Jenna Russell has become London’s go-to star in the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. She played Young Sally in Follies back in 1988, won the 2007 Olivier Award for Dot/Marie in Sunday in the Park with George (reprising her roles on Broadway in a Tony-nominated performance) and has appeared in Into the Woods twice, most recently as the Baker’s Wife in 2010 in Regent’s Park. Now, Russell is starring as Mary in the Menier Chocolate Factory’s revival of Merrily We Roll Along, directed by Maria Friedman, who herself played Mary 20 years ago. Co-starring Damian Humbley (Charley) and Mark Umbers (Frank) as the friends whose triangular relationship with Mary is told backward across the decades, the production opens on November 28. Broadway.com caught up with the hugely gifted actress early one evening during previews.
You seem to be doing Sondheim’s shows in reverse order—first Sunday in the Park, and now the show that preceded Sunday, Merrily We Roll Along.
It’s lovely to do them that way because the temperature of the pieces is so different. It’s been very interesting to be in this show and to realize what a huge disappointment it was [on Broadway in 1981, when Merrily flopped after two weeks] and how painful that original production must have been for everyone involved. David Hersey, who lit the original production, is lighting ours, and he said there were 19 Broadway babies in that show; it just breaks my heart.
Sounds like you come to Merrily knowing an enormous amount about the piece.
I was around 14 or so when I first listened to the original cast album. My friend Matt Ryan, who’s a director now but was an actor then, gave me my musical theater education in terms of giving me stuff that was interesting to listen to. We had a little Sondheim group going as teenagers, so for years I totally had [original Mary] Ann Morrison in my head.
How did you come to be in this production?
My mum told me ages ago that it had been announced that Maria [Friedman] was directing Merrily at the Menier, but I had no thoughts at all that I would even be in consideration because Mary is usually played by younger actors. I’m now 45; I had auditioned for it at the Donmar 12 years ago and hadn’t gotten it then, so I thought, obviously, this one isn’t going to work out.
Was it a matter of persuading the director, whom I assume you already knew?
Yes, Maria is a friend, as well: We did a Howard Goodall musical together called Girlfriends that was one of my first-ever jobs a long, long time ago. And I guess partly because Maria is an old friend and tells the truth, she said to me, “I’m very used to seeing you being contained and truthful and I don’t think Mary is those things.” I said, “I totally agree, but I know what I can do with it, and I’m willing to be led by you and I think I can achieve that.” So I auditioned and didn’t hear anything apart from the odd text. About six weeks later, I texted her again and said, “Can I come in again? I obviously haven’t shown you what I can do.” She said “OK” and gave it to me!
That’s the value of perseverance!
Maria had already cast the two boys, Damian [Humbley] and Mark [Umbers], and she wanted me to come back in so she could see what the three of us looked like together physically. I think by that point she had made up her mind but hadn’t told me. I was thrilled, obviously!
Tell us about your co-stars.
I’d never worked with Damian before, and he’s extraordinary; he really is. And Mark is just beautiful: He’s got a lovely voice and is ridiculously handsome and a beautiful actor. The hardest part in the show is always Frank, and I watch him and think he’s pulled it off. It’s his show.
What is it like being directed by an actress who has played your part? Is she mouthing your lines in rehearsals?
[Laughs] No, no, no, and she doesn’t hum along! Actually, she’s been a revelation as a director, and I really, really mean that: She gets right into the emotional heart of things and trusts you. She took a long time to cast it, and with every character she was very specific about what she wants. By taking a long time casting, she was able to trust that the cast would do her version of the show.
On that topic, which Merrily text are you following, given that various versions of the piece exist?
We’re doing the authorized version that doesn’t have “Hills of Tomorrow” or “Rich and Happy,” so there are no young people in the school auditorium. I think maybe that makes ours is a bit darker. The first scene, especially, is much longer and quite ugly in our version, but this is the version Maria did at Leicester [when she played Mary in 1992 out of town]. It’s quite dramatic and could easily spill into melodrama, but hopefully we pull that off. It’s still tricky, though—for an actor, this whole show is tricky!— because you have to jump in at your ugliest and then get simpler and less complicated as the show goes on.
Has Sondheim already been in to check out the production?
He has, although luckily I’m a bit used to the composer bit. [Sondheim] was here literally on a flying visit, and being a dear friend of Maria’s —they are close, loving friends—he came to see the first preview and gave Maria his notes and was very lovely to everyone. I heard his laugh a lot during the show, which is good! [Laughs.]
You’ve amassed an impressive Sondheim resume. Have you ever been in Company?
No, I haven’t, and of course, with Follies, I would love to do the older Sally, though I’d like to think I’m a little young for that one just at the moment! I’ve been saying that [Viva Forever! star] Sally Ann Triplett and I should play the older versions of Sally and Phyllis together, having both played the young ones [in 1988]. But here I am, having thought that my days of doing Mary were gone! This is an absolute plus. You never quite know where a career will take you.
What are your memories of doing Sunday in the Park With George on Broadway?
I had the most beautiful time, not only because Sunday is one of those shows—and you get two or three in your lifetime—that mean so much to you. To play that in the mecca of Broadway was simply amazing. But also, after years of Ray [Coulthard, Russell's partner and himself an actor] and I trying to have children, I did IVF over there and got pregnant. So I went to the Tonys knowing I was pregnant, which absolutely took the pressure off. I was so scared there would be some ridiculous upset and if Patti [LuPone] didn’t win for Gypsy, I would lose the baby in the shock [laughs]. I felt as if I was carrying around this beautiful secret.
Have you been back to Manhattan since?
No, [daughter] Betsy is three, and I’m waiting until she’s old enough, so that I can show her what I do. I want to take her to Studio 54 and say, “This is where I used to live.”
You mention Patti LuPone in Gypsy: Is that show on your radar?
Oh, please, who wouldn’t want to play Mama Rose? We don’t do it enough over here, although I know Imelda [Staunton] is doing it next year and she’ll be extraordinary. That’s one of those parts that if it ever comes up again, a lot of us will be poisoning one another to be the last man standing.