INDEX Exclusive - Ria Jones
Think of a landmark musical theatre role of the past 30 years and there’s a fair chance Ria Jones has been attached to it.
From Evita (at 18, the youngest to play the role) to Cats, Les Miserables, Chess, and even Mrs Overall in the musical reboot of Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques, Ria Jones has pretty much sewn up musical theatre’s modern repertoire.
So when a call came asking her to understudy Glenn Close in English National Opera’s production of Sunset Boulevard, Ria might have been forgiven for dismissing the idea of sitting in her dressing room night after night waiting for a Hollywood star to be ‘indisposed’.
Thankfully, the Swansea-born actress has a work ethic and an ongoing desire to hone her craft that saw her seize the opportunity.
“I thought even if I never went on I’d have a couple of months watching a true great at work,” recalls Ria, who is possessed with a vocal range that can deliver – at deftly executed turns – spine-tingling belts and genuinely tender inflections.
It’s a good job she said ‘yes’ because the star missed four performances. And it’s fair to assume that without that twist of fate Ria wouldn’t now be ‘above the title’ in her own right as the increasingly unstable silent movie star Norma Desmond in an eight-month UK and European tour.
Stepping in for Close in front of audiences who’d coughed-up as much as £150 can’t have been easy. Let’s call that an understatement – some disgruntled fans were heard booing.
“I got a call in the morning saying Glenn might be off and then another after lunch saying ‘you’re on’,” says Ria, who’s also starred in 42nd Street and Joseph. “I knew people would be disappointed so all I could do was my best. Once I got to With One Look (the first of her character’s barn-storming solos) the audience went crazy.”
Stepping in at a few hours’ notice with barely any rehearsal paid off handsomely. Ria’s triumph made headlines; brought her a legion of new admirers and, of course, the current gig, which has been accompanied by nightly standing ovations, rave reviews and award nominations.
“She’s great to play. On the one hand a monster and on the other she’s almost childlike in her fragility. For my money, this is one of Andrew’s greatest scores. It’s so cinematic and we’re lucky to be touring with a big orchestra to do it justice,” says Ria, who first played the role in Lloyd Webber’s original workshop opposite Michael Ball.
She follows in illustrious footsteps (the part has been played by, amongst others, Elaine Paige and Petula Clark) but how did she go about tackling what has become one of the great roles? “I saw the London production years ago and obviously had the opportunity to study Glenn at work but naturally I wanted to put my own stamp it. There’s a danger Norma can be seen as one-dimensional but there’s so much more to her – she’s fragile, scared and lonely. I get her, and I like her a lot.
“When Andrew asked me to do the workshop in 1991, I knew I was too young to play her in the West End but I just thought ‘maybe one day’. And here I am!