Tony Award-winner Rachel Bay Jones was born into a theatrical family. But her parents, who were both professional actors in New York City, gave up performing after they had her and moved to Boca Raton, Fla.
“I always wanted to stay away from crazy show business,” Jones says of her early childhood. “I planned on being a marine biologist.”
That resolve lasted only till she was 12 years old. That’s when her mother decided to return to acting and was auditioning for a play. On a whim, Jones read the script and, on finding the right character, said, “I can do this part.”
Those magic words set a process in motion. “My mother took over,” Jones says. “My whole family started teaching me how to act and prepare for this audition. My parents were excellent actors, so it was really exciting.”
Jones will be recounting stories such as this from her past when she joins musical director Seth Rudetsky onstage for a night of talk and song at the Art House in Provincetown on Monday night and New Year’s Eve.
“You never know what Seth is going to surprise you with,” Jones says. “He brings a huge stack of music onstage with him. He’ll ask questions about your life — some of it you may be prepared for, and some of it you’re not.”
Jones saw her first Broadway show as a teenager in 1983, when she was taken by her grandmother. “It was the original production of La Cage aux Folles,” she says. “It was a lesson in life and fabulousness. My eyes were opened. It was a room full of beautiful people. I’ll never forget it.”
The lure was irresistible: at age 19, she moved to New York City. Jones is one of those rare actors who nailed a Broadway show on her first audition in her first week in the city — Meet Me in Saint Louis, based on the 1944 movie musical starring Judy Garland, which opened at the Gershwin Theatre in 1989. Jones was a member of the ensemble and eventually understudied for the Garland role, Esther Smith.
“We had our shoes made for us and gorgeous costumes and wigs. They even made period style underwear and corsets for us,” Jones says. “It was an enormous young cast, and I made lifelong friends from it.”
Her parents were ecstatic when she called to tell them that she had gotten the part. “They are very dramatic, very expressive, wonderful people,” Jones says. “I couldn’t have asked for more supportive parents in my theatrical career.”
It’s a career that not all parents would encourage. “Sometimes I wonder how they let me do this,” Jones says. “I have a 16-year-old daughter, and I cannot imagine shipping Miranda off to New York City in the ’80s. But, lucky for me, they did.”
Jones went on to do national tours of the Broadway shows Grand Hotel (1990), Fiddler on the Roof (2000), and A Christmas Story (2011). Her Broadway credits include the 2009 revival of Hair and the 2013 revival of Pippin.
But there were years of drought, and the 50-year-old Jones didn’t find her breakthrough role until fairly recently. In Dear Evan Hansen she played the mother of the titular maladjusted teen (played by Ben Platt) — first in the Arena Stage production in Washington, D.C.; then off-Broadway, winning a Lucille Lortel Award; and again when it moved to Broadway in 2016, winning the Tony along with Platt and the musical itself.
“I got an offer to do a table read of this untitled musical from the show’s authors” — Benj Pasek (music and lyrics), Justin Paul (lyrics), and Steven Levenson (book) — “and director Michael Greif,” Jones says. This was in 2014, a year before it would open in Washington. “It was a cold reading. We weren’t allowed to peek at the script beforehand. Even in the room, we weren’t allowed to crack the script open. Michael Greif asked us to wait until he said ‘Go.’ ”
A story of desperately awkward teens trying to cope with a peer’s suicide, Dear Evan Hansen turned into a huge hit, and it’s still running. With that behind her, Jones has done TV (the series God Defended Me and episodes of Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) and the movie Ben Is Back, with Julia Roberts, and says she loves working in all media.
“Theater is all about the audience: when you’re an actor working on Broadway, you have this connection to a thousand people in the dark, using all your senses to drive this train,” she says. “When you’re working on film, there is such a deliciousness in the tiny moments. It becomes a more intimate adventure.”
Though Jones got her first Broadway gig without a struggle, her path to success was not always smooth, and being a single mother and having a career was a challenge. “It was really hard,” she says. “I didn’t work for a lot of years. Theater has always been the thing that I come back to, because it’s wonderful and I love it.”
After all, it’s in her blood. “Most of my life is chaos all the time, trying to keep up with everything,” she says. “When I’m performing, it’s the one time I have where I do my meditation. That’s where I find my stillness. That’s where I find my focus.”
Jonesing for Broadway
The event: Rachel Bay Jones in concert with host and musical director Seth Rudetsky
The time: Monday-Tuesday, Dec. 30-31, at 7 p.m.
The place: The Art House, 214 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: $50-$100 at provincetownarthouse.com