Andrew Lloyd Webber’s award-winning Sunset Boulevard opens at the Palace theatre next week starring Ria Jones, who received standing ovations every night when performing the role of Norma Desmond at the London Coliseum, joining Ria is Strictly Come Dancing‘s Danny Mac as Joe Gillis, in this compelling story of romance and obsession.
We chatted to Ria Jones ahead of the show opening at Manchester’s Palace theatre on Monday and discovered more about the show that critics have described as a masterpiece.
Opening Night (ON):You have a real history with Sunset Boulevard, where did your involvement first begin?
Ria: Well I first workshopped Sunset Boulevard 26 years ago at Andrew Lloyd Webbers home in Sydmonton where he workshops all his new shows, it’s in a beautiful converted chapel, so whenever he writes a new show he invites family , friends, agents, producers to come and see the piece and then discuss it afterwards, I was 24 at the time so I know I was way too young then to play Norma Desmond so I joked with him and said ‘Maybe one day I’ll do the revival’ then fast forward all those years and there I was stepping in for Glenn Close, very surreal.
ON: What is it about Norma Desmond that you love so much?
Ria: She’s such an iconic character, she’s such a dramatic, strong, powerful woman and yet underneath like us all so fragile and broken, and lonely and insecure. She’s a real mixture, she can flip on a coin, one minute she’s saying ‘Don’t mess with me’ and the next minute she’s absolutely in bits, like so many of us she just can’t deal with aging, she can’t deal with the fact that her career has fallen because talkies came in and she was a silent movie star, and not just a star, a big star, the biggest star of all as they say in the piece and she feels forgotten, she lives as a recluse in this huge mansion on Sunset Boulevard, with her butler Max where she lives a life of delusion, she happens upon a writer called Joe Gillis and their lives collide and they need each other for certain things in their lives that they’re lacking and they use each other, it becomes a very dark love story that results in a very dramatic ending, I think the most dramatic ending of any musical out there.
ON: How important is it that there are strong lead roles for older ladies to play?
Ria: Very important, it’s so very current too particularly in Hollywood older stars such as Meryl Streep are saying there’s a real lack of parts for them out there and it’s the same in musical theatre too I think you have Mamma Rose in Gypsy, you have Dolly, Mame and Norma Desmond, and I think that’s about it. Also particularly with Norma is a tough role, my voice is different now to how it was when I was in my 20’s or 30’s it changes and I think this role really is a big sing, I’m doing 8 shows a week so I really have to ensure I look after my voice, I’m twice the age of most of the Company and I get envious sometimes when they’re going out after shows, I think ‘oh I wish I could do that’ but I know I can’t anymore, the role is so demanding that I really have to ensure I take care of myself. But I am really, really enjoying it and the challenge of her, I just think she’s such a great role to get your teeth into as an actresses well as a singer and to have more roles out there like this would be brilliant. There’s shouting, there’s some real emotion, I cry, I’m running up and down stairs, each performance is a real workout, I absolutely love it, the end of the show is just so dramatic and by that point I am so emotionally drained it’s a great way to be at the end of the show because it lends itself then to those final scenes.
ON: How does this production differ from recent London Coliseum version?
Ria: The one at the Coliseum was a staged concert, there were costumes and the whole score and dialogue was played out whereas this is a full production with set changes, costumes changes, full orchestra in the pit where the orchestra were on the stage at the Coliseum, this is a proper full production and there’s not been a full production on tour since 2002, there was an actor musicians one but it didn’t tour so this is the first full scale production in many years. Andrew Lloyd Webber doesn’t tour it often, he doesn’t give the right often, it’s a rare outing. We’ve got a 16 piece orchestra which is by far the largest touring orchestra in the UK so to hear the score alone just played by that incredible orchestra I think is worth the ticket price, it’s absolutely stunning.
ON: Are you looking forward to returning to Manchester?
Ria: I cannot wait, I did Evita there when I was 19 at the Opera House, I also did Les Mis in 1992 at the Palace, when I played Fantine, that was the first time Les Mis had been performed outside of London, I had such a great time there. I’ve been back several times since then with High Society, Anything Goes, Acorn Antiques at the Lowry, directed by Victoria Wood playing Mrs Overall, what a difference to Norma Desmond! Manchester is very dear to me because some of my best roles and best times have been in Manchester, it’s such a great, great city and we’re there for 2 weeks which I’m thrilled about, I’m in my hometown at the moment which is wonderful and I’m having such a great week so I’m really happy our next stop is Manchester because after such a high this week I thought I need to go somewhere wonderful to continue this high so Manchester will be brilliant.
ON: Do you have any superstitions or rituals you have to do before taking to the stage?
Rita: I always say a little prayer to myself and to my Nanna who I know watches over me, I’m not terribly religious but I do have a moment between me and her before every show. I’m not a fan of whistling in the dressing room, if I see one magpie I’ll always salute it and I’d never walk under a ladder, and always try to enjoy it as much as possible, when I get nervous I tell myself ‘come on this isn’t life or death’ I do actually get nervous before every show because I want it to be good, people have paid a lot of money so I always want to deliver.
ON: Finally we have to ask is Danny Mac as gorgeous in the flesh?
Ria: He’s an absolute dream, he’s a lovely person to work opposite, lots of people didn’t realise he could sing and I can tell you he’s absolutely brilliant, come and see it and you will be blown away, he’s so fantastic.
Sunset Boulevard opens at the Palace theatre on Monday 23rd October and runs for two weeks until Saturday 4th November, tickets available here; www.atgtickets.com/shows/sunset-boulevard/palace-theatre-manchester/