The Ballad of Rebecca Naomi Jones
BOLD AND CLASSICALLY RIVETING ROLES HAVE TURNED THE "MURDER BALLAD" ACTRESS INTO A MODERN BROADWAY STAR
by Whitney Spaner photography Brooke Williams
For most of her adult life, theater actress Rebecca Naomi Jones was a “vodka chick.” Clear liquor, her vocal coach said, was better for her voice. But since taking on the role of the narrator in the lusty, adulterous pop/rock musical Murder Ballad—which began last fall at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Studio at Stage II and is now playing at the Union Square Theatre—Jones has switched to the hard stuff. “Something about this show has made me develop a love for whiskey and bourbon,” says Jones, a native New Yorker (she grew up in Tribeca “before it was chichi”). “There’s some hair on the chest of Murder Ballad.”
"I think it’s easy with Broadway—and New York theater in general—to get stuck and be really safe."
More like an intimate rock concert than a traditional stage musical, the show—written by playwright and lyricist Julia Jordan and indie-rock singer/songwriter Juliana Nash—transforms the theater into a hazy bar scene with a live band, a pool table (that doubles as a bed) and plenty of shots being poured. The audience is seated at cabaret tables with cast members writhing and making out dangerously close to their vodka sodas and Jack and Cokes. There are tales like the audience member who got a little too tipsy and tried to dance with Jones. Her fellow cast member Will Swenson, still singing, suavely swept up the woman and carried her right out the door—not something that happens at your average Broadway or even off-Broadway show, but this one is a hit and has been extended until the end of September.
Murder Ballad, along with the Tony-nominated Broadway musicals 2008’s Passing Strange and 2010’s American Idiot, have all pushed the boundaries of what New York theater can be with storylines full of sex, drugs and rock ’n roll, as well as pop/rock scores that could be (and have been) heard on the Billboard pop charts. And Jones, with her unruly crown of curls, big brown eyes and sultry sway, has been at the heart of every one of them. “I’ve definitely been so proud of this little pile of projects that I’ve been lucky enough to work on,” says Jones, who has made a career out of being a Broadway caliber performer with the kind of effortless hipness that adds credibility to a production targeted to the masses. “I think it’s easy with Broadway—and New York theater in general—to get stuck and be really safe,” she says. “It’s a tricky business and nobody wants to lose a lot of money, but I just think if you’re going to work as hard as we work—and we work so hard—you might as well be doing it for a project that you believe in and that makes you feel something.”
Which explains why everything Jones does on stage—whether it’s fronting the Murder Ballad band in cutoff shorts and a sheer, billowy top while taking swigs from a bottle of vodka, playing a sexually liberated artist in Passing Strange or tying off her arm as a heroin addict in American Idiot—seems so absolutely organic. The girl never hits a fake note. She’s a theater star for a new age—one that connects to a pop-culture savvy audience far beyond the blue-haired matinee ladies. In fact, there should probably be a Surgeon General’s warning on most of her gigs, including a new musical take on Shakespeare’s farce Love’s Labour’s Lost from Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman that will premiere in July at Shakespeare in the Park. Jones will take a small break from Murder Ballad to play the role of Jaquenetta, the unabashed bar maid who’s “caught rolling around in the woods with a male character” in a town where everyone else is trying to be abstinent.
The duality of her two summer performances is in keeping with a beautifully curated career that really became visible after her breakout role in Passing Strange, the unconventional rock/soul/gospel musical written by the eclectic rock legend Stew and his partner Heidi Rodewald. “That show changed what I thought was possible in terms of me being an actor,” says Jones. “And I think that’s why I’ve been able to continue to have a career in weird interesting pieces. That show told me that it was possible.”