IMAGINE having to stand in at the last minute for superstar Glenn Close in London’s West End and being booed the moment you step on stage…
That’s what happened to Welsh actress Ria Jones – but her performance in Sunset Boulevard eventually led to a six-minute standing ovation and phone calls to the London Coliseum asking when she’d be on stage again.
Now, she’s making the role of Norma Desmond her own, playing the leading lady on tour and says she’s so glad she opted to be a ‘standby’ for a global star.
Having already appeared in Les Miserables, Cats and Chess in the West End, Ria says: “A lot of my friends said ‘You’re a leading lady in your own right, why are you doing this?’ but I thought I could learn a lot from watching Glenn Close work. It was almost like a private masterclass.
“I watched her throughout rehearsals and we talked every day in the wings. I didn’t think it was a step back, but a step forward. I always want to learn.
“She was lovely. She sent me a bouquet of flowers when I had to go on.”
In most shows the standby never gets on stage, but when Close fell ill, Ria was called into action – and the last-minute announcement led to cancelled tickets and boos from the audience that did turn up.
“I didn’t take it personally,” she says. “They didn’t know me from a bar of soap. They were booing the fact that Glenn Close wouldn’t be there.
“It gave me more incentive to go on stage and show them what I could do, portray the character and do the best for the show.
“My challenge was that they were seeing an unknown actress – to them – playing Norma Desmond. But hopefully the audiences click with the character. I only did four performances over three days but the publicity was huge and in the end people were ringing up to see if I was on stage!
“Everyone loves to see the underdog coming through. I had a six-minute standing ovation and that hit the press, so people wanted to come and see what the fuss was about.
“It changed the landscape of my career – and I’ve been doing it for 34 years!”
It was just reward for years of hard work by Ria, including being the first person to sing the famous songs like With One Look, As If We Never Said Goodbye and The Greatest Star of All as she worked on the original workshops for Sunset Boulevard as a 20-year-old.
“I was the first person to sing the role of Norma,” she explains. “I’d just done Cats and Andrew Lloyd Webber asked me to sing the role while he workshopped the show. I remember saying ‘I’m a bit young but I’d love to play her one day’.
“When I went on, he was in New York but he sent me a message saying ‘I’m so delighted the original Norma Desmond is now singing the role at the London Coliseum and I’m so upset I can’t be there’.”
What makes the story even more remarkable is that Ria has never had any formal stage training, but made her way into the business as a teenager.
“Both my parents are in the business and I went to a local dance school at the age of three,” recalls Ria. “I started getting paid for a summer season when I was 14 and I thought this is OK and I fell into it really.
“I was doing a panto back home and an agent saw me and asked if he could manage me. He got me my first audition for Joseph and 34 years later here I am.”
She’s back where she belongs – on stage playing Norma, a faded silent movie star living in a secluded mansion on Sunset Boulevard with her butler Max. She has been working on a comeback film script and when impoverished screenwriter Joe Gillis turns up, she persuades him to work on it…and then falls in love with him.
“It’s about love and loss and getting old, it’s just magical,” says Ria. “The end is quite tragic…the most dramatic ending of any musical I’ve seen.”
Sunset Boulevard will be at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking, from Monday 22 January until Saturday 27 January.