West End star Ria Jones speaks to Hannah Nepil about her musical theatre background and the advantages of performing Broadway hits in concert performances, ahead of ‘Best of Broadway’ in March.
Ria Jones – Welsh singer and actress – finds it irritating when people say ‘musical theatre singers can’t act.’ In fact, she points out, they have to act twice as hard in order to convey the character while singing. ‘What’s more, they have to be able to run seamlessly into each song, so that it enhances the story, rather than stopping it. I like to think of musical theatre as a string of pearls: the pearls are the songs, the string in between is the story, and if you break it, all the pearls fall off.’
She should know. She has been starring in musical theatre since the age of sixteen and her credits range from Les Misérables to Sunset Boulevard, for which she created the role of Norma Desmond. ‘I still have a lovely letter from Andrew Lloyd Webber thanking me for it,’ Jones reminisces.
Music has always been important to Jones. Her mother trained as an opera-singer and her father was a cabaret-singer in his spare time. Aged three, she was given tap-dancing shoes, along with singing and dancing lessons. Twelve years later, she won a major talent competition that eventually led to roles in Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Evita, in which she became the youngest actress ever to play Eva Peron. Yet, as a child, she rarely saw live musical theatre: there wasn’t much of it in Swansea, her home town. So how did she develop a passion for it? ‘My Mum was a huge film buff, so if there was ever a good musical on TV, she would say, “you have to see this one.” She would have loved to do lighter musical theatre work, as well as opera, so when I went into it, that was great for her.’
What Jones particularly loves about her job is the chance to do ‘a bit of everything: you get to sing, to act and to dance, while telling a story. And for even more variety, she likes to complement stage work with concert performances: next month, she will take part in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Best of Broadway – a Gala evening at the Royal Albert Hall, with hits from West Side Story, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Cats, Les Misérables, Chicago, Mamma Mia! and Wicked, to name a few.
She believes that some songs are better suited to concert performance than others. ‘Anything Goes, for example, probably works better as part of a production, accompanied by tap-dancing and a spectacular set. But Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns works well in concert, because it’s so simple, emotive and well-known.’ As she admits, ‘it’s easy to become Ria Jones in concert, rather than the character you’re trying to portray, as you only have three minutes to convince an audience that you are that character.’ But concerts have one major advantage over theatre productions: ‘they allow musical theatre lovers to hear the scores played as they’re meant to be: with a full orchestra.’
Ria Jones performs in ‘Best of Broadway’ at the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday 18 March at 7.30pm.