Wednesday 30 December 2020

Ria Jones In Conversation

Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, Curve, 2017


Sunset Boulevard, directed by Nikolai Foster and starring Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, is currently available to stream until January 9th 2021 and my review of this remarkable re-imagining of Billy Wilder's classic Hollywood tale can be found here.

But while the show, recorded at Leicester's Curve Theatre, may be remarkable, Ria Jones' association with Sunset Boulevard is even more incredible. In 1992, Andrew Lloyd Webber unveiled the show at his Sydmonton Festival, with Jones playing Norma. It was to be some 24 years before Jones was to return to the role, this time at London's Coliseum where she played in standby to Glenn Close.

Fate intervened, and Jones was gifted the chance to lead the Coliseum's show for a series of performances while Close was unwell - and such was the strength of her performance that the Curve, together with producer Michael Harrison, created a touring production of Sunset Boulevard that opened to critical acclaim one year later in 2017.

Now, in the pandemic, it is that touring production that has been revived for streaming.

This week Ria Jones and I discussed Norma and her. Read on.....

JB:     Ria, you have returned to Sunset Boulevard in the midst of a pandemic – tell me how this current, streamed production evolved. 

RJ:     To be honest, when Nikolai Foster, the show’s director first asked me, I literally thought it would be a concert performance with me in a nice dress walking on in front of a microphone and, with the cast, simply singing the songs. But then I thought, how can we do that? Because if you just take the songs, that's not going to last for even an hour!

Then the more I learned about the production, and that there was a revolve that had been donated by Cameron Mackintosh to the theatre, and I thought, okay, that's going to be a bit different to a normal concert. Then I heard we were in costume. And then more and more, and it just sounded more as if it was going to be like the production - although it couldn't be because there were no sets! And then when I heard it was with the 16 piece orchestra, I thought, I'm in! Sadly, a lot of shows can't afford to have that many musicians, but this score begs for that cinematic sound. From that first chord that you hear in the overture, that big, low bellowing sound, it's just fabulous. And I thought, definitely. I think it's a great time to do it because of all the shows I've done, this one is so special for so many reasons. Of all the shows I'd love to sing this year, of all years, would be Sunset, would be Norma.

And then as you know, Leicester went into Tier Three. So, we thought “that would be it, that's it!” and then Nikolai said, "We're thinking of filming it....." 

To be honest, I wished I'd had a few months’ notice and could have gone on a diet because of the lockdown weight I’d put on. HD is cruel at the best of times, let alone after COVID for 10 months! I'm sorry to say this, but HD is not kind unless you're Danny Mac and you wake up perfect like that. 10o'clock in the morning and he would look just as good as at anytime of day! 

As the streamed production came together, the lovely thing about Nikolai was that he allowed us all to put our own ideas in the mix. And he genuinely meant it. This take on the musical was so new and so groundbreaking that we were all able to contribute to its creation. Dan came up with the idea of Betty and Joe underneath the stage with all the scaffolding for that scene in act two, a moment that I thought was just gorgeous. It was a learning curve for us all.

As the tech went on, we got more and more excited because we could feel and see how good it felt and as soon as we heard the orchestra play, it was like sitzprobe all over again. Actually, it was like a sitzprobe each time they played as they were in the room with us throughout, rather than hidden away in a rehearsal room upstairs. That worked especially well, helping us to connect with the musicians and we needed that even more so with there being no audience to relate the story to. 

I think for me playing Norma to an empty auditorium was just amazing because, for her, she was still in a silent world, looking out to the empty seats, the empty auditorium. Tragic in a way, but also quite beautiful because it summed up her whole world, the silent world.

Since the first streams have been broadcast I have had people say that they found my singing "With One Look" or, "As If We Never Said Goodbye," to an auditorium with empty seats was quite moving, especially today. 

JB:     Indeed – the poignancy of the empty Curve is striking. Within the show, the most moving moment for me remains when Hogeye, a Paramount lighting operator who remembers Norma from her glory days, shines a spotlight on her – sending her mind back through the decades. 

RJ:     Yeah, me too. And the music, the way the music is written for that moment is stunning, because the climax of the light hitting her on that with one look moment, that it's just absolutely glorious to play.

"I can say anything I want, with my eyes!"

JB:     It is a heartbreaking piece of humanity, tied to brilliant visuals and brilliant music.

RJ:     Yes, exactly, exactly, exactly. Because in an ideal world, on a film set, it would be those huge empty studios, and with just that one beam of light smacking her in the face. And whether I did it at the Coliseum, even when I first did it at Sydmonton, I remember that, the build-up. It's all the build-up to that moment, isn't it, for her? And it's just so beautifully written and timed.

And of course in her head, and she's just completely in her own world. Nobody else exists. Even though she sings “I don't know why I'm frightened”, it’s as if she's telling them, she's not. She's in her own little world remembering the fairy tale. It's the fairy tales, and the laughter and the joy and the nervousness of it all. She's a teenager, she's 17, again. She's 17. And that beam of light is that smacking her in the face. She's 17 and she’s just met Mr. DeMille who made her a star.

I bawl my eyes out every time, because that's the age I was when I started in the business. I was 16 doing the tour for Bill Kenwright of Joseph. During the tour, I became 17. And then I really got going when I was 17. So when he says that, "If you could have seen her at 17, beautiful and strong, before it all went wrong. She doesn't know that she never knew the meaning of surrender." And you just think, "Oh, there but the grace of God, go I!"

Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, Curve Streamed Performance, 2020

JB:     How did social distancing impact upon your performance?

Social distancing has imposed some strange and unfamiliar working practices upon the company. We couldn't have wigs. We couldn't have dressers. We had to dress ourselves and I had to do my own hair. I always do my own makeup anyway, but of course again under the scrutiny of HD cameras, you've got to think and I've got to be a makeup artist all of a sudden; I've got to be a hairdresser. Previously I’d have had three dressers. Literally, I would come off stage, and have three dressers around me to get me dressed quickly for the next scene. So that was strange. 

Luckily for me though, I could wear turbans for most of the stream. Also, luckily, I'd grown my hair through lockdown, for no other reason than just change really. And so that's why I was able to use my hair for the last scene. On tour, Colin Richmond had designed two wigs for me. The glamorous one, when she's the ingenue, trying to flirt with Joe and the hair has to be perfect. And then one for her breakdown in Act Two, that was much thinner and going grey and everything.

So I thought, how can I do that this time? And I decided to use my own hair and make that look a bit mad, so that the streaming audience see that Norma is real underneath the turban. 

All of those things were tricky, because as well as thinking about what I was singing, I was also thinking about my quick changes, doing my own hair and makeup, all while we were in the real-time of a show. It was not like we were doing a film with the luxury of stopping for an hour while I did a complete makeup change and hair change. I had five, 10 minutes to do all that in, before I was back on camera. So that was scary.

JB:      Your association with Sunset Boulevard has been remarkable, given that you workshopped the show with Andrew Lloyd Webber before performing as Norma Desmond in its first outing at Lloyd Webber’s  Sydmonton Festival in 1990. Please tell me about that journey. 

RJ:     From the outset I adored the songs, they really suited my voice. And it was lovely to work closely with Andrew on them. I mean, I remember sitting next to him at the piano, in his home in Belgrave, literally while he was writing the end of "As If We Never Said Goodbye," And he was like, do you think it is up or down? I said, no, I think it should go up at the end of “goodbye”, which it does – and then of course he added "we taught the world, new ways to dream" And I thought, yes, that's a lovely touch to the song. 

Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, Sydmonton, 1992

At first I thought I really understood why it was there. So then when I played Norma again – fast forward to the Coliseum 26 years later or whatever - oh my gosh, had I learned a lot more, because I had lived a lot more, and by then (in 2016) I was the right age. And having been in the business then for 30 odd years, and having experienced tragedy, loneliness and fear of being on my own at times all helped me get into the bones of Norma Desmond, because the one thing I didn't want was to become a caricature of her. 

Even now, in the two and a half years from doing it on tour to filming it last week, I've experienced more layers to her. 

And also, I am grateful to Norma. For many reasons, she's been a big part of my life. When I was standby to Glenn Close, Norma got me back out there into the world after my illness and that was great.


JB – Tell me more about the Coliseum production

RJ:     Because I wasn't actually in the show as an understudy, I was standing by in the wings literally every night. It's not every day you get to watch a Hollywood A-Listers rehearse and create and everything and that was fascinating for me. Also it was a way of me dipping my toe back into the business, but not with all the pressure of eight shows a week or everything. It was a nice way for me to just slowly get back into it and by gosh, it worked out.

Of course I was booked as Glenn's standby – so when the time came to step up to the role one had to remember that the reason you're going on is because somebody else is poorly. So as much as you can celebrate it, you have to also be respectful of that.

Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, London Coliseum, 2016

JB:     Kevin Wilson (Theatre PR)  had a ticket in the audience for your first night on at the Coliseum as Norma and he penned a 5* rave review of your performance

RJ:     He did. And it went viral, I think! It was amazing and as someone wrote, "It took 36 years to be an overnight success." But it's a case of being at the right place, the right time, the right musical and the right age and the right style for me.

Everything, all the stars aligned and I swear it was Victoria Wood’s heavenly influence too! She had sadly passed away the day before I got the call to play Norma at the Coliseum  and she was a good friend of mine. At the time I said to Steven Mear: "You know what? She's gone up there and thought, right. It's about time for Ria!." I swear it was Victoria.

We all know that unless you make it on TV, you could be a jobbing performer for 40 odd years. I'd rather be a jobbing actress respected by my peers any day than just being a star for the sake of it.

The sad reality of course is that stars do put bums on seats and you do lose out sometimes on jobs you should maybe get, simply because you're not famous. But I'm happy with my lot more than, more than, and so lucky to have been able to have done Sunset Boulevard at the end of what has been an awfully dark year for theatre.

But you know, we're such survivors. We really will come back better than ever after all this. And I'm just thrilled that we had the chance to do this and it's been done and received really well. Yeah!

Sunset Boulevard In Concert - At Home is available to be streamed until 9th January 2021. For tickets, click here

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