The 2017 Orlando Fringe (May 16-29) is about to crowd out all other arts coverage until June, but while that festival is famed for propelling artists out of Florida into the Big Apple (see Disenchanted!), it isn't the only possible launching pad. My Dear Watson is proof positive.
Born as a Rollins College master's thesis, Jami-Leigh Bartschi's Sherlock Holmes musical had a local production last year, and is now off-Broadway-bound as part of the prestigious New York Musical Festival, with the official support of the family of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And if you can strike the appropriate notes, you could even join the show.
If Bartschi's name rings a bell, that's because she's been an artist and educator in the area for over 10 years. She's been choir director at Wekiva High School since it opened in 2007, where she was named the school's 2013 Teacher of the Year, and has served as musical director for various local theater companies including the Bay Street Players and Greater Orlando Actors Theatre. But her love of Sherlock Holmes goes back much further, to when her seventh-grade English teacher assigned The Hound of the Baskervilles.
"Most of my classmates complained at having to read Victorian literature. I instantly fell in love," Bartschi recalls. "So many heroes in literature are lovers and fighters. I loved that this hero was a thinker. Sherlock Holmes is intelligent, unemotional, and misunderstood as being uncaring simply because he is blunt and unemotive. I relate to that in a way that I have difficulty relating to other protagonists. I devoured all of the stories that I possibly could, and I was hooked."
Much like one of Holmes's leaps of logic, Bartschi's play began with a late-night lightning bolt of inspiration.
"About nine years ago, I was at a music teachers' convention in Tampa, and I literally woke up at 2 in the morning with this idea. I got out of bed and wrote it all down. The whole idea came to me at once," Bartschi says.
"I knew I wanted to focus on the friendship between Holmes and Watson, so I wanted to take that friendship from beginning to end, so to speak. I also knew it had to have a mystery to solve, it had to involve Professor Moriarty, and it had to have strategically positioned but powerful moments of revelation where we see Holmes' humanity. Everything fell into place fairly easily from there."
Early on, Bartschi sought approval from the Conan Doyle estate, since one of the stories she adapts isn't yet in public domain.
"They have been so easy to work with and so supportive from the very first step," says Bartschi, who adds that the family gave her $6,000 toward funding the show, as well as connections to Sherlockian societies for marketing assistance. "I am astounded by their generosity and their kindness, and their interest in my work gives me a sense of validation that is beyond words."
After that initial idea, it took Bartschi three months to form a rough script, another three months to polish it, and another year to write and orchestrate the music. An initial 2014 production at Rollins helped Bartschi shape the work, particularly the humor, she says: "They laughed at things that I didn't expect them to laugh at, and vice versa."
That was followed last year by a staging at Orlando Shakes, directed by and starring John DiDonna as Holmes, with Kyle Stone in the title role. They will reprise those parts in New York, for which Bartschi says she's streamlined the script even further, "taking out unnecessary dialogue to keep the action moving and the pace interesting."
My Dear Watson was originally submitted to the New York Musical Festival, which attracts media and scouts for production and licensing companies, last year. It was initially rejected, and was only resubmitted days before this year's deadline.
"I was beyond shocked when we were accepted," Bartschi says. "I'm still riding this wave and seeing where it takes me, but I would love to see it in the MTI [Music Theatre International] catalog so it can be performed anywhere."
Ultimately, Bartschi hopes her Holmes musical will go on to stand alongside the myriad other well-regarded adaptations of his adventures, which date back to the earliest days of film. From the action-focused Guy Ritchie films to the modern-dress BBC series to CBS' gender-swapped Watson, every interpretation of the iconic investigator takes its own angle. Bartschi says her objective was to focus on "authenticity and love. From the very beginning, I was committed to the integrity of the characters and the stories that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, and I was committed to show the world that this character can love and be loved."
My Dear Watson's NYMF run is at midtown Manhattan's Peter Jay Sharp Theater (passes available soon at nymf.org). If you want to join the cast on stage in NYC, auditions are being held this week for the role of Professor Moriarty; email [email protected] with your headshot and résumé for a shot at your big off-Broadway break.