Past/Present/Future for... Merrily We Roll Along star Mark Umbers
Based on the play by Kaufman and Hart, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical charts the turbulent relationship between three friends, Franklin, Charley and Mary, over three decades. Starting in 1980 and travelling backwards in time, it features songs including ‘Good Thing Going’, ‘Not a Day Goes By’ and ‘Old Friends’.
Umbers was nominated for a Whatsonstage.com Award for his performance in the Menier's Sweet Charity. His other theatre credits include The Browning Version at the Harold Pinter Theatre, The Glass Menagerie and Funny Girl. TV credits include Mistresses, Eternal Law and The Turn of the Screw.
Merrily We Roll Along, which is directed by Maria Friedman and also stars Damian Humbley and Jenna Russell, runs from 28 November 2012 - 23 February 2013 (previews from 16 November).
I grew up near Harrogate in North Yorkshire. Acting was sort of just the one thing I was good at in school, and then I had a teacher who told me I should think about it. Then I got into Oxford and that delayed it for about three or four years, but I spent most of my university years acting anyway.
I didn’t train in the end, because my degree had been four years and I think I was sick of being a student. Before too long I got a job as a spear carrier in a company at the National. I did that for two years and kind of graduated up to nice roles, and that was my drama school in the end.
My career highlight, I think, was The Glass Menagerie. I just never thought I would be doing Tennessee Williams on Shaftesbury Avenue, and with Jessica Lange as well. It was such a beautiful play. I’d never come across that sort of writing before and I absolutely loved it.
I don’t prefer theatre over TV. It just depends on the role and the company. I think I have a quite a low boredom threshold. In fact, that was what was said on my last school report. I like it when it’s different every day and you can do a bit of that in theatre.
I haven’t done any Sondheim before. I mean very obliquely, I think he did some of the lyrics for Candide. But no, I’ve never done a Sondheim show, so it’s pretty daunting actually.
Merrily We Roll Along is a story that is told backwards about a Broadway composer who, when we first meet him, is a film producer in Hollywood. He has sold out, and it tells the story of how that happens through the prism of his friendship with his two best friends, Charley and Mary. And in the end they’re these young, idealistic, optimistic things.
We have to rehearse it as it’s written, because that’s the way the audience see it, but it a very odd experience. It’s a lot more like filming where you have to completely surrender control over what you’re doing and hope the editor picks up on it. It can be very confusing because every scene that you rehearse is informed by a scene that you haven’t yet rehearsed. I think once we’ve got to the end and go back to the beginning, it will all make sense.
Maria Friedman is great. She’s a bit of an expert in human nature which is very interesting. I’ve never really had that before in a director. She’s an actress, so she understands how a rehearsal room should be run, and I think that our comfort is paramount which is great. She knows when we’re feeling uncomfortable and why and knows how to fix it pretty quickly.
Stephen Sondheim is definitely coming over. We had a telegram on the first day of rehearsal from him that said something like, “do what Maria tells you and then I’ll come over in November and fix it”. So yeah he’s coming over, which for me is absolutely terrifying. It was bad enough on my last job when I had David Hare sitting in the rehearsal room, and Stephen Sondheim is kind of, well, a legend.
I’m very much looking forward to returning to the Menier. For a winter job in a very small space you do have to look after yourself, lots of Berocca! But it’s a great great space for something that’s normally a very big show. You can get away with so much more nuance than you can in any other space. The trade-off is that everything has to be 100 percent or it just won’t work. You can’t be stagy and act like you’re in a musical.
I don’t really have a preference for plays or musicals, I approach them in the same way. It’s just a question of the role and if it’s a challenge. I mean there’s no question that a musical is much more hard work than a play. And you have to live like a monk depending on what you have to do in it. I don’t just jump into musicals willy-nilly, but if it’s a challenging role and it excites me then I’ll do it, but otherwise, probably not.
In terms of dream roles, I always think the ones that you plan to play, you never will. I have always wanted to play Pericles because I have always adored the play and it’s seldom done, and maybe when I’m a bit older, Sweeney Todd. I don’t know, I certainly don’t have a list or anything.
In terms of heroes, I don’t think I take things from people, I learn an awful lot from seeing people interviewed. Actresses seem to be a lot better at expressing what the job's about than actors. In terms of living actors – I think Robert Downey Jr is top of the heap at the moment in terms of film, and Juliette Binoche comes pretty much top of my list.
I never have any plans, I just sort of have to wait and see. It’s unfortunately one of those jobs where you can’t plan at all. I always feel I want to do the opposite of what I’ve just done. If it ever feels easy I think I am doing the wrong thing. So something as far away from what I’m doing. Telly in Australia - grab that out of the dark.
- Mark Umbers was talking to Rosie Bannister