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Q&A: Meet Max von Essen of 'Anastasia'

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

Tony nominee Max von Essen shares his definition of family

Max Von Essen stars as Gleb Vaganov in the romantic and adventurous Broadway musical Anastasia. The hit show is inspired by the beloved films and is from the Tony Award-winning creators of the Broadway musical Ragtime. We are transported from the twilight of the Russian Empire to the Paris in the 1920s, as a courageous young woman longs to uncover the mystery of her past. Meanwhile, she is pursued by a Soviet officer (Gleb), who is determined to silence her. The show is all about what we do to find home, love and family. Von Essen last starred on Broadway as Henri Baurel in An American In Paris (a performance for which he was nominated for a Tony Award). 

Max von Essen as Gleb Vaganov in ‘Anastasia’ on Broadway (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Max von Essen as Gleb Vaganov in ‘Anastasia’ on Broadway (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

You put so much care and thought into your dressing rooms. What are a few treasured items in them? 
Max von Essen
: I have a portrait painted by my dear friend and Tony Award-winning costume designer, William Ivey Long. He and I share an alma mater (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill). When I was honored by the Arts and Sciences department, William not only said the loveliest things on my behalf, but also presented me with the portrait. I treasure it. 

I also have a very small map of Russia pulled from a book from about 1880. It barely cost a thing, and holds very little value, but it holds history. It has stood the test of nearly 140 years and not only that, it existed at the time of the story we are sharing onstage. It could have been something in a book owned by my character's father, perhaps, and handed down to me. I can simply look at it and hold my hand to it, and feel the history. It's helpful to have it in the dressing room. It grounds me, and helps me connect to the world onstage. I have a hand-painted matryoshka doll with members of the Romanov family. Another dear friend gave me these beautiful nesting dolls to celebrate my joining the show, and I love them. 

When did you know that you had to perform?
Max von Essen
: That is tricky, because it wasn't so much a need to perform as simply a need to create. I was first drawn to the piano, and worked very hard at a young age to become proficient. That led to singing, which in turn led to acting. I loved the process, I loved exploring new roles, I loved the friends I made. It wasn't until a few weeks before graduating college that I knew I had to go for it, and try to do it professionally. I finally faced the fact that it was so much more than a hobby, it was very deep and real passion. I went for it and never looked back.

After the show, so many fans are at the stage door. Is there a stand-out moment that you have had there after the show? 
Max von Essen
: First of all, we have the most incredible fans! Like, the sweetest and most devoted of any show I've ever been a part of. The crowd at the stage door every night is just crazy, and I'm so grateful. I recently had this sweet young girl thank me for telling this story and inspiring her to find her family. She continued, and said she didn't know who her family was, and she now has the courage to try to find them. Fascinating, huh? 

I mean, I truly believe family isn't just blood related. We often choose our family or are chosen. Perhaps someone is adopted, perhaps someone never felt accepted by their family and created a new family of their own. I certainly don't know this girl's situation, but I couldn't help but think how powerful theater can be for people. She felt compelled to make a major change in her life and explore something she's never known. Sometimes it's just two and a half hours of a silly escape, but for many, it's often so much more. 

How do you prepare before a performance? 
Max von Essen
: It's most important to do a really thorough physical and vocal warm up. Everything is connected, so if I haven't properly stretched and gotten my heart rate up, then it's almost impossible for me to get my voice to warm up and function properly. That time spent stretching also helps to prepare my mind for what the role demands dramatically. Earlier in the run, I'd spend a lot more time alone in my dressing room quietly preparing for my character, almost meditating. But now that I'm about 8 months in, I just get my costume on, recite my opening speech and I'm ready to make my first entrance. The character is simply more a part of me, so it's easier to just jump into the world of the show.

What was the first Broadway show you saw, and what were the circumstances?
Max von Essen
: The first Broadway show I ever saw was Dreamgirls. And I'm pretty sure I was in the 7th grade. I knew I was drawn to musicals, and I loved movie musicals, so I begged my parents to take me to a Broadway show. I actually really wanted to see CATS, but it wasn't on TKTS that day, and I just looked at the list of available shows and pointed to Dreamgirls, saying to my dad, "I heard that was good!" Well, it was spectacular. I was mesmerized. 

What do you remember about your Broadway debut?
Max von Essen
: My Broadway debut was in the first revival of Jesus Christ Superstar in 2000. The production was looking for an ensemble member who could understudy the role of Jesus, and I happened to be playing that role in a regional production in Connecticut at the time. I just knew I'd be perfect for what they were looking for. My agents convinced the casting office to see me, and after two appointments I was cast in the ensemble and as a Jesus understudy. I can remember getting the call as I was driving back to Connecticut. I was all alone and quite simply, overwhelmed. The feeling of having a dream come true is very powerful and, ultimately, quiet and personal. I had dreamed of walking through the stage door of a Broadway theater since I was a little kid, and the experience didn't disappoint. I loved that show, I loved that cast, and it was an extra thrill to perform the role of Jesus many times.

Do you have a dream role? 
Max von Essen
:  Dream roles are tricky. Some truly are just in my dreams, and I hesitate to even say them, because I don't want people to think I'm delusional. Honestly, I think my true dream role is still in someone's head somewhere. I long to play some more original roles, and be the first to leave my mark on them. Until then, I'd be over the moon to play some of Sondheim's leading men. How about George in Sunday in the Park with George and Bobby in Company? Any theaters out there reading this? Let's make it happen!
For more of the Best of Broadway, check out our list of Top Shows in September 2018.


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