“Don’t think about the sound – focus on the story.”
That might seem a little counter-intuitive to a roomful of great singers, but you can bet that acclaimed West End star Ria Jones knows exactly what she’s talking about!
In early October, Ria conducted an intensive master class for the cast of Monkey Goes West, professional actors and students from School Of The Arts (SOTA) in W!LD RICE’s rehearsal space in Little India.
Throughout the class, Ria shared some of the insights and wisdom she’s gained over the years from working in the West End and collaborating with renowned composers like Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd-Webber.
“Some people think it’s easy, but it’s actually twice as hard to perform in musical theatre,” explained Ria to her class of 21 participants. “You’re not just acting – you’re acting a song. You’re fighting a melody while telling a story.”
So, she urged her class, “Think of the lyrics. Forget about the tune once you know it. If your voice breaks, it doesn’t matter, as long as you tell the story.”
For close to five eye-opening hours, Ria worked with every single member of the class on a song of their choosing. She paid close attention to numbers as varied as Benjamin Kheng’s guitar-led It All Fades Away, Sugie Phua’s rousing rendition of What A Wonderful World and Frances Lee’s stirring performance of Angel Eyes.
For each and every participant, from professional actors like Pam Oei and Caleb Goh to drama students from SOTA, Ria offered advice that helped them open up their voices and find their characters’ stories.
Most importantly, she urged everyone to get to know their strengths and limits. “I can’t ever play Christine Daae in Phantom Of The Opera,” she explained to the class. “That’s not who I am as a performer. Get to know yourself, and the parts that are right for you.”
Along the way, Ria made quite a few happy discoveries. 13-year-old Aoife Haakenson, for instance, astounded everyone in the room with, well, a truly astonishing take on Astonishing from the musical version of Little Women.
Ria also gave participants a few tips on how to approach auditions, including choosing a song that plays to one’s strengths. “Pick the song you want to sing, not necessarily what you think the panel wants to hear.”
It can be nerve-wracking to walk into an audition room, even for someone with as much experience as Ria. “Sometimes, it helps to think of someone you love who loves to hear you sing. Sing your song to them!”
Participants even received some good auditioning advice from Elaine Chan, who served as the accompanist for the day and is one of Singapore’s foremost musical directors and composers.
“If you have a pitch problem,” stressed Elaine, “Never pick a song with a key change. And avoid songs with a mixed meter – not all pianists can handle that on the spot.”
Drawing from personal experience, Ria advised the class not to think of failing an audition as the end of the world. Many years ago, she had first auditioned for the smaller role of the Mistress in Evita. She didn’t get the part.
But, two years later, she received a letter asking her to audition for the lead role of Eva Peron. She won the part and, at the age of nineteen, became the youngest actress ever to headline Evita.
At the end of the class, Ria returned the favour that her students had done her all afternoon – performing her audition song just as they had performed theirs. She sang a heartrending rendition of As If We Never Said Goodbye from Sunset Boulevard, and followed it with a powerful performance of I Dreamed A Dream from Les Miserables.