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by Michael Portantiere

The Baker's Wife's Lover

  • Max von Essen, photo by Michael Portantiere

    Most people would say the guy is a prick, an insufferable pretty boy who thinks he's God's gift to women and doesn't hesitate to be a home wrecker if it's necessary to get what he wants. On top of all that, he's French! Yes, the role of Dominique in the Stephen Schwartz-Joseph Stein musical The Baker's Wife has some potential pitfalls, but Max von Essen played it very well at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2005.

    A survivor of Dance of the Vampires, one of the biggest debacles in recent theater history, Max went on to appear as Woody in Finian's Rainbow at the Irish Rep and as Patrick in the excellent Kennedy Center production of Mame. His credits also include a rare staging of The Umbrellas of Cherboug at the Two River Theater Company in New Jersey. Currently, he's Enjolras in Les Miz on Broadway, but he'll soon take a break to do The Baker's Wife once again -- this time at the York Theatre as part of that company's Musicals in Mufti series, playing opposite the beautiful and talented Renée Elise Goldsberry as Geneviève. I recently spoke with him over herbal tea at his apartment in Hell's Kitchen.


    BROADWAYSTARS: It must be exciting to have a second shot at playing Dominique. Stephen Schwartz is known for revising his lyrics even after a song has been published and recorded, but I don't suppose he's made any changes to The Baker's Wife over the past two years. Or has he?

    MAX VON ESSEN: I actually have no idea, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are some. Stephen is a guy who likes to stick around, so I imagine he'll be part of the process again this time. When I did the show at Paper Mill, it was like a new show to me. I didn't know the original version, I had never seen a production, and I had never even heard "Proud Lady" until I learned it for the audition -- which is amazing, because it seems like every guy has sung it at some point.

    STARS: Isn't Dominique something of a departure for you?

    MAX: Without a doubt. I started out playing roles like Tony in West Side Story, Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance -- the sort of younger, lovestruck, more naïve guy. What I like about Dominique is the fact that he's a ladies' man with a real macho edge, yet he still goes on some sort of a journey. He knows he can have every girl he wants in this little town in France, but he doesn't realize that he hasn't really lived yet until this woman comes along from a slightly bigger, more cosmopolitan town.

    STARS: It's often said that an actor can't successfully play a character as a villain, but honestly, some of Dominique's behavior is rather loathsome. Is that a big challenge for you?

    MAX: Not really. Stephen and Joe Stein, who wrote the book, realized that it's very hard for an audience to stay engaged with a show if they hate one of the characters. If you think Geneviève is an idiot to run away with this jerk, then you're going to hate both of them. So there have been some changes made to address that. In the original lyric of "Proud Lady," Dominique sang, "I've finally found the one true love of my life -- for the 23rd time." Now, that last part has been changed. Little things like that can make a huge difference.

    STARS: Do you think Dominique is really in love, not just in lust, with Geneviève?

    MAX: I think he thinks he's in love with her. He's had plenty of sex, but what he feels for her is on another level. He's never experienced anything like it before.

    STARS: You played the title role in a musical based on The Picture of Dorian Gray in L.A. I'm guessing that was another character with dark edges.

    MAX: Yeah. In the first act, he's a young guy who's just starting to experience the world, but in the second act, he gets heavily into drugs and sex and partying. That was certainly a departure for me!

    STARS: For The Baker's Wife at the York, you have several people back from the Paper Mill production, including Gordon Greenberg as director and Lenny Wolpe in the role of Aimable. Paper Mill has been having some major financial problems. Do you think they're going to pull it out of the fire?

    MAX: I certainly hope so. It would be horrible to lose that theater. There aren't many theaters around the country that do shows at such a high level of quality. I've been in two shows there, The Baker's Wife and My Fair Lady. In fact, I started rehearsals for Dance of the Vampires while I was doing My Fair Lady, so I was traveling back and forth between the city and New Jersey.

    STARS: Speaking of Dance of the Vampires: I'm sure you've talked about it many times, but I have a specific question. Did you notice a huge change in audience reaction after the critics weighed in?

    MAX: Yes -- and no. It's not like they turned on us, but as soon as the reviews came out, we went from 100% capacity to 60%. In a barn like the Minskoff, you really feel that. And there were certain things in the show, having to do with the gay subplot, that some people found insulting. A couple of times, people would hiss during my number with Asa Somers, and we got a boo here and there. That was hard for us. I understood it, but I thought, "Hey, we're the actors! We didn't write this, and we can't not do it."

    STARS: Is it tremendously difficult to perform under those circumstances?

    MAX: I thought we would either be loved for being this wacky, silly show, or we would be killed by the critics. My gut feeling was that we were going to be killed, so I was sort of prepared for it. But I was having so much fun being a lead, making a good salary, and hanging out with all my friends. Michael Crawford and René Auberjonois were terrific to work with. It was just a bummer that we closed so quickly. The show did develop a cult following, but it wasn't enough to keep it running.

    STARS: Dance of the Vampires had been a hit in Europe but, apparently, that version was much more serious than the Broadway version.

    MAX: Oh, yeah. I saw it in Vienna, when I was doing West Side Story. I actually auditioned for Alfred in that production -- in German! -- and I was offered the understudy job. I didn't take it because I felt I should get back to New York, but the show was breathtaking. It wasn't entirely serious; the townspeople and the crazy scientist and Alfred were the comic relief, but the romance and the main Gothic storyline were deadly serious. I saw Steve Barton in the lead. He was unbelievable, a massive presence on stage. When they brought the show here, they had this idea that they wanted to turn it into a musical comedy. I'm speculating, but I think part of it was because Michael Crawford didn't want to play the Phantom again. In trying to change the show and add comedy, things got off balance and it just didn't work. Maybe they'll fix it when they do it at Mufti in a few years!

    STARS: I'm glad you got through it unscathed and went on to some wonderful things. I was lucky enough to see Mame in D.C.

    MAX: There's nothing like a featured role where you just sit and relax for the first act, then you come on in Act II and have great stuff to do. There were moments when I would think, "Am I really on stage in the middle of a scene with Christine Baranski and Harriet Harris?" We were convinced that we were coming to New York. You hear that all the time, but rarely does a show come so close and not actually make the move. When you see people like the Weisslers and the Nederlanders backstage, you think, "Whoa!" It got to the point where they were asking me about rehearsal dates and possible conflicts. I still think about that show a lot. I would sneak out to watch the first act every night, and I would get chills. Jerry Herman was there for weeks. He didn't want to leave!

    STARS: You've worked with some legendary composers and lyricists: Herman on Mame, Schwartz on The Baker's Wife, Sheldon Harnick on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. That must be a thrill.

    MAX: It's awesome. Stephen and Sheldon are the best, and working with Jerry was surreal. I would have loved to have played the son in La Cage. Maybe I could still do it -- in a big theater! It's different in film and television, but I'm glad I can still play young roles on stage, because I think I'm ready for them now. I mean, it's hard to play Tony in West Side Story if you haven't really lived.


    [The Musicals in Mufti presentation of The Baker's Wife will play October 26-28 in the Theatre at Saint Peter's on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue. For further information, visit www.yorktheatre.org or call 212-935-5820.]

    Published on Thursday, October 18, 2007

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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