When we spoke by phone last week, Mark Umbers was waiting for a courier to deliver his passport, so that he could travel to Boston, where he will star in the Huntington Theatre Company’s new production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.
Starting September 8th, audiences will see Umbers recreate his role as Franklin Shepard, as he performed it to rave reviews in a highly regarded production in London’s West End. Umbers, an Oxford-trained classicist, talked about his career and his experience performing the role directly in front of Sondheim.
Michael: When did you know that you wanted to act?
Mark: I think I was about fifteen. A drama teacher came to direct a show at the nearby girls’ school, and I played the male lead in that. Bizarrely, it was Half a Sixpence, of all things, which was not an obvious choice for me, especially because I cannot dance a single step. I mean, I’m really, really terrible at it. I got through it anyway, and the drama teacher told me I ought to consider acting as a career. I was cripplingly shy as a teenager, though. I never would have predicted that I would have ended up doing as much theater as I’ve done.
Michael: After you left Oxford, how hard was it to get started? How did you make the leap?
Mark: It was a big leap actually. As I’m sure you’d appreciate, when you go to Oxford you’re in a very rarified environment. Then the second you leave and move to London or wherever it is you move to, you come to earth with a crashing thud. I didn’t know anybody involved in the industry at all. I didn’t know where to go or what I was doing.
I did a course or some sort of workshop at the Actor’s Center. The actress Sylvia Syms directed it and put me in touch with her agent and that’s how it started. Then pretty quickly I got into the ensemble at the National Theater where I stayed for about two, two and a half years. That really became my drama school. I absolutely loved it there.
Michael: Tell me about your time at the National.
Mark: At the National literally I started off as the torchbearer in the background in Troilus and Cressida. Then I got a slightly bigger part in Candide, and then a slightly bigger part in The Merchant of Venice. Then I got My Fair Lady after that, so it was kind of a long stretch, but it felt like I was gradually climbing up the ladder.
Michael: How different was doing Sondheim from doing anything else?
Mark: Honestly, Merrily didn’t feel like a musical. I never felt that I had to sort of walk to the front of the stage and present a musical number. It just felt like a play, a lot of which happened to have been sung. I don’t remember every panicking about my voice or anything like that. It was the first time I’d done a musical where the composer had made it so easy for the actor because he’d thought of everything, in terms of how the lyrics are married to the music. It’s all on the page.
Michael: How do you avoid the tendency to perform Sondheim worshipfully and instead give the play and the audience their due?
Mark: Well, I think with Merrily, it was a slightly different deal going in because it was well known as something that had failed when it was first produced. The version that … I can’t vouch for American productions, but in terms of London, the Donmar production had been very well received, but it was a totally different script from the one that we were doing. It felt like it was sort of open season, really, for us to try and forge a new version of the show. I don’t think we went in worshiping the material in any way. We just went in trying to make it real and visceral and not too presentational in a “musical theater” way.
Michael: Sondheim was present at the rehearsals. Is that correct?
Mark: He was present at previews. It was pretty nerve-wracking having him there at the first preview in a small studio theatre. Seeing him on the back row while you’re performing – it certainly brings out the best in you.
Michael: He liked what he saw. He said you were the best in the role he’d ever seen, isn’t that correct?
Mark: He was very kind to say so. Actually, the first thing I said to him afterwards was, “I’m so sorry, I messed up three of your lyrics.” He said, “Actually, you messed up five.” Interestingly he said, “But the intention was absolutely correct so it didn’t matter”, which I think translated as “It’s fine, but don’t do it again.” He’s more protective about the lyrics than he is about the music, I think.
Michael: Why is that?
Mark: Why? Because I think he sweats over every syllable to make sure it’s appropriate for that character at that moment of that scene. In the same way that a playwright would. I think if you mess it up or paraphrase or generalize, I imagine it would be quite galling.
Michael: What was the reaction of the audience to the show?
Mark: They absolutely loved it. It was extraordinary really, how moved people were, because you know when you’re dealing with a troubled piece. You don’t know quite what people are going to make of it. And especially this one where the narrative depends on the cast leaving their vanity at the door. The show travels backwards in time. All the characters are at their ugliest and most horrendous at the beginning, and it feels like you’re keeping the audience slightly at arm’s length for the first fifteen minutes or so.
The one piece of advice I got from Sondheim actually before doing it was, for God’s sake, don’t try to be liked because you’ll screw it up. And he’s absolutely right. It’s very alienating as an actor to walk on stage and risk being hated at the beginning of the evening. But you do then have the luxury of peeling the layers off and explaining why that person turned out the way they did. You get to end the evening on an optimistic, youthful high.