was it like to perform such a big show in such a relatively small theater?

It’s refreshing to be so close to the audience and to instantly sense how they are feeling. From fear, to laughter, to enjoyment.  Whatever. I did not like having to get naked with people six feet away, but that’s another story.(Another laugh.)

These days every musical performer has to be at the very least a triple-threat, and in Xanadu you roller-skate as well.  How was that?

(Max laughs.)  I know.  And these kids coming out of great theater schools like Michigan and Carnegie Melon are all so incredible. Performers just get stronger and stronger, so you can never get lazy. In this business you are constantly trying to improve. I guess I feel like I will always be a student, and learning how to roller skate was just another course I had to take. It was scary for a few weeks, but now I love it!

  Max as Sonny in Xanadu

You premiered the Xanadu tour a year ago at the La Jolla Playhouse, then took it to Chicago and Japan.  How did it feel to be performing and staying in Japan?  

loved Tokyo!  It was probably my favorite part of the tour so far.  Granted, they didn’t exactly get Xanadu, but the Japanese are so appreciative, so respectful and so generous, so I loved performing for them.  And even if they didn’t quite get the humor, the music is sensational and it is a blast to look at. So bright and energetic and so 80s!

How long were you in Japan with Xanadu?  

I was in Japan for one month.  

How have you been keeping busy since your return to the States in anticipation of the of the Xanadu national tour? 

Let’s see, I’ve had a few months off and I’ve definitely been keeping busy.  I did a concert at Town Hall, two readings of new musicals (Summer Stock and Stained), I played John Truitt in Meet Me in St. Louis at the St. Louis MUNY, I had a role on The Beautiful Life on the CW (unfortunately, the show’s already been canceled), I shot a few scenes in the new Sex and the City film, I performed at a couple of benefits, and I shot two commercials.  Oh yeah, and I traveled for a month. (Max laughs.) I guess you can say I’ve been keeping busy.

I’ll say! I’m wondering, Max, did you see the original Broadway production of Xanadu?  

I saw it five times and fell in love with it immediately.  I was doing Les Misérables across the street at the time and fantasized about being in Xanadu because when I was touching up my makeup at intermission, I could see the audience and cast members across the street leaving Xanadu. I thought, now that’s a show I want to do. A ninety-minute comedy!  No death, no barricades and half the length. Actually, I’d do Les Miz again in a heartbeat, but for me it is so refreshing to be doing Xanadu. 

The touring cast seems quite different from the original, so I’m wondering how you went about making role of Sonny uniquely your own?

I’m naturally very different from Cheyenne Jackson.  Our voices have a different sound and he is much larger in size than I am. So we immediately start off from a different place.  Our director has let me and Elizabeth make the roles our own, which only makes sense because what may work on Cheyenne and Kerry Butler, may not work on us.  The tone of the show and the direction are identical to the Broadway production, but the tour is distinct and fresh because of this talented new cast.

   Max and Elizabeth Stanley in Xanadu  Photo: Carol Rosegg

I got to see Elizabeth Stanley in Cry-Baby two years ago, and I love her.  How has it been working with Elizabeth, and now being reunited after a bit of a hiatus?

How much time do you have? No, I’ll be brief. There is no one I’d rather be sharing that stage with. She is one of the loveliest people I have ever worked with and we have become fast friends.  This may be a reunion on stage, but we have seen each other many times.  I can’t wait to get back on stage with my new friend.

You’ve toured before and are about to do so again. Do you enjoy touring with a show?  

I actually haven’t toured in ten years.  However, I could not pass on this role and this show. So I decided to tour again, and I’m loving it. It just feels right at this point in my life. Plus, we are about to hit several cities that I have never visited and what better way to visit than in such a fun show?

Hopefully a lot of Angelinos will hear about Xanadu’s Christmas run at OCPAC and drive on down to see it. Will you miss having a White Christmas, the same as last year in San Diego? 

Not at all.  I love working and that will make Christmas amazing.  Plus, I’m from NYC and most of my family is there, so I am fortunate to spend almost every holiday with them. Most of my actor friends aren’t able to do that, so I’m very lucky.
It’s been five years since Dorian. Do you have any plans to do more West Coast work?

No plans just yet, but I want to.  So if anyone is reading this, give me a call! I’ll consider all offers. Wait, that didn’t sound very good. Well, you know what I mean.

Charity work seems to be a big part of your life, including work for the Matthew Shepard Foundation.  In a totally non-show biz question, I’m wondering about your reaction to the recent, long-awaited signing of the Matthew Shepard Act into law.

Honestly, I was in tears.  I felt it was such a triumph and the greatest way we could honor Matthew’s life and death.  I had the pleasure of meeting Judy Shepard a few weeks ago at an HRC event where she was honored, and even had some time alone with her.  It was one of the greatest moments of my life.  She was introduced that day as “America’s Mother” and it is so true. She is everyone’s mother and she seems almost indefatigable, doesn’t she? There is more to do, but an achievement like this affirms one’s faith in the future.  I will always support her work and that of the foundation.

On that inspirational note, let me say how much I’ve enjoyed getting to know you better. I can’t wait for Opening Night of Xanadu!

To support Max’s charity work, click on:
Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids
The Matthew Shephard Foundation
God’s Love We Deliver

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