Ray Rackham is the founder of Overtures, which recently opened in Marble Arch. I caught up with Ray and Overtures’ Michelle Hutchings to find out more about this sing-along piano bar.
KH: Can you tell me about Overtures?
RR: It’s a very, very unique place. It’s London’s only musical theatre sing-along bar dedicated completely and solely to musical theatre. Within four months we’ve made this very unique, very special and very loved venue. We never thought it would be as successful as it has been with the general public. We thought it would be our mates basically.
MH: We started off with a guest list because the first week we were like “do you think 20 people might come?”
RR: We binned the list very quickly because it just was ridiculous. We had people queuing around the block. In our first week we had to take over the bar upstairs and put a piano up there as well because there were just so many.
KH: How did the whole thing come about?
RR: There’s a bar in New York called Marie’s Crisis Café, which has been around for decades and it’s a little, small, dare I say, dive bar in Greenwich village that I stumbled across about 20 odd years ago. Whenever I go to New York I go to Marie’s Crisis, and you walk down the stairs into Marie’s and there’s a man or woman behind the piano and 50 to 70 odd people singing show tunes. Now I as a musical theatre writer and fan loved the place, and then last summer my birthday was coming up and I thought it would be a nice idea to do some kind of event. I spoke to Michelle and then that suddenly became a pop-up. I spoke to the guys at Marie’s in New York and I said if we bring you over for a couple of days would you play for a couple of evenings and just…me and my mates standing around the piano singing. We launched it on Facebook and the next thing we know we had hundreds of people saying ‘can I come to this thing?’ So we then extended it so they did six nights and it was the longest birthday party I’ve had! The next thing for us was sitting there thinking, should we take six months to a year off from producing theatre and actually produce a different type of theatre, you know, this live, very visceral theatre. Everybody who is in this room is the star of the show…and so we had a very frank discussion with the rest of the team and said we’re going to take some time out of producing and writing and we’re going to open a pub, and everyone though we were absolutely crazy!
MH: I think it’s because he loves Coronation Street so he did have this vision of being behind the bar!
RR: We opened our doors in January which I hear is the worst month to open a bar.
MH: That’s why we did it.
RR: Yes because we love a challenge! The guys from New York came back for a few weeks, they trained up a load of British pianists and hosts and now we have a team of ten pianists, six hosts and a small management team. And this has become, I think, like the Cheers bar of musical theatre. Everybody knows your name, there are stools around the piano for people to sit, rest their drink and sing along. We now have regularly 100-odd people in this bar who get here at about 6pm and stay until 2am singing everything from Hairspray to Hamilton, the golden age of Broadway, West End curiosities, songs that you might not know that have been cut from a show, but in the main it’s a song that you didn’t think you knew but the minute it starts everyone starts singing. It’s a safe and welcoming space. I call it an island for misfit toys. All of us have found our little niche in the world, and that niche happens to be a bar in Marble Arch. The good thing with Overtures I think is we only really have one rule and that is you have safe fun, and there is no judgement. If you want to sing your heart out to Do-Re-Mi you can do that, and the people all around you will be encouraging you to do that. And what we’ve found is we have a whole bunch of people who absolutely share that dream.
MH: These are people who I would never have met in normal life. And you have lawyers singing Les Mis and you would expect they’re on the West End stage because they’re so phenomenal, but they just sit at their desk every day and this is their outlet. Sometimes you can be standing next to someone and have no idea who that person is. Very famous West End and Broadway people like coming here because it’s safe and no one’s going to ask for their autograph.
RR: They don’t get bombarded like you might do at the stage door. But here because this is the stage, there’s no need for a stage door. You’re stood beside someone from the West End singing, and you are equals in this world and you’re not the other side of the footlights, you’re both the same side and that’s magical.
MH: Other than the alcohol it’s like a wellness place, you come in and you have some good with no judgement and you just let it out and it’s great.
RR: You walk down the stairs into Overtures Piano Bar, and all you can see are smiling faces. That is the best medicine anyone can give you.
KH: How did you two meet?
MH: Ray had written a phenomenal musical called ‘Through the Mill,’ which it was called at the time at Southwark Playhouse, and a friend of mine said ‘come and see this.’ And I turned up and didn’t know anything about it, and in the interval I think I had probably sobbed more than I had sobbed for the last ten years. At the end of the show I was utterly blown away by the class of the writing, and I went up to Ray and said “you need to buy me a coffee”…and then I emailed him a few days later and said “you now owe me two coffees”. And then I think about a week later I said you “now you owe me lunch” and then he agreed to meet me and that was it.
RR: Michelle was part of the general management team when Through the Mill became Judy whenwe went into town to the Arts Theatre. It was I think a very loving account of Judy Garland’s life using three Judy Garlands at the same time, and we had three exceptional actresses, not impersonating Judy at all abut becoming Judy Garland for us, and a wonderful cast of actor musicians. And I’d written lots of things before that but I think that show cemented my place as a writer and also as a director. That was a hugely special experience for us, and it cemented not only with Michelle but with the rest of the team that manage Overtures. We all met in some way through Judy Garland, which is why she is so prominent everywhere. On the 22nd of June is the 50th anniversary of Judy’s passing away and we are going to dedicate that night at Overtures to Judy. Because of Judy I found the right team of people around me to do this project which has been the most rewarding thing I’ve done, and has made thousands of people happy who’ve walked through our doors since we opened.
KH: Do you take requests??
RR: We’re quite accommodating for requests, but really it’s about going on this visceral journey. I would say we are essentially more of a feeling place – however the room feels that’s where our pianists will take us. This place is about moments. Every now and then something every magical happens, and whoever happens to be in the bar at that time gets to witness it. A great example is we had Tony Hatch, the guy who wrote Downtown and the Neighbours theme tune, he was here drinking with his wife a few weeks ago and got behind the piano.
MH: A lot of people didn’t know he also wrote Downtown. They knew he wrote Neighbours but they didn’t make that connection so that was lovely as well.
RR: That’s part of what we do as well. Every day we share a piece of West End or Broadway history with people who follow us on Facebook. We call it the West End History Hour and I think that is one of the loveliest things we’ve done. We’ve opened up or enabled this dialogue between theatregoers to talk about the history of these shows and what they mean to us and then they can come along here and sing the songs. Seeing this family being created in this small bar has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done and I’m grateful to my team for saying “yeah, let’s take a backseat with the theatrical productions and create a different type of theatre.” At its very literal, it is community theatre because it’s the theatre of a community and I love that. I never thought I’d get so much from coming down here night after night and just meeting these amazing people who are keeping this bar open and alive…We’ve had people who have specifically travelled across the world to come here…there were two guys who travelled from Australia. And the Marie’s guys are now have been working in Australia in doing the same thing. I think you know it was only ever going to happen in New York first, but the fact that the UK and Australia are now having their own singalong piano bars I think is testament to the power of theatre, and particularly musical theatre.
KH: Can you tell me more about Sunday?
RR: I very, very rarely stand still, I’m always looking for the next thing, you know if we have something beautiful how do we make it more beautiful, how do we increase that magic quota, and for me the one person behind the piano works brilliantly but every now and then I think it’ll be better with a band. So I spoke to Freddie Tapner who, conducts the London Musical Theatre Orchestra and we met with Bishopsgate and said, how do you feel about transferring the Overtures magic for one night only to the Grade 2-listed great hall of Bishopsgate Institute with a 16-piece orchestra including a harp, and they didn’t chuck me out! We decided that Freddie would conduct the London Musical Theatre Orchestra, our Overtures pianists would join for the evening and we would make the world’s first fully-orchestrated musical theatre sing-along. It is going to be a huge party. It’s sold like hotcakes and we’re going to just have this joyous celebration of musicals…with a harp! So the Bishopsgate Project is just to see how London will react to what we do here at Overutres, but just on a scale that none of us ever imagined. There will be dancing, there will be singing and there’s going to be a huge amount of fun. And who knows, this might be something we do regularly. I think for anyone who loves a good musical they should come down and just be part of this incredibly joyous orchestral evening where again you get to be the star of every single song. It is the closest you will get to a West End stage.
MH: There are people on the West End stage who are like, this is the best time I’ve had because I’m not being judged, because I’m actually able to just sing and it doesn’t have to be perfect, and I’m actually amongst friends. And that’s special.
RR: The star is that collective voice and I just never thought we’d be able to achieve in London. I thought the British reserve might kick in. Within 20 minutes of opening we realised that all of those fears are unfounded.
KH: In terms of what you offer January is a good time to open!
MH: We converted loads of dry January people!
RR: We offered joy. The fact that we survived dry January opening a bar is testament to the fact that this is working. And we’re very proud of it. Just hugely proud of this wonderful little place.
MH: Now that we’re having all these people, we’re part of their life. That’s the important thing. As much as it’s great to run a bar and everything, there’s a moral responsibility that we have to these people.
RR: We’ve opened a can of joy and we can’t close it now, so as long as people are here and having fun, this place will stay open. There are few things in this world at the moment that we can all be truly happy about. Coming down here you have a few hours of unadulterated happiness. You can just be happy and smile. I’ve found particularly these last five months I’ve smiled a huge amount and I’ve laughed more than I have probably in the last year.
KH: What about new musicals, do you quickly learn them?
RR: Yeah Everyone’s Talking About Jamie, that’s one that we’ve incorporated into the mix as well.
MH: Dear Evan Hanson.
RR: Dear Evan Hanson is huge. But really what we tend to do is react to what the singers want, so people were particularly asking for Jamie so we incorporated some of that into the night.
KH: What’s your favourite musical?
RR: Follies. It haunts people in a way that I think no show ever has before. Sondheim for me is a lyricist that can just grab your heart, tear it up and then mend it again within one song.
MH: Company. I can’t live without it. There’s nothing for me in Company that I just don’t adore. It’s faultless. Sondheim’s just in a class of his own.
What’s your favourite musical theatre song?
RR: The song I love most when it’s played here would be Skid Row from Little Shop of Horrors, but my favourite musical theatre song of all time is Losing my Mind from Follies because of Barbara Cook. The way she sang that song, I remember being a kid and being like “oh my God!”
MH: Weirdly I always sing Somebody to love here. I would never sing it pre-9 o clock, pre watershed, but there are certain songs like that that are just special, and Journey to the Past from Anastasia because it’s a song that’s not really well-known but when you see people’s faces light up because they know it, that’s just really special.
KH: What are your hopes or plans for the future?
RR: Marie’s Crisis has existed in New York for decades and is the kind of place that people say when you visit Manhattan you need to go down to the village for an evening and go to Marie’s because there are regulars that have been there for 20-odd years, you’re welcomed with open arms, you can enjoy yourself. My biggest plan for this is that that happens here, that people say you must go to Overtures because there are people who’ve been going for years and years and are part of the furniture. My biggest dream for this is it just continues and kind of continues beyond us as well. I’ve also got a few stories up my sleeve. One of the musicals I’ve written before we’ve been toying with the idea of taking it to New York for a long time. I’m looking forward to exploring new territory, new stories that I think should be told as well. But for now I’m happy singing Annie and Les Mis and Grease and every now then I’m indulged with a little bit of Sondheim.
Overtures Piano Bar can be found at The City Of Quebec, Marylebone, London W1H 7AB. To book tickets for Overtures at Bishopsgate Institute on Sunday 12 May, visit here.