For a character who’s been the template for cold, calculating geniuses since his debut in 1887, Sherlock Holmes has seen a lot of reinvention lately: as a drama-loving addict in BBC’s “Sherlock,” a mischievous rogue in director Guy Ritchie’s films, and even a New Yorker in CBS’ “Elementary.”
But what the playwright behind the new musical called “My Dear Watson” wanted to explore is the heart of a man commonly considered not to have one.
“In other productions, you get the banter, you get the bromance, but you don’t get the tender side of their friendship,” says Jami-Leigh Bartschi, who’s bringing the show to the New York Musical Festival.
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While many fans feel the Holmes-Watson relationship is one of literature’s great unrequited love stories, that’s not how she sees it. “It’s a love story without a sexual relationship, which I think is lacking in popular culture,” she explains. “I don’t think there is nearly enough shows and movies, that explore asexual love stories, the idea that you can love someone without romantically loving them.”
Despite Holmes’ reputation, she didn’t have to look hard for evidence of his affection. “I fell in love with his character as someone who didn’t have an easy time expressing himself emotionally, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care,” she explains. “It’s often very misinterpreted as him being a jerk.”
As a person who also doesn’t readily express her emotions, Bartschi read Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories from her own unique perspective. Watson often mentions seeing glimpses of Holmes’ heart, which are obvious, but she read between the lines, too.
“I extrapolated a lot of others and found times when the average person maybe wouldn’t see care and tenderness, but if you redefine what love and friendship are [as actions rather than emotional reactions], you can see it more easily,” she says, pointing to Holmes going out late at night to do the kind of violent work he doesn’t want Watson to see.
“My Dear Watson” traces their friendship from its start as potential roommates to Holmes’ death at Reichenbach Falls. There is a mystery to solve, of course (“I would’ve been foolish to write a Sherlock Holmes musical that did not have him actually investigating a crime”), but the show is about how Watson’s perspective changes over the course of their four years together.
Since it’s set in Victorian England (the play’s Moriarty is British and served as the cast’s dialogue coach), the music hews classical. “I had to choose a style carefully because this is obviously not a high-kick line kind of musical,” quips Bartschi, who also composed the show. “ It has comedic moments, but it’s ultimately a dramatic musical.”
The bigger problem was, how do you have a man renowned for his stoicism burst into song? “Watson’s music is a lot more lyrical,” she explains, “while Holmes is more rhythmic and speak-singing, except at strategic moments where we want to show more heart.”
If you go
“My Dear Watson”
July 11-16, various times
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 155 W. 65th St.