We sat down with the founder of Overtures Ray Rackham, to tell us about the enchanting journey Overtures has taken over the years. In this captivating interview, we delve into Overtures passion for creating extraordinary entertainment and the inspiration that drives Overtures' success. From the early challenges to the remarkable milestones, Ray shares his insights into the transformative power of musicals and the vibrant community that has been cultivated. Discover how Overtures nurtures talent, fosters unity, and celebrates the magic of the stage.
How does OVERTURES create a unique experience for guests?
Let’s not beat about the bush, Overtures started as a facsimile of a long established and brilliant bar in New York. What is nice is that over the years it has morphed into its own identity. I think what sets it apart from other musical theatre establishments is that it came first. The concept of communal singalongs where the crowd is the star was itself not a new idea. Devoting the songbook entirely to the musical theatre was! There’s been a lot of facsimiles of Overtures over the last few years, which is lovely and life affirming; and possible a little flattering too. There’s space in the world for us all, and it’s great to see these new places find their own identity too.
How has Overtures evolved since its inception? Are there any notable milestones or accomplishments that you are particularly proud of?
Overtures has had four main phases. 1) The Extra Long Birthday Party, 2) The City of Quebec Years, 3) The Online Months, and 4) The Hippodrome Years. When the pandemic hit, it was important for me to try and keep the pianists in work; so I put a bit of my own money into a pot and offered the pianists a chance to go online, with me acting a little bit like a Terry Wogan/Graham Norton telethon host on each Friday night of lockdown. We were the first to get online and we had a great run, with each pianist doing a half hour slot and me acting as the continuity guy in between sets. My partner Matthew (who ran the social media channels voluntarily for years) started to introduce production values and video clips, competitions and the like. We themed the “Overtures Indoors” Friday nights, and it became this beautiful period of connection between the pianists, myself, and those who “tuned in” each Friday night (we also had each pianist set up an online tip jar and the extended family of overtures regulars who became part of the movement were generous at a time when the whole world needed people to be supportive). I’m most proud of that. Also, it was lovely when the Hippodrome asked if I wanted to move Overtures to Leicester Square just as the world started to reopen. It felt like coming home. It was a moment of thinking, “I got through all of last year and I’m here”.
How does Overtures maintain a high standard of performance and deliver exceptional entertainment to its audience?
It’s all in the creativity, ingenuity and talent of the pianists and hosts. I wrote the handbook in 2018, and I dare say no one’s read it in years. I think people either naturally fit the Overtures mould or don’t. If they don’t they leave (or in the early days might need a gentle nudge out the door) because it won’t feel natural to them (they've also gone on to have great careers and do great gigs elsewhere). The standards are maintained because the pianists and hosts love the concept, community and family Overtures has created. When you love something you’re more likely to take care of it. It’s as simple as that! Art isn’t Easy.
How do you envision Overtures contributing to the growth and appreciation of musical theatre as an art form in the years to come?
It’ll be the place where people who want to sing along can do so, and not ruin the experience for fellow theatre goers in actual shows in actual theatres. For that I think Overtures should be given the status of site of national significance, or at the very least awarded the presidential medal of freedom!
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind starting Overtures?
Overtures came about after I’d embarked on a two decade love affair with the bar Marie’s Crisis in New York City. The original and best of its kind, I stumbled upon it after I’d seen the revival of Into the Woods (the one with dethroned-Miss-America-turned-Musical-Theatre-Superstar Vanessa Williams). I walked down those rickety wooden stairs into a basement of 70 odd people singing 'Til There Was You' (many of the gentleman in the crowd singing in Barbara Cook’s original key) and I knew I’d found a place I would consider to be cool (even if the rest of the world didn’t). I was encouraged by a lady called Maggie Wirth (who frankly was the establishment back then) to sing out, and when the pianist (the late Jim Allen) got to Sondheim (and I knew all the words) I had a ball. I’ve made dozens of friends over the years, with each and every visit. Fast forward fifteen years and I’d made a bit of money, and was heading toward a significant birthday. I decided to convince some of those New Yorkers to come to London and stage a pop up Marie’s Crisis experience. Kenney Green and Adam Tilford (two of the pianists at Marie’s) agreed, along with two singing servers (the amazing Randy and Jen), and that New York night (which remember was five hours behind London) I sent an invite to a Marie’s pop up around my birthday and went to sleep. I awoke to four hundred acceptances, from all over the UK, most of whom I didn’t know. I had two choices, either chicken out and cancel or open for a week, and celebrate my birthday nightly. I chose the latter and thousands of people turned up that week, at the City of Quebec pub in Marble Arch. It was clear there was a future for this unique experience. We couldn’t call it Marie’s London (which was right, even though I was thoroughly annoyed at the time), so the name Overtures was born. We’ve been celebrating my birthday for four years so far! I’m rarely in these days, but whenever I do return it’s like returning to an enormous family reunion at Christmas.
What challenges did you face in the early stages of building Overtures, and how did you overcome them?
Challenges everywhere! It was so cost prohibitive to begin with, and a beautiful angel and I ploughed serious money into what looked like a business that would never recoup (we’re still letting the initial investment ride). The bar we started out in had a previous clientele that hated what we were doing (and quickly moved on) and just when things started to look up a new bar manager arrived who just couldn’t work us out. It was hard, hard work; incessant, relentless and exhausting. The OG team (Michelle, Helen, Leanne, Lauren and Lucy) worked alongside me and felt every knock back personally. But each night when the doors opened it was worth it! It kept being worth it, and here we are.
what role does musical theatre play in bringing people together and creating a sense of community?
I have a tendency to be quite sentimental, which since the pandemic I’ve been desperately trying to expunge from my personality, so I won’t dwell on it, but what I will say is the collective voice is more powerful than the solo. Overtures is not about grand standing, and there shouldn’t be any place for egos (even if one or two of the pianists over the years have considered themselves to be one step closer to the Almighty than us mere mortals). It’s about harmony! And that comes when everyone is there for the right reason. It’s been beautiful seeing the Overtures community grow and evolve during its Hippodrome residency.
Can you share an anecdote or memorable moment that encapsulates the magic of Overtures?
Carol Channing passed on shortly after we officially opened as Overtures and not “Rays month long birthday”. I was working door that night, and about ten different people turned up with boxes of raspberries (if you know you know). We printed and framed a photo of Carol in her original Dolly Levi costume, plonked it on the piano bar, put the raspberries in Kir Royales and sang “So Long, Dearie” from Hello, Dolly! (and every other song associated with Miss Channing) until the early hours. The next day I had a text from a very senior person at the Brewery who had always supported us. It read “you’ve not opened a bar, you’ve created a movement”. Through good times and bum times, that’s enough to keep you going!
How do you support and nurture the talent of your performers and ensure they continue to thrive in their artistic journey?
Overtures is a wonderful diversion for individual pianists and singers that have careers in the performing arts. It’s so important to remember that. So supporting those careers is pivotal. I’m not in the UK as much as I used to be, so a lot of my support is cheering on social media, but when I can I get to see whatever it is our team is up to, and encourage others to do so, also. It’s all about “Opening Doors” (excuse the constant Sondheim references). One of our pianists was the first to open a new show in the West End post pandemic. I was there, in mask, muffled cheers and tears aplenty! Connect, George! (Another Sondheim quote!).
Lastly, what message would you like to share with those who are considering visiting Overtures or becoming a part of the Overtures family?
As Overtures moves onto this next chapter, jump on board, sing your heart out and enjoy the ride!