“Sing For Us All”: FALSETTOS Star Max von Essen Talks Touring, Timeliness and the Darker Side of “Marvin”

(photo by Luke Fontana)

(photo by Luke Fontana)

  • Matthew Blank

There are some people who you are always happy to see onstage or in a cast list. Be it a full production, a reading, a concert or a gala, certain performers show up and inevitably elevate the entire experience.  This is the story of such a fellow. 

A dashing leading man with a gorgeous tenor voice, Max von Essen has been delighting audiences in New York and across the country for the better part of two decades. 

His very early Broadway credits include Les Miserables, Jesus Christ Superstar and Dance of the Vampires.

He has toured the U.S. and Europe as Mary Sunshine in Chicago, Sonny in Xanadu and Tony in West Side Story.

A stunning performance in Broadway’s An American in Paris earned him tremendous accolades as well as a 2015 Tony Award nomination.  His scene-stealing turn as Magaldi was a true highlight of the 2012 revival of Evita, and I was doubly fortunate to see him take on the role of Che in Ricky Martin’s absence.

Always one to keep busy, von Essen released his debut album in April of this year and is currently starring as Marvin in the national tour of William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos.

In advance of the show’s Washington D.C. run at the Kennedy Center, he took some time to chat about the timeless piece.

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To my knowledge, this is your first tour in about a decade.  What were your feelings about going back on the road after working so steadily in New York in recent years?

I actually love touring but, truth is, I've gotten very comfortable in my little New York apartment with my partner and my cat. Haha. I also live in the theatre district so I just walk to work when I'm in a Broadway show.  It's amazing. But there are certain opportunities that are just no-brainers. This was one.

Max von Essen in  Falsettos  (photo by Joan Marcus)

Max von Essen in Falsettos (photo by Joan Marcus)

This show, this role, the opportunity to work with James Lapine and Bill Finn and to bring the show to such great cities, I just couldn't pass it up. And really, it's been a fun change to travel again like this.

Marvin has long been one of my favorite characters in musical theatre.  Such a complex, conflicted, real person.  How did you go about getting to the heart of him? Some of his behavior can seem pretty self-absorbed, selfish, even cruel, but the audience still ends up pulling for him and caring deeply about what happens.  What do you love about getting to walk in his shoes eight times a week?

Well, like a lot of aspects of this piece, it's the exploration of what's most uncomfortable that winds up being the most rewarding. The challenge of playing this unlikable guy, who really is a jerk. You're absolutely right, he's self-absorbed and can be very cruel, emotionally and sometimes even physically.

To get at the heart of him, I really had to unveil my own darker side. Those moments in my life that I'm just not proud of, where perhaps I lost it or was cruel to someone. I then had to multiply that feeling and live in those moments. Honestly, it hasn't been fun, but it has been very rewarding as an actor.

Max von Essen and Nick Adams in  Falsettos  (photo by Joan Marcus)

Max von Essen and Nick Adams in Falsettos (photo by Joan Marcus)

And what's wonderful is that Marvin has time to redeem himself, time to grow, to mature, and truly become a man. He becomes a good father to his son, a friend to his ex-wife and a loving partner to Whizzer. To feel the audience's energy early on and know they aren't on your side, and then to hear them weeping with you at the end is quite an unbelievable feeling.

What is it about Falsettos that is so timeless?

It's funny you should ask that, because I actually was worried that it was going to feel dated. Well, not so much worried as just accepting of the fact that this is now a bit of a period piece. I couldn't have been more wrong. Other than some late 70s, early 80s wardrobe, nothing feels dated. We feel like people right now experiencing these things. It's incredible. There is just something about seeing life on stage. Raw, hilarious, painful life that will always be relevant. The audience connects with these humans, this chosen family and they laugh and mourn with us. You can feel it. It's thrilling.

In putting the show together, what did you find to be the most challenging aspect? What has been the most fulfilling?

At first the most challenging aspect was the sheer size of the role, the amount of material and staging I had to learn. As you know, it's completely sung through, and very complicated writing.

Max von Essen and Thatcher Jacobs in Falsettos (photo by Joan Marcus)

Max von Essen and Thatcher Jacobs in Falsettos (photo by Joan Marcus)

Once I learned it all, I realized that the next biggest challenge was going to be how to handle it all emotionally. The piece just takes you on a roller coaster and by then end, I'm spent. With that said, both those things are also what make it so fulfilling.

Not to mention the response. You should see the young people at the stage door. And among them, so many queer kids, who have fallen in love with the show and are grateful for the representation on stage. It's quite powerful, and I feel honored to be part of this piece.

How has the audience reaction been in the cities you've hit so far?

Oh gosh, it's been awesome. And I was actually just giggling to myself tonight, because each city is different. How they respond, what they find funny, etc. It really keeps us on our toes.

Finally, what makes Falsettos so special and why is it an important piece for audiences to see right now?

There is something about seeing the show, for me, that makes you feel less alone. It's a quirky, wonderful, funny, and ultimately very touching piece, but it is about real people. Real people in crisis, growing up, losing love, finding love, becoming whole and ending up with the family they choose, not necessarily the family they were born into.

Seeing these people going through these difficult times with love and humor, and coming through stronger than before is a great lesson on life's perfect imperfection. Love is love and let's all find it and spread it around.

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The 2016 revival of William Finn and James Lapine’s masterpiece Falsettos was nominated for five Tony Awards.  The touring production plays D.C.’s Kennedy Center June 11-23 before heading to Charlotte, NC.

For tickets and info, visit falsettosbroadway.com.

For more on Max von Essen, visit maxvonessen.com or follow him at @maxizpad.