Merrily We Roll Along may have flopped on Broadway in 1981, but the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical—the story of a three-way friendship that begins at the end and rewinds to the beginning—seems to lead a charmed life in London. Michael Grandage’s 2000 production won the Olivier Award for best musical, while Maria Friedman’s latest staging has transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to a commercial run to the Harold Pinter Theatre. Much of the praise has centered around 39-year-old Mark Umbers in the defining role of Franklin, the songwriter who sells out both personally and professionally; Damian Humbley and Jenna Russell co-star. Broadway.com spoke to the engaging Umbers about coupling classic plays with musicals, going Hollywood (or not) and his triumphant entry into the Sondheim fold.
Welcome to your first Sondheim musical! Have you felt as if you were joining some sort of club?
I felt exactly that. In fact, [co-star] Jenna [Russell] and I auditioned for the earlier Merrily at the Donmar and I remember being gutted that I didn’t get it; though, to be perfectly honest, I would have been rubbish. [Franklin] is a really difficult part, so it’s just as well that I waited 12 years. think the piece works better with us being older; you have more life to draw upon..
Maria Friedman’s direction helps to ground Franklin, the most slippery of the principal characters.
Yes, I remember Maria saying that she wanted to direct it as Franklin’s memory play and my being very intrigued by that because I thought it might make him the fulcrum of the narrative. Not that the other two roles [Charley and Mary] are actor-proof by any stretch of the imagination, but Franklin comes across as a lot more ephemeral on the page; you can’t quite pin him down.
Not to mention that at no point does Franklin particularly ask to be liked.
When we started, Maria said that Stephen Sondheim had called her up with a note to me to make sure I didn’t try in my performance to be liked. That first scene [when Franklin has sold out his ideals and brought his friendships to the brink of ruin] is very uncomfortable not so much because I want to be liked as an actor but because it’s odd to start a piece at that pitch: Jenna and I are very exposed in that way. But Sondheim was absolutely right, and now I really embrace it. The more vile he is at the beginning, the more interesting it is to peel off the layers.
In my view, it’s less about Franklin being unlikable and more about him being weak, in that he succumbs so easily to the trappings of success.
Sure, and I have to say that I didn’t worry about him being disliked, particularly, since I knew what was to come. All I knew was that I needed to nail Act One and then really enjoy Act Two. Doing a show like this is a bit like filming, where you are always shooting things out of sequence, so you then have to trust your instincts. It’s a strange experience when you’re on an opposite journey to the audience: you have to be very brave and dive in the deep end knowing that the end of the show, with us up on the rooftop, is when we get to be our happiest.
What was it like having Sondheim at your very first preview?
Very, very terrifying! I had been told, “Whatever you do, don’t mess up a lyric. Musically, he won’t mind, but the lyrics are crucial.” And then I proceeded to mess up four of them and thought to myself, “I will never learn [the song] ‘Opening Doors’ ever!” Afterwards, I apologized, and he said to me, “Actually, you messed up six, but the intention was right.” He was incredibly nice to us and also very moved that his friend George Furth wasn’t alive to see his work. He later turned up unexpectedly on the first day of rehearsals for the transfer. We heard this voice going, “Sing out, Louise!” And there he was [laughs].
Are you thinking of other Sondheim roles you might do—Ben, for instance, at some later date in Follies?
I have huge gaps in my knowledge of musicals, and Follies is one of them. Jenna keeps saying that I should sit down and listen to it properly. When I was younger, I wanted to play Bobby [in Company], back when I was leaving Oxford and was on the dole, untrained and depressed. I got a cheap ticket to see the production that was on at the time with Adrian Lester and I remember it restoring my faith in an awful lot. That was during my “Opening Doors” stage [laughs].
It’s fascinating that you’ve combined musicals, including Merrily, My Fair Lady, Sweet Charity and Funny Girl, with plays by Williams, Rattigan and Shakespeare.
All I know is that I bring the same approach regardless of the genre. I don’t differentiate between a play or a musical except that with one of them, unfortunately, you have to sing and look after yourself and live like a monk. My Fair Lady happened on a whim because I was at the National Theatre already and I really liked Freddy's song [“On the Street Where You Live”]. I’m aware that there can be a prejudice in this country against musicals. There are certain people you might want to work for who just don’t like them, but Sondheim is different in that respect: he gets a similar audience to the people that would go to a Tom Stoppard play.
You’ve successfully played quite a few Americans on stage, including the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie. Does that make you think about trying your hand in Hollywood, Franklin-style?
I have sort of a strange relationship in that I do American work, but never over there; I haven’t properly done the whole L.A. thing. I’ve been, but I tend to last about 10 days before I start going slightly peculiar. It’s a difficult place to be if you don’t know many people. I always think it would be lovely if the whole film industry could move to New York.
You even played the American husband of Scarlett Johansson in the film A Good Woman in 2006.
Yes, though I didn’t know who she was then. Lost in Translation came out about a week after we had finished filming, so I wasn’t aware of her impending stardom. I do remember that it all happened around her 19th birthday, though you wouldn’t have known it. She’s very grown up.
Speaking of growing up, what’s it like as you near 40 to be in a show that is all about looking back?
The show resonates in that there are certainly things I set out to do that I haven’t achieved, and that I find quite sad. But our version, I think, is much more a piece about second chances and having the courage to revisit and confront things so that you can learn something from the experience. At the very end, I revert back to being the 40-year-old Franklin, and I think you have to believe that he has learned something—that it’s never too late to change.
What do you think lies in wait for Franklin?
I think he’ll probably be President. Republican, of course!