The Grammy, Tony and Olivier Award winning musical Once, based on a low budget Oscar Winning Irish film from 2006, has its Australian Premiere at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne on 4 October. Recently Jan Chandler had the pleasure of speaking with young Australian actor/singer/musician Madeleine Jones about her role as Girl in this much honoured and popular musical.

Madeleine JonesMadeleine Jones is on a lunch break from rehearsals. She has just come from another interview but is relaxed and charming, and, she looks so right for her latest role. But, before we talk about Once I want to find out something about where she's come from and how she's managed to land this role, a role that takes her career to a new level.

One of her earliest memories is of being in a primary school production: I was playing a lobster … I must have been seven or something, had a red skivvy on and my mum had made me these paper claws … have this weird flash of standing in the school hall with all these other lobsters and sea creatures … I don't even know what we were singing about.

Only a year later Jones decided she wanted to be on stage. Whilst watching her older brother perform in Little Shop of Horrors, she noticed one of her slightly older friends playing Little Audrey. She remembers feeling extremely jealous and thinking: "Why isn't that me? Why can't I do that? I want to do that? I'm going to do that!” Aged 12 she was in her first big show as a chorus member in Jesus Christ Superstar.

Jealousy may have been one of the motivating factors, but there was also lots of support and encouragement along the way from family and teachers. Her brothers are musicians and actors, one even formed his own, short lived, theatre company in his teens, and they were involved with various independent theatres in the Blue Mountains where they grew up.

Despite her determination Jones has had to work hard. The influence of her brothers, the encouragement of her mother and comments like “you're quite good at this” from her school teachers kept her going despite the knockbacks. There were short course at the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP), failed efforts to secure a place at various drama schools and then finally she was accepted at the Actors' Centre from where she graduated in 2009.

Of late Jones has been a very busy girl. In between performing in Cyrano de Bergerac (Sport for Jove), M.Rock (Australian Theatre for Young People and the Sydney Theatre Company) and The Incredible Book Eating Boy (CDP Theatre Producers), she has been involved in a lengthy audition process which finally landed her the much sought-after role of Girl. Her first audition was a video submitted in October 2013. This was followed in December by a round of live auditions with, among others, the New York casting director. Then there was silence for a couple of weeks. Asked how she coped she assured me that you just have to get on with it. Thankfully she was in rehearsals for Cyrano de Bergerac at the time which kept her busy. Another couple of auditions followed until finally, on Christmas Eve, Jones received a call asking to see her again in February. Another long wait, with music and script to learn, and thankfully other work to keep her busy. Since early this year she has been able to give up her occasional stints as an usher at the Sydney Theatre Company and even returned there as an actor in M.Rock.

February came and more auditions, this time in the presence of the Director John Tiffany, and Martin Lowe (Musical Supervisor, Orchestrations & Additional Material). After this audition Tiffany handed her the music for the hit song Falling Slowly, asking her to learn the music and return at 10am the next day for yet another audition. Later that evening Jones sat at the piano desperately trying to learn the music whilst her fiance tried to support her by offering her things to eat or drink. Up at six the next morning and into the audition room, hoping that she would pass the test. Jones has nothing but good things to say about how she was treated, “Martin was like, whatever, play it as best you can … we just want to get an idea.”

The whole process was “very involved but fun” – with the emphasis on “fun”. Jones had heard from other actors that the audition process can be very intimidating but this was not her experience, “they were always welcoming and friendly”.

Jones returned to Sydney thinking “I did the best I could, we'll see what happens”. Only a couple of days later she received a call: “Hello Madeleine, it's John Tiffany here. How are you? // I'm really good thanks John, how are you? // Yeah great, I'm just about to fly back to London but I'd love you to play Girl in Once. // Sure, great ...” And that was it. Later her agent told her how hard it had been when she received a call from the producer offering Jones the role, but had to keep it a secret because John Tiffany wanted to be the one to offer the role to Jones.

So what is special about Once? “'OH … EVERYTHING!” says Jones. It's a big step and it is really making her lift her game, but then, for her, that's what it's all about, “you don't want to cruise through”. The first day of rehearsals, she's presented with the songs and is surrounded by a group of “amazing” musicians. Whilst her brain tells her, ”they're all so much better than me,” she realises that there is no time to think – “What if I can't do it? What if I'm terrible?” Instead you just have to start working with everyone to make it the best show possible.

“It's been like that for everything including the acting. I've not had such a big part before … Tom [Guy] and myself leave the stage maybe twice in the show and that's to go out one door and in another.” It's a challenge to keep the stamina going, to stay connected and focused and think about your journey and where the story needs to go. Jones enthuses about the rest of the cast whom she describes as “a most incredible support network”, who never leave her feeling as if she's standing there alone. And then there is Tom Parsons whom Jones says is wonderful to work with, along with the “remarkable” creative team.

And what about the role of Girl? Jones fell in love with the film and says that the music is very much to her taste. She remembers seeing Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova as The Swell Season some years ago and remembers it as one of the best concerts she's been to. “Something about this music really speaks to me and so to get the opportunity to get inside it and play it and to have a role that sort of sits inside you somehow, you kind of fit. You don't find that all the time. There's a lot of work to do but there's something also quite familiar about it that's lovely.”

Jones' enthusiasm is infectious and when I ask how she hopes audiences will react to the performance all she can say is “I hope they love it!”

All the hard work and talent have clearly paid off. Only this morning John Tiffany is quoted as saying, in response to the previews, “This extraordinary company of actors and musicians have taken our production of Once to a whole new level. It feels like I'm seeing the show for the very first time – incredible!”

Sounds like a show that no one who loves music and theatre should miss.

John Frost, Barbara Broccoli, John N. Hart Jr, Patrick Mulling Smith, Frederick Zollo and Melbourne Theatre Company present

Venue: Princess Theatre Melbourne
Dates: October 4 – November 9, 2014

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