Photography by Luke Fontana. photographed at the Hotel Hugo, New York. Styling by Michael Cook. Groomer: Angela Di Carlo. T-shirt and jeans by Dior Homme
Broadway’s Palace Theatre has an elevator to the dressing rooms, and Max von Essen is pretty sure an aging actress demanded it be installed. But he can’t remember exactly which diva it was, so as he waits for it, he grabs everyone who passes by and asks if they know the legend.
Nobody does, but that’s OK. Von Essen is more interested in friendly banter than the story of some forgotten star who wouldn’t take the stairs. And that mischievous charm he exudes comes in handy when he’s playing Henri Baurel, his character in the new musical An American in Paris. Freely adapted from the 1951 film, the show uses classic Gershwin songs to spin the tale of an American soldier who falls for a Parisian ballerina. But it’s Henri, the ballerina’s betrothed, who steals most of the scenes — and the role has since earned von Essen Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle acting award nominations. Even though he’s supposed to be overseeing his family’s business, he just keeps cracking jokes, buying drinks, and fantasizing about singing on a New York stage. He’s the guy at the nightclub that everybody wants at their table.
He’s also a guy that von Essen understands. “I remember telling my boyfriend, ‘This is me! I have to get this!’ ” says the actor, whose other Broadway credits include Magaldi in Evita and Enjolras in Les Misérables. Case in point: Henri’s big moment, a captivating performance of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.” Says von Essen, “I sang that song when I was a kid, in this little cabaret act for other kids. My mom bought me this thick Gershwin book, and I would sight-read every day and learn song after song.”
He also channeled Henri’s good humor in early tryouts for the role, in particular when he faced the grueling dance audition (the show is choreographed and directed by ballet luminary Christopher Wheeldon). “I was with some of the best dancers in New York and I was struggling, so the only way I got through it was with comedy,” von Essen recalls later in his dressing room. “There were all these beautiful men next to me, and I just said, ‘I think I’ve had this fantasy before!’ ”
Not that he doesn’t have a serious side. Taking thoughtful pauses before he answers questions, he readily discusses his convictions about everything from art to politics. That’s another way he’s like Henri, who’s revealed to have remarkable depth as the show advances. He was a secret freedom fighter during the war, for instance, and his sexuality is an open question — no small matter in the 1940s.
This is especially important for von Essen, who made waves during the 2012 presidential election when his Facebook post challenging the Republican Party’s homophobia went viral in the theater community.
“I connect with Henri’s confusion about his identity,” he says. “That’s how I was as a teenager. I didn’t know for a long time, and Henri doesn’t know. All I have to do is put myself in another time period, and it’s Henri.”