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by Michael Portantiere

Max von Essen is Jay Gatsby

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    How often do musical theater enthusiasts get to hear a score that's more than 40 years old and yet, in a sense, brand new? Not bloody often. But that's just the experience in store for those who attend Gatsby: The Songs in Concert, to be presented by UnsungMusicalsCo. as part of the 2011 New York Musical Theatre Festival on Friday, September 30 (two performances, 7 and 10pm) at the Signature Theatre-Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street.

    The event is billed as the world premiere of the original score of Gatsby, with music by Lee Pockriss and lyrics by the late, great Carolyn Leigh. Inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel The Great Gatsby, the show -- with a book by Hugh Wheeler (A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd) -- had been scheduled to open on Broadway in the spring of 1970, but never came to fruition. The concert version will feature only the songs; none of Wheeler's book will be performed, due to rights restrictions. The cast consists of Matt Cavenaugh, Jenny Powers, Autumn Hurlbert, Megan Sikora -- and, in the title role, Max von Essen, with whom I recently spoke about one of the most intriguing entries in this year's NYMF.

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    BROADWAYSTARS: Max, maybe you can start by giving a brief history of what happened -- or didn't happen -- with Gatsby back in 1970.

    MAX VON ESSEN: From what I understand, the project was all ready to go. They had the money raised, the out of town tryouts were planned. Then it all sort of fell apart; no one seems to know exactly why. They didn't even have the chance to get the show on its feet out of town. The whole thing was shelved and never materialized again. This is the first time the score is going to be heard. Ben West, who runs UnsungMusicals, has pieced it together and dusted it off so it can be presented as if it were a new musical.

    STARS: It must be an odd experience to work on a score that's so old and yet so new to all of us.

    MAX: It's wild. And because the show is set in a specific period that was already history by 1970, the score sounds as if it could have been written today. If someone had handed me this score and said it was a brand new musical written by some young, up-and-coming composer, I would have believed it. A lot of the score is jazz-infused, some of it has a Charleston beat, but then there are inner monologues that stray from the sound of the 1920s and have a very current feel to them.

    STARS: I know the concert won't include any of the book, but will there be some kind of narration to tie the songs together?

    MAX: No, actually. The songs tell the story very well. I do think it will help if you're at least vaguely familiar with the storyline of The Great Gatsby, but even for those who aren't, the concert will make sense and have a through-line. The songs are so great, we just wanted to present them as best we can, in the order that they appear in the show.

    STARS: Did you ever read the novel?

    MAX: I did, in high school. And I started reading it again last night. I'm on page 100, so I'm sure I'll be finished by tomorrow; it's only 180 pages long. Someone asked me the other day, "Is it overwhelming to be playing an iconic literary character?" If we were doing a full production, I might feel that way. But we just want to give a flavor of what this show might have been if it had happened, without going too deep with staging, costuming, and all that.

    STARS: Have you seen any previous stage or film versions of The Great Gatsby? There's the Robert Redford movie, there's the opera...

    MAX: You know what? I haven't seen anything. But I love the score of the musical. Sometimes when shows are shelved, there's a reason for that, but this score is terrific. There are a couple of songs that I'd really like to work into my repertoire. One of them is just gorgeous.

    STARS: It seems to me that Gatsby in particular might be a difficult character to musicalize. Without giving away too much, maybe you can talk about some of the situations in which he sings.

    MAX: Well, there's a very light, jovial, charming song for his first meeting with Nick. Later on, there's a song where Gatsby becomes very passionate about Daisy. Gatsby sort of plays two parts; one moment he's friendly and playful, and the next moment he's terrifying. He's a tough character to figure out, but I think they musicalized him very well.

    STARS: And what about his demise? Is that musicalized?

    MAX: Umm, sort of. You know it happens, but...it's hard to explain. You'll have to see it.

    STARS: A new movie version of The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is due for a 2012 release. Are you looking forward to it?

    MAX: Oh yeah, absolutely. That's something I'll go see. It's a great story.

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    [For more information on Gatsby: The Songs in Concert, or to purchase tickets, click here.]


    Published on Wednesday, September 28, 2011


    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 michael@broadwaystars.com


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