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Theater Preview: Imagine Returns With World Premiere Madcap Historical Mystery ‘Second To Sherlock’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theater Preview: Imagine Returns With World Premiere Madcap Historical Mystery ‘Second To Sherlock’All photos provided by Imagine Productions
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Before the pandemic, Imagine Productions carved out a distinct niche as a small company putting on charming, swing-for-the-fences productions of great musicals. I still think about a stunning, off-mic Into The Woods I caught in previews in early 2019.  

They launch their 2021-22 season this weekend, returning to longtime home the Van Fleet, with an intriguing and incredibly ambitious project: a world premiere musical with a 19-person cast written by local playwright/composer Brian Horne and directed by Brandon Boring. I got to sit down with Brian and Brandon during rehearsals, with a cameo from actor Chris Rusen, and ask about Second To Sherlock. Below is the conversation, edited for clarity and length. 

Richard Sanford: So, I’m coming in cold. Tell me about Second To Sherlock, when did it start? 

Brian Horne: It’s basically a detective in Victorian England who lives in the shadow of Sherlock Holmes. [He] finds his opportunity to stand out by pursuing Jack the Ripper. 

Brandon Boring: Yeah. Brian, I think it was 2015 you started working on this?  
 
BH: I mean, the idea technically came in 2010 but I didn’t really start work on it proper until 2015. 
 
BB: Brian and I were in a production with Imagine Productions – Sweeney Todd – at the time [and] he mentioned to me, “I’m thinking about working on this musical about this detective in Victorian London who is competing with Sherlock Holmes.” [He] started telling me ideas and bouncing things off me. I thought that might be the end of it, [but] it kept growing and growing. Eventually, I did a table read with his friends over at his place with a couple songs. Then a few years later, we did a full table read with a full cast and a full score and then we did a slightly stage reading in Westerville in … 

BH: 2018. 

BB: Then, yeah, we were planning to open in the fall of 2020, but as you know, plans got waylaid. We’re very fortunate. This was the theater we were going to do it in originally in 2020 as well. We’re very excited to return to this space, work with Imagine who we’ve both worked with before, and finally get a full proper production of the show on its feet. 

RS: Awesome. Talk to me a little about the writing process. 

Brian Horne – Photo provided by Imagine Productions

BH: [Once] there was the original glimmer of an idea I kind of jotted down some vague musical and script ideas. But [the] problem at the time was I just didn’t have a mystery to hold it all together. A few years later, I came back into it. I was doing research and started reading about Jack the Ripper and [realized] these Sherlock Holmes stories were concurrent. I was like, “Wait a minute. The unsolvable case, Sherlock Holmes’s unsolvable case. There we go. There’s our mystery to anchor the story on.”  
 
BB: Yeah. It’s important to have a mystery there for detectives but I will say, it is more of a straightforward comedy/musical with dramatic [moments]. I describe it a lot as Into the Woods [where] the second act has some very dramatic moments after being very funny. It’s that way. I feel like [Second To Sherlock] is less focused [on that drama]. We still have more touches of comedy throughout Act Two, but we do get some nice deep character moments. I think it’s shaped in a similar way to that show.  
 
BH: Yeah. You need to find that mystery, which I think is very important and it helps ground the detectives, that they have something to be working on but you’re not watching the show like a whodunit. You’re not like, “Oh, let me find the clues in this scene.” You know? It’s really about the adventure and that’s just what the characters happen to be working on. 

RS: How far do the parallels go, is there a sidekick? 

BH: You’ll see in act one, early on, the first scene, we establish that he basically is just trying to make himself be like Sherlock Holmes, thinking that that’s important, so he’s like, “Okay …” The opening song, he has a line like, “He has a doctor, so I got a doctor as well.” 
 
BB: The opening song is great, well, it’s technically two songs, it’s “World’s Greatest Detective” into a song called “Little Glory” and the whole background of Daniel Calloway, which is the name of our detective. He spells out going into business and it’s very obvious that he is just posing and just trying to have all the trappings of being a detective. Then the show is really a process of him learning what’s important and how to self-actualize and work on what’s important for his life. 

RS: Brian, is this the first musical you’ve written? 

BH: I wrote a show with a friend in high school. I’ve written another one, a show in high school and then one early college. I think I had done a musical screenplay at one point in college. There have been many an unfinished draft of things. But [with] this kind of…things landed at the right moment, and I figured I had to finish it. 
 
BB: You had enough of your friends at the right time, always asking you and checking in like, “Hey, how’s Sherlock coming along? What’s going on with that? When’s the next reading? When’s this?” We set the big goal when we did a table read like, “All right. We’ll do a staged read at this point and then we’ll do a production at this point” and having that timeline I think helped you get across the finish line. 
 
BH: Absolutely.  

RS: How long have you two worked together? Talk a little about that collaborative process. 

BB: We met in 2013 when I directed Urinetown for Imagine. Brian came in last minute as a piano player, just accompaniment for rehearsals. He knew my music director, a mutual friend of ours. I met him there. I was like, “Oh, this guy is very talented.” Then [I saw] him perform in things. When you’re in community theater, it’s a very small circle. Through the years [we hit it off], after doing a couple of shows and working on things together, socializing outside of the creative process. I just happened to be there, bouncing ideas off of as the show shaped. [Brian,] I know you said the sensibilities I had for Urinetown…

BH: Yeah. 
 
BB: I make no apologies for being Mel Brooks-inspired. Growing up, that was my sensibility. Anyone that saw my Urinetown could see that in it and that’s the perfect show for that. He’s like, “Okay, we’re on the same wavelength” for where he wanted to pitch the comedy of the show. [Initially] I was happy just as a friend and a fan of theater to be involved, so I read through just one of the parts at the very first reading I did. 
 
BH: That was, I think, the second read. 
 
BB: By readings, this is at someone’s house around a dining table. Brian is at a piano playing a couple of the songs for us as he just sort of shaped the script. I have a degree in screenwriting from college, so I’m used to hearing scripts and giving notes on them. After I was done, I was like, “Here are my thoughts on it. Do what you want. It’s your show, [but] here are the thoughts I had.” I think some of the things I gave you were insightful, and some things weren’t, and some things just weren’t what you jived with. 
 
BB: [For example,] I was like, “I think a song is needed here. I get what you’re going for, but I think it’s a little cloudy here.” Just giving my objective outside opinion because when you’re working on something as long as Brian has worked on this show, it’s easy to get myopic. He knows exactly what all the characters’ thoughts are and I’m like, “Yeah, as someone coming from the outside, though, you only have two hours and 10 minutes to get the whole story through to people. You’ve got to make sure everything is as clear as it can be.”  

RS: Is this the first premiere of this nature you’ve done? 

BB: It’s the first time I’ve gotten to work on a full original show like this. I’ve worked with lesser-known shows, and I’ve worked with some regional premieres but nothing that has no template. While you don’t want to just do what’s been done before, I think any show that is licensed from a big theater company that’s had a Broadway or off-Broadway run lives in the shadow of that and there are some people that have preconceived notions about what things are. 

This is the first thing anyone is ever going to see of Second to Sherlock. We are the blueprint. This is like, “Oh, this is what it looks like. This is how Calloway’s apartment is. This is how the characters act.” It’s really fun working with the actors too. I always try to give actors [freedom], you don’t want people just trying to ape performances that they’ve seen, but certain roles, certain things just creep in that you have a hard time breaking free of. It has been really refreshing because there’s been no pushback to trying to get people out of the comfort zone. Everyone is just bringing their own ideas to it, and I know I’m finding out new things about the character every night with the actors. 

BH: Some of the table reads, there were times at some of those early table reads where an actor would read a line a certain way and it just completely [illuminated]. Holmes and Watson, they’re in the show in a supporting vein, but I didn’t really have a lock on Watson’s character at first and then it was Ryan Kopycinski: there’s one line that Watson has that he read it in just such a way, I was like, “That’s what the character is.” 
 
BB: That’s where a lot of our small tweaks have come from during the process where I’m watching an actor like, “Oh, with our actor, with this version of Giselle, this is how the scene works and this line doesn’t work this way now, so we need to consider that.” It’s the most collaborative show I’ve done in that regard. 
 
RS: Talk to me a little about the rehearsal process, how did you shape this? 

BB: We decided to do something that was pretty fun and exciting for me, at least. We started a month earlier than we would have on any other rehearsal process: We cast back in September, and we did about a week and a half of rehearsals where all we did was teach all the music to our cast. Then we did a table read with our cast, so they did a full read of the script, people are going to be playing the parts in their characters, singing their songs. Then we had … It had to be a three, four-hour meeting.  

BH: Oh, yeah. 

BB: On Zoom with Brian and all the production stuff, with the music director, the choreographer, and we talked like, “Okay, scene by scene, what do we think of this? Are there scripting changes that are needed? How is this song?” We added the dance breaks entirely, so basically working with our choreographer, Jenny Small, we told her like, “Oh, here’s what we’re thinking for the dance. Where do we want dance breaks to go? How long are they? What kind of field are we going to go with for the different dance breaks?” 
 
BB: It was really cool for me, because normally when you license a show, you get it, this is the music, maybe you can make some cuts if something is too long but this, we got to go [here]… It’s the first time I’ve gotten to work on a full original show like this. One song, I was like, “Oh, I’d love just a four-measure little dance moment here. I felt a really small intimate dance moment.” I had the composer right there and he was like, “Sure thing.” Then the next night, I had four measures of music where there wasn’t before.  

BH: I love those moments. What’s so great about doing a production like this is having all of these different [elements]. It’s like choreography, not my strong suit. On the music side of things, okay, I know what music goes with dance. But for a choreographer to come in and say, “We want this many bars, this kind of feel” and then you actually see it played, you’re like, “Oh, yeah. That makes so much sense.” They get what this is, and they are able to use that part of the language that is not my forte and that dance break that he talks about is in a song in the middle of act two that completed the moment in a way that I had never even thought of having. 
 
BB: It’s one of my favorite moments of the show now. Just sitting at your piano, it would be hard to see that but once we have actors and we’re singing it and even when they’re standing up, I was like, “Oh, I see … I’ve seen enough shows. I feel like there’s just a little thing here.” It’s been nice to do things like that. Even small sentences, we’ve added a couple jokes that it’s like, “Can we get a zinger here?” Then Brian can write something off or changing little, small words, which some theaters will do but technically is illegal on licensed shows. Even yesterday, I emailed him, and I was like, “Oh, there’s this moment that isn’t working. Let’s write a new line here.” He was like, “I’ll get you a line.”  

RS: [To Chris Rusen, entering] Have you worked on premieres? How’s the experience been for you? 

Chris Rusen: I worked for Columbus Children’s Theater for years, and some of the touring pieces we do were written by Bill Goldsmith but something to this scale of a full-scale musical, this is my first time. I didn’t do the table reads but I actually played this same role in the stage reading three years ago. That was when I was lucky enough that they called me up. Honestly, I think one of my favorite things was just coming out of the stage reading three years ago, I would be a couple months, a year down the line and find myself humming some of the songs from the show. 

Having seen so many Broadway shows and tours, I could not tell you what a single song from Bandstand sounded like. I don’t think half the cast of Bandstand could. [Second To Sherlock] is really fun and really catchy, really great music. Having the chance then to come back years later and see the parts that they have tweaked, the way that they made the characters stronger, kind of growing with the piece and having a voice to say like, “Hey, why is this the journey they’re taking?” The best thing about art is being able to collaborate with other artists and you never really get to do that more than you do when you’re creating something. 
 
RS: What else do you think people should know about the piece? 

BB: I think people should give it a chance. You know, it’s an original musical and people might think small workshop, but the amount of time and the number of readings Brian has done, every week in the rehearsal process, I have to remind myself like, “Oh, yeah. My friend just wrote this show.” I’ve seen shows on Broadway that I think have a weaker script and score than this. I mean, obviously, that’s my opinion but I’m a big fan of it. I would recommend coming to the first weekend because I feel like word of mouth is going to get on this. You’re going to have a fun time. It’s sort of a classic big musical comedy. We have a 19-person cast, nice big dance numbers. Really fun cartoony action. Then some nice big character drama in the second act as well. 

Second To Sherlock runs December 3 through 11 at the Van Fleet Theater in the Columbus Performing Arts Center, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more information, visit imaginecolumbus.org.

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