There aren't many roles as meaty as Norma Desmond for women over 50 says Sunset Boulevard's Ria Jones
Ria Jones was destined to play Sunset Boulevard diva Norma Desmond. She speaks about the latest UK tour, coming to Ipswich in March; our obsession with fame and the lack of meaty stage roles for women over 50.
Ria has graced some of the world’s finest stages. Right now, she’s seducing Strictly Come Dancing dish Danny Mac every night in the UK tour of Sunset Boulevard.
“We never think of it as Danny and Ria. I see him as Joe Gillis and I’m Norma Desmond,” laughs the actress, who’ll turn 51 during the show’s run at the Ipswich Regent from March 5-10.
“I’m sure I’m the envy of many but it’s just a role. We have a lovely on-stage relationship. We’re so committed the pair of us when we’re on stage, very focused. He’s an absolute joy and wonderful in the role.”
Designed to tour, you can only go so big, so lavish, so technical with the staging; but it looks incredible and very clever. I wonder if that’s where most of the money’s gone. It’d explain why Mac is wearing a small pair of swimming trunks in most of the publicity photos.
“Aw, no, he only wears them for a minute,” she laughs. “A minute’s long enough believe me.”
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony award-winning musical is a story of romance and obsession, based on Billy Wilder’s film.
Faded, silent-screen goddess Norma Desmond lives in a fantasy world in her mansion on Sunset Boulevard when impoverished screenwriter Joe Gillis, on the run from debt collectors, stumbles into her reclusive world.
Persuading him to work on a script she believes will put her back in front of the cameras, he’s seduced by her and her luxurious life. His love for another woman leads him to try to break free with dramatic consequences.
The show’s themes of a fickle society obsessed with fame are just as relevant today.
“It’s very hard when you’re so in the limelight and such a huge star, the greatest star of all as the song says, and then to be tossed aside for up and coming talent and techniques with the talkies and technicolor. In those days the studios owned you, once your sell-by date was up that was it and she couldn’t cope with it. I think there were a lot of Norma Desmonds of that time.
“It’s very current, in many walks of life, not just the entertainment industry. When you reach a certain age people think ‘alright, that’s it, they can’t give as much now, they’re not as useful’. I find it very sad.
“I was only saying the other day there aren’t a lot of roles in musical theatre for actresses over 50, not ones as meaty as Norma. You have Mama Rose and Dolly Levi but that’s about it as far as leading characters are concerned. You reach a certain age and I think people forget you’re still going,” she laughs.
A tiring touring schedule aside, Ria finds Norma wonderful to play.
“She’s amazing. Lots of dramatic content, lots of sides to her which I’m finding all the time. She’s your typical diva, but as well as being strong and passionate she’s very fragile as well and only human, as insecure as the next person.”
The first time she ever sung the role, she was 24. Andrew Lloyd Webber was workshopping it for the first time and asked me to help. She was way too young then to ever dream of playing Norma.
“I joked with Andrew that one day I could do the revival. Fast forward 26 years and there I was in 2016 doing just that, standing in for Glenn Close at the London Coliseum.”
Ria was the standby, ready in the wings in case the leading lady is indisposed. Four weeks into the six-week run, she got the call to go on.
“I went on for four performances and that changed my career path. All eyes were on the Coliseum. It was sold out with a lot of people there to see Glenn Close and very disappointed when she wasn’t on but the show must go on.
“After initial boos and wanting their money back I thought ‘that’s not at me, that’s just the fact she’s not on. I’ve got to go and just stay as true as I can to the character, the piece and head the company’ because they were wonderful. I turned my Tannoy down when they made the announcement, all I was interested in was getting my lines right and doing a good show. I just wanted to take that opportunity with both hands. You never know, I might never had the opportunity again so I just enjoyed the ride.
“After my first song the audience went crazy and I thought ‘okay, keep your head, go out there, get to end of the show and do the best you can’. They went crazy at the end, full standing ovation, it was wonderful. One of the producers of this Sunset tour was in the audience, loved what I did and asked if I’d be interested in doing the tour if they could get the rights from Andrew and here I am.”
Embodying everybody from Fantine in Les Misérables and Grizabella in Cats to Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street and Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques - The Musical, Ria loves mixing things up.
“I’m quite proud of that in a way... you can’t get more of a contrast from Mrs Overall to Evita. Both iconic in their own way,” laughs the Swansea born star who, aged 19, became the youngest actress ever to play the role of Eva Peron in Evita followed shortly by her West End debut in Chess, in which she played both Svetlana and Florence.
“I always like to have a challenge, it keeps you on your toes, keeps you tested and fresh and I believe you’re only as good as your last show. Norma’s a challenge but a wonderful one and I’m enjoying it so much. It’s such an emotional rollercoaster of a role but the audience’s response has been incredible and our reviews have been wonderful so I’m delighted and so proud of the show and everybody in it.”
The score includes the title number Sunset Boulevard, With One Look, As If We Never Said Goodbye, The Greatest Star Of All and The Perfect Year.
“Fantastic songs and we’ve got a 16-piece orchestra, which is the largest touring orchestra in the UK. It’s rare in the West End that you have that many musicians now, very rare, so the score sounds so lush. Because of the way it’s written it’s very cinematic in its sound, which marries itself to the story and the style of the piece beautifully. To sing those songs with that orchestra is just a dream every night, it can really lift you.”
All a far cry from that workshop a quarter of a century ago.
“Yes, here I am, it’s quite magical. It’s a lovely story, one that was worth the wait.”