Broadway leading man Max von Essen talks about his perfect block in Hell’s Kitchen, where he goes to work off his fried chicken indulgence, and why he loves the old seediness of the neighborhood.

Max von Essen hanging out in Hell’s Kitchen. Photo: Christopher Ruetten.

Max was nominated for a Tony for his role in An American in Paris in 2015, and most recently played Gleb Vaganov in Anastasia. He lives in Hell’s Kitchen with his partner Daniel and their sphinx cat called Pocket. He celebrated the release of his debut solo recording, Call Me Old Fashioned: The Broadway Standard at Birdland in August 2019.

42nd Street was nothing but porn theaters and drug dealers, Times Square was seedy and dangerous … and I loved every minute of it!

Why I came here

One of my favorite things to do as a teenager was to explore this area, back when it was a lot more, shall we say, colorful? 42nd Street was nothing but porn theaters and drug dealers, Times Square was seedy and dangerous, I’d see a Broadway show then get propositioned by a prostitute on 8th Avenue, and I loved every minute of it! Cut to about 15 years ago when a friend of mine was selling her place and I fell in love with it and bought it. The neighborhood isn’t quite as seedy, but I still adore it. 

Why I stay

You know, as wild as it can get and as close as it is to Times Square, the moment you turn down my tree-lined block with a park, a church, and the sweetest little street lamps, you feel like you’re in a real neighborhood. I love that dichotomy. The life, the energy, the craziness, and then suddenly you find some peace.

The best bit about living here

It’s a definitely a combination of the charm and the convenience. Walk two blocks west of Times Square and you’re in a real neighborhood with beautiful streets, fantastic restaurants, and coffee shops. Then to have the ability to walk to work when I’m in a Broadway show is just amazing. I used to dream of that when I was a kid.

And the worst

Well, when a neighborhood has this kind of excitement and energy, it attracts a lot of people who often forget that people live here. That this is their home, you know? When someone has their hand on their car horn, I was just want to run up to the window and scream: “We live here, asshole! Show some respect!” Or people come into the neighborhood just to party on St Patrick’s Day or Halloween and vomit on the corner or ON MY FRONT STEPS and I think: “could you imagine if I came to your street and did that?”

When I caught the bug

I stepped on stage a few times as a kid for some piano recitals or some group chorus concerts, but it wasn’t until middle school when I had my first singing solo (‘Morning Glow’ from Pippin) that I got the bug. Oh man, the feeling was incredible. It just felt like home. 

My career highlight so far

There have been a lot – I’m super lucky, but An American in Paris on Broadway is definitely a stand-out. Everything just clicked, you know? I’m a Gerswhin-loving kid from Queens and Long Island who always dreamed of making it on Broadway. So to be playing the Palace Theater, singing the songs I taught myself as a kid and getting a Tony nomination for it all was just surreal. I loved every moment on stage and off!

The role I most identify with

Truly, playing Henri Baurel in An American in Paris felt like playing me on stage. Sure, the circumstances were different, sure it was in the 1940s, but it was me! I felt so connected to him and he’ll forever mean so much to me.

My HK go-to places

I could literally eat at Nizza every night. I’m gluten-free and they have the most delicious gluten-free menu. I also LOVE Bird and Branch Coffee. They are fairly new to the neighborhood, but the coffee and vibe are amazing. Let’s see, what else? Joe Allen for the perfect post-show meal, Arriba Arriba for Mexican, Hudson River Park or Clinton Community Garden (you’ll need a key for that one) to sit on some grass and relax, Birdland on Monday nights for Jim Caruso’s Cast Party, Galaxy for a diner moment, Schnipper’s when I’m indulging, CYC to sweat off the calories from Schnipper’s, Schmackary’s for the best cookies, Therapy or Hardware for a drink and to see Marti Cummings‘ show, and 9th Avenue Vintner for my “needs.”

My happy place

Other than my apartment, probably the roof of my building. Having a glass of wine up there with my partner, Daniel, or with friends at night is magical. The 360 views are so stunning. 

What I miss most when I’m touring

Definitely Daniel and my cat, Pocket. Other than them, I just miss the feeling of knowing I can step out of my apartment and everything is readily available to me. A meal, a museum, a shopping spree, you name it. I’ve been in some cities on tour where I’m literally like: “Where the hell can I find a salad in this town?” or “Why is everything closed at night?!”

A 60-second plug for my latest album

The thrill I felt performing in An American in Paris is what inspired Call Me Old Fashioned. I knew that George and Ira Gerswhin’s music would be a highlight of the album and the rest just fell into place. It’s a love letter to another time. My romantic leading man takes on some of the greatest songs of Broadway and the American Songbook. All meant to make you feel great and feel as if you’ve visited an era long past. 

This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of W42ST magazine.

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