After three decades in the business, Ria Jones hit the front pages when she covered for an indisposed Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard. As she returns to play Norma Desmond in her own right, the singer tells Andy Plaice about her long association with the role and her love for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music
When illness forced Glenn Close to pull out of Sunset Boulevard temporarily at London’s Coliseum last year, some fans stormed off fuming. Those that stayed for the show witnessed something remarkable: the fairytale transformation of an understudy into a West End star.
Boos and catcalls rang out from the auditorium when the news was announced from the stage last April. Many had paid over £100 to see the Hollywood star sing Norma Desmond.
Waiting in the wings was the understudy Ria Jones. “I learned at 9.30am on the day that she might not be able to go on,” she says 18 months on. “Then at 3.30pm I was told I was going on.”
Jones was not fazed as she stepped out onto the Coliseum stage to face the mob, she says. “I knew people were booing and asking for their money back but it wasn’t me they were booing. It made me more determined to go on and do my best work.”
“After With One Look, the whole place went crazy. It was enough of a job to stop myself crying but I thought, ‘No, I have two more hours to get through.’ ”
With a six-minute standing ovation from the audience, a personal message from Andrew Lloyd Webber and a bouquet of flowers from Close herself, complete with a note saying “I hear you’re doing a great job”, a star was born.
What was your first professional theatre job? Cinderella at Swansea Grand in 1977, aged 10. Clive Dunn starred in it as Buttons.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Andrew Lloyd Webber: his writing. I love his music because he writes the most memorable melodies, dramatically they are so strong and for someone with my kind of voice – what they call a ‘belt’ voice – nobody writes in a better style.
If you hadn’t been a musical-theatre performer, what would you have been? A Welsh teacher or property developer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Don’t whistle in the dressing room, don’t walk under ladders and do salute a magpie.
A year and a half after her four performances at the Coliseum, Jones is preparing to tour in Sunset Boulevard as the lead in her own right. She hails the work, with a book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton and music by Lloyd Webber.
“I think it’s one of Andrew’s best scores,” says Jones. “It’s the most cinematic, which is perfect for this show. It’s all about silent movies and the film industry and the score needs to match that.”
Starring as Norma Desmond is an opportunity that has come full circle. The Welsh singer originated the role when the show was workshopped at the Sydmonton Festival in 1991.
“It’s so beautiful. I worked on it with him when I was 24,” she says. With her Jack Russell dog Dotty perched on her lap, she continues: “I was so excited sitting next to him as he created it and wrote some of the score. I joked that I was too young to play [the role] but maybe I would get to do it one day.”
Lloyd Webber wrote to Jones soon afterwards – she still has the letter – saying “thank you for bringing Norma Desmond to life”. A quarter of a century later, Jones, the daughter of singers and sister of female impersonator Ceri Dupree, has enjoyed a successful career in musical theatre.
Rather than train, she says: “I chose to get out there and learn on the job. I’d like to have done a year’s acting course because I’ve always felt a little bit inferior to people who have trained. But in terms of the career, I wouldn’t change anything.”
Jones starred in Evita at the Manchester Opera House when she was just 19, before her West End debut in Chess and two years at the New London Theatre as Grizabella in Cats.
Other highlights included playing Fantine in Les Miserables first in Manchester and then on tour, the narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and alongside Marti Pellow in The Witches of Eastwick.
Jones had never covered a role before. But when offered the part understudying Close, she leapt at the chance to learn from an “incredible actress”.
In the theatre on that April night was Michael Harrison, who is co-producing this new UK tour of Sunset Boulevard with David Ian, in association with Leicester’s Curve (Nikolai Foster directs). “Michael phoned me and said, ‘Oh, my God we have to do this on tour, we have to make it happen.’ ”
Jones cannot wait to return to Norma, a fading star of the silent movies – a sensitive, complex character who refuses to let go of the past.
Jones is equally excited to work with a “stunning” cast, part of a 56-strong company with a 16-piece orchestra. “It sounds like it did when I did it at the Coliseum – it blew my mind,” she says.
She is particularly grateful the producers are taking the show to her home town. Over a long career, she has played Swansea many times but never toured with a musical.
That will change when Sunset Boulevard arrives at the Grand Theatre, a venue especially close to Jones’ heart. She performed in pantomime there as a child, her mother worked in the box office and it is where her parents met.
If Sunset Boulevard is about a star on the wane, this production is led by one in the ascendancy. “I have been doing this job for 33 years,” Jones says. “It’s incredible to think that four performances at the right time in the right place heightened my career in the way that it did.”
Born: 1967, Swansea
Landmark productions: High Society, Shaftesbury Theatre, London (2005); Acorn Antiques,
UK tour (2007); 42nd Street, Curve, Leicester (2011)
Agent: Phil Belfield at Belfield and Ward
Sunset Boulevard runs at Leicester’s Curve until September 30, before touring to venues across the UK