Actors Justin Anthony Long, who is featured in the upcoming Martin Scorsese film "The Wolf of Wall Street," Jonathan Lee, who is currently playing Thuy on the road with the Kansas City Starlight mini-tour of Miss Saigon, and Jee Young Han, who has appeared on the television series "The Good Wife" and "30 Rock," have no Broadway credits to their names. However, the trio of "dreamers" has managed to wrangle a long list of Broadway stars — including Kinky Boots Tony Award winner Billy Porter and Cinderella two-time Tony nominee Laura Osnes — to appear on their theatrical-themed web series "City of Dreams."
"In the beginning, it was hard because we didn't have anything up, and nobody knew who we were and what the show was going to be, [and] we weren't very successful reaching out to [actor's] agents," explained Lee. "But now that people are seeing that other relevant Broadway stars [and] celebs are doing it, they're paying a little more attention, which is exciting. People are liking it, and it's catching fire."
The theatrical-themed web series "City of Dreams" began as a passion project for the trio — an outlet to showcase their work and aesthetic, in both performing and writing, when they weren't finding work elsewhere. But how can three twentysomethings catch the attention of award-winning Broadway actors and creatives to take part in the project, ensuring that their series makes its way around the web? Trial, error and persistence.
Long, Han and Lee put their heads together, began writing and started to film "City of Dreams," where they star as three aspiring actors who move to New York City to pursue their big Broadway dreams. Han and Lee play brother-and-sister duo Julie and Julian Wong, respectively, with Long as their friend and collaborator Jamie Carmel. "We wanted to create work for ourselves [and] were talking about all these shows about this great, talented person who doesn't have the chance," said Long, "but [then we thought], 'What if they aren't that talented? Wouldn't that be funny?' So we started building the idea around that, and one day decided to sit down and write an episode."
In the pilot, audiences meet Julie, Julian and Jamie, who — when faced with encountering pretentious actors at their friend's annual "Gay-b-cue" — make up a lie that they are developing a musical aiming for Broadway entitled The Ballad of Ofagina, in which they all star.
Watch the pilot below:
"You know, in the beginning, I don't think any one of us realized how much time it was going to take and how much work it was going to be to do a ten-episode season," said Lee. "We initially started in [the summer of 2012] doing it, and I don't think we realized we'd still be doing it now, but other professional commitments come up where we've had to take a break from it several times."
The first season of "City of Dreams" is coming to its close with the two-part season finale one week away. Part one of the tenth episode, featuring Tony winner Porter, will hit YouTube and CityOfDreamsTV.com Oct. 1 with the second part, featuring Cinderella co-stars Osnes, Santino Fontana and Marla Mindelle, Newsies' LaVon Fisher-Wilson and Here Lies Love's Kelvin Moon Loh, among others, launching Oct. 9.
"With Laura [Osnes], actually, we had a mutual friend group, so it just landed. Jon Fletcher, who played Arthur Kelly Birmingham in Episode Two worked with Laura in Bonnie & Clyde, [and] we were just hustling and bustling and looking for someone," admitted Han. "In that specific episode we needed someone who is really current to make that scene [where Jamie, Julie and Julian offer a sneak peek at The Ballad of Ofagina] work. He just asked her, and she read the script and was totally interested. We're so grateful to work with people who don't really care about money. They just read our script and like what were doing."
Watch the second episode, "Unexpected Song," featuring Osnes:
With Long, Han and Lee working with limited resources, they rely on actors to volunteer their time and talent.
Thus far, the trio has enlisted Osnes ( Cinderella), Eva Kaminsky ( The Lyons), Andrew Kober ( Hair), Tony-winning orchestrator Stephen Oremus ( Kinky Boots), Moon Loh ( American Idiot national tour), Tommy McDowell ( American Idiot national tour), Will Blum ( The Book of Mormon), Sarah Stiles ( On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) and Rachel Potter ( Evita), recently of "X Factor" fame, among others.
"With Rachel Potter, we just passed the script to her agent, and he passed it to her and she really liked it," said Lee. Potter plays an actress, resembling the character of Karen Cartwright from "Smash," who auditions for The Ballad of Ofagina with an inappropriate song choice — riffing contemporary pop music when the creative team asked for a legit piece.
Watch the fifth episode, "I Hope I Get It," featuring Potter:
"We do have the plot points for Season One; we have it all plotted out. We have to just sit down and write," said Lee on the creation process. "As we write and finish the episodes, we look through it and we do little edits… Process wise, and writing wise, the three of us like to laugh, and we like to have fun. We literally sit in a room together, and we [think], 'What would be really funny to happen to these three down-on-their-luck kids?'"
Throughout the series, the three struggling artists — who promised their friends that legendary producer Cameron Mackintosh was backing The Ballad of Ofagina — must figure out how to write, orchestrate, cast and produce a new musical. Along the road, they encounter financial difficulties, casting and creative dilemmas and, like any overworked actor in a musical series, vocal problems prior to the first performance.
Watch the sixth episode, "A Summer in Ohio," in which Julie and Julian must successfully complete three ridiculous tasks in order to gain their father's financial support:
As for filming the series, "basically all the work is done by the three of us," said Lee. "We do all the filming ourselves. If we're in a scene together, it's basically done by a tripod or [we] have one of our friends hold the camera for us. With filming and everything, none of us had any clue how to do any of it… I bought the camera we're filming on, and then I learned how to [use] Final Cut Pro as we edited the first episode." Han added, "We did a lot of trial and error — trying and learning from our mistakes and then trying again."
When shooting, Han said, "Everyone is looking at it from different points of view. Jon's looking at it through the camera, Justin's looking at the big picture, and I'm usually just [directing] that one person or that specific moment… That's the beauty of a trio working together like that. We're good at editing each other's direction."
"I think it's because we all watch a lot of TV, and if it doesn't look like a TV show, we know," said Long. "With lighting, there are certain things we've learned, like what not to do… But it's a lot about playing around with it and seeing how it looks in the camera frame."
The trio — along with singer, songwriter and actress Joanna Burns, who writes original songs for "City of Dreams" and also plays the stage manager for The Ballad of Ofagina — are hoping to produce a second season, but with aspirations for higher quality and a bigger platform.
"That'd be amazing if someone offered us a chance to [turn] it into a network show," said Long, "but our main goal right now is to put work out that we're proud of that we can do with minimal budget and say, 'This is what we can do with so much money…'" The creators and stars have spent over $5,000 dollars to bring the series' first season to life.
"City of Dreams" — taking a riff from its title — is set in the Big Apple, but instead of serving audiences with the fictionalized life of "Broadway," it delves into the life of the struggling actor, who must (like the character of Julie) work as a Times Square Chicago dancer handing out fliers to make ends meet.
"We thought it'd be funny," said Long about the "City of Dreams" concept. "There are so many actors who are not at that [professional] level or they're trying to be at that level… Ninety-five percent of the industry is unemployed, and it's an uphill climb, and there's a lot of funny things that can happen along they way."
Watch the ninth episode, "Don't Rain on My Parade," below, and watch Oct. 1 to learn the outcome of The Ballad of Ofagina:
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)