DIVA TALK: A Chat With Murder Ballad Star Rebecca Naomi Jones

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: A Chat With Murder Ballad Star Rebecca Naomi Jones
News, views and reviews about the women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Rebecca Naomi Jones
Rebecca Naomi Jones

Rebecca Naomi Jones
Rebecca Naomi Jones, who has been seen on Broadway in Passing Strange and American Idiot, is currently playing Murder Ballad's Narrator — a role that earned her a Lucille Lortel Award nomination for the show's initial Manhattan Theatre Club run — in the return engagement of the new musical at the Union Square Theatre. The limited run of Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash's acclaimed musical, which was recently extended through Sept. 29, also features John Ellison Conlee, Will Swenson and Caissie Levy with direction by Trip Cullman. It's an especially busy time for Jones, who will take a brief leave of absence from Murder Ballad to be part of The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park production of the new musical adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost July 23-Aug. 18. That musical features a score by Michael Friedman and a book by two-time Tony nominee Alex Timbers and casts Jones in the role of Jaquenetta. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of chatting with the multitalented singing actress, who spoke about her current and upcoming roles; that interview follows.

Question: Since we haven’t spoken before, can you tell me where you were born and raised?
Rebecca Naomi Jones: I was born and raised in New York, NY.

Question: When did you start performing?
Jones: Pretty early on. My dad was a musician, so I grew up playing the piano and singing, and I guess the earliest thing I remember doing was being a part of the Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus. I think I was around seven. I would go to rehearsal twice a week, and we’d be selected for different operas and be the kids in the opera. I did that for a while, until I got too womanly [laughs] and couldn’t be a kid anymore. I also sang in synagogue and church choirs growing up because I’m half black and half Jewish. But I think the opera was the first thing I did.

Question: When you were growing up, were there any actors or singers you particularly admired?
Jones: When I was really little – this is so shameful – I was just obsessed with Paula Abdul [laughs]! Tragic. But, of course, my taste expanded and got richer as I grew up. But even though I loved theatre – I started doing theatre in middle school and I loved doing it because of being with my friends, and the community and telling stories and dressing up and being in rehearsal and putting this thing together – and that was really what got to me more than idolizing someone. That’s not to say I don’t have people who I think are amazing, but I didn’t come about it from that angle.

Jones in Murder Ballad.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: When do you think performing changed from a hobby to when you knew it was going to be your career?
Jones: I think it was when I was getting ready to look into colleges. I did theatre all throughout middle school and high school and was really into it, the same with singing. Those were the places I felt most like myself and most comfortable. I happened to be going to this small private school in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which was really more Ivy League-geared than anything else. Most of my classmates were planning on going to all these Ivy League schools, and if not Ivy League schools, then really nice liberal arts colleges. And, I think what really shifted my reality into knowing that this was something I could do for my life was when I met with my college counselor, and he told me that conservatories existed. I just hadn’t known that before and had been planning on going to a liberal arts college and doing my art wherever I could. I think I always knew that I was going to be in the arts, but I didn’t realize that I could go and focus on that as soon as I got out of high school. I think I was just really lucky to have this college counselor who knew about those schools because nobody else in my high school was going to do that. So I started looking at monologues and auditioning for these conservatories and ended up going to a conservatory for college, and that just changed everything. Question: What was your first professional production?
Jones: My first professional production out of school was the non-equity national tour of Rent, which was actually a lot of fun at the time. The best time to do something like that is when you’re really young, really excited, and you don’t care that you’re not getting paid a lot and you're doing so much traveling on a bus, because you’re just so happy to sing and travel and be with cool people and do something that you think is so sexy. [Laughs.] So that was my first gig out of school, and then I don’t really remember, but pretty soon after that was Caroline, or Change.

Jones with Daniel Breaker and Colman Domingo in Passing Strange.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: What was your first Broadway show?
Jones: Passing Strange.

Question: Do you remember your first night on Broadway and how that lived up to your expectations?
Jones: Yes. I think the entire Passing Strange experience was different than any other Broadway experience just because it was so much "the little show that could," from the beginning. We didn’t originally expect it to go to Broadway. It began as just a co-production between Berkeley Rep and The Public Theater, which already was so exciting for me. I loved the piece so much, and it was just this project that held so much weight for all of us, and we were all so, so excited about it. So that in itself was such a gift, and then when it went to Broadway, it was such a strange thing because it didn’t feel like a Broadway show, and we didn’t feel like Broadway people. It felt kind of bizarre but still really, really exciting. We were just so proud of that piece. I do remember actually, on opening night, an interviewer saying to me, “Now you’re officially a Broadway performer.” And I remember thinking, “Wow, that is so cool!” And like that, you are somebody who does Broadway. And, I’ll never forget that. It was really sweet of that man pointing that out.

Question: Getting to Murder Ballad, how did this role come about?
Jones: It’s kind of a wild thing because on paper I didn’t really understand it. It’s such a strange show, and it’s so much the kind of show that comes to life before you in the flesh as opposed to on the page. Not to say that Julia [Jordan] and Juliana [Nash] haven’t done great work, but it’s a piece that really relies on human connection – actual living, breathing, human connection. And, also, I think a narrator is a really tricky thing to put together in general in any play, just making it interesting and making a choice about why you're telling the story and why you’ve been given this task of narrating. In general I think it’s just a weird, tricky thing. For this role specifically, I think how this part came to be is because [director] Trip Cullman gave me so much freedom, and that has been so exciting. I joined the project at the last workshop of it, which was at New York Stage and Film at Vassar, and it’s been a funky process figuring out who it is, who this character is, what the show is, how the character functions in the show. It just dawned on me and Trip how important it is for my character to sometimes cut the dramatic and deep nature of the circumstances that are happening with the characters in the show with humor and a bit of a side eye and an eye roll — all of that stuff. And, that’s really been fun for me because we can allow the other characters to go though these things they're going through, and then my character can allow the audience a bit of relief. So that’s been really fun, and she’s just a tricky broad. She’s sexy and scary and fun and childish and mature and wise and messy…Trip has just allowed me to play, play, play, and he's continuing to allow me to play, play, play, which is such a gift. Question: How would you describe the show for someone who hasn’t seen it?
Jones: I would say that the show itself is about adults making bad decisions. [Laughs.] Every day decisions… things that people do every day… It's about adults behaving badly…it's about infidelity and murder! I would also say something that I’ve said to a lot of people recently, which is that I think something that's really special about the show is that it’s a rock musical. It’s a true rock musical that’s not about angsty teenagers, which I think is really cool. The show is a rock musical, and it rocks, and it’s sexy, and it’s wild. But it’s about adults. And that’s kind of cool and dangerous and different, I think.

Jones in Murder Ballad.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: What’s it been like revisiting the show for this second staging in a different venue?
Jones: It’s been more difficult than we thought it would be. Even though the actual building is different, the set is very similar to what it was in design. Mark Wendland’s amazing set design is very similar to what it was before, and the script hasn’t changed very much. I think we all thought and Trip thought and the producers thought that in order to put the show back up on its feet we wouldn’t have to change all that much in terms of staging and what the story was going to be. We didn’t have a lot of rehearsal in this period either. Trip had an extra week with Caissie getting her ready to take over the role of Sara – but other than that, we had about a week of regular rehearsal and a week of tech. And we’ve discovered, in the last couple of days as we've been beginning previews, that in fact the show is wildly different! Number one, the space is actually much different. It’s much bigger, the ceilings are much higher, and we’re so much further away from each other that it’s trickier to make certain connections with characters. Sightlines are different, and we have more of an audience space. We’ve had to re-block a lot of things we didn’t think we’d have to. And, aside from that, having a completely different actress playing the character that really is the hero in a way, the person whose story you follow the most, is very different. Karen Olivo is obviously a fantastic actress, and so is Caissie Levy, but they play the part pretty differently. There’s just a different energy about it, so that actually changes the story in a way. It’s like we’ve had to sew together the through line in a different way, and I think we’re still figuring it out, but everybody’s up for a project. [Laughs.] It’s been tricky, but I think that’s what we love – the figuring it out is the fun of it.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character, the Narrator?
Jones: Good question! I really love the very beginning of the play. The first song of the play is almost like a thesis statement. The show is called Murder Ballad, but the first song is not necessarily about what the show is about specifically. It’s more about murder ballads in general, and bringing the audience members into how the story is going to be told, and that we’re going to be walking among them, and that the story they’re about to see is our version of a murder ballad. We let the audience know to pay attention in a certain way. I think that song is always kind of exciting and has a mysterious quality to it that’s really fun. And then I also love the song “Crying Scene,” which is kind of a crooner-y, beautiful, beautiful song that I get to sing with a really cool metallic leather jacket on, which is pretty badass. [Laughs.] And the choreography for that song is really beautiful, what the other actors are doing. So I think that’s pretty special.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Jones: Yes, I’m actually going to take a leave of absence from Murder Ballad mid-July to mid-August to go do Love’s Labour's Lost at Shakespeare in the Park.

Jones in American Idiot.
photo by Paul Kolnik

Question: Have you done much Shakespeare before?
Jones: I’ve done Shakespeare before, but not in a long time. It’s like something happens if you’re brown, and you sing, people kind of want you to sing! [Laughs.] But I did a lot of Shakespeare in high school and college, and I don’t think I’ve actually done Shakespeare since, which is pretty sad, but in a way, doing musicals can be a lot like doing Shakespeare.

Question: Have you done anything in the Park before?
Jones: The only thing I’ve done is a Passing Strange concert we did years ago, but that’s not the same, and that’s why I wanted to do it so badly. The piece is really cool, and Alex Timbers is directing, and I'm excited about it. I’m pretty sad to have to leave Murder Ballad, but I’m so excited to do Shakespeare in the Park; it’s, of course, like a long-term dream of mine. Question: What role will you be playing?
Jones: I will be playing Jaquenetta, the little country wench. It’s so funny because any show I’m in I will somehow find a way to be the sexual one. [Laughs.]

Question: Have you heard the score?
Jones: It’s really beautiful. Michael Freidman just continues to amaze me. His music keeps surprising me every time I hear a new work of his. I’ve been working on another piece of his, Fortress of Solitude, based on the Jonathan Lethem book, and that music is beautiful, too. But, yes, this music is really beautiful, really cool and folky, exciting stuff. And, the song I get to sing is just heartbreaking.

[Tickets for Murder Ballad are available via Ticketmaster.com or by calling (800) 982-2787 or by visiting the Union Square Theatre Box Office (100 East 17th Street). Tickets are priced $80 for performances Monday-Thursday and $90 for performances Friday-Sunday.]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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