Broadway on the Web: Wesley Taylor and Mitchell Jarvis Prove That "It Could Be Worse" in Theatrical Web Series
By Michael Gioia
The trials and tribulations of life in the world of theatre are being materialized on computer screens. In the three-part series "Broadway on the Web," Playbill.com profiles the theatrical-themed web series "It Could Be Worse," "City of Dreams" and "Submissions Only."
Wesley Taylor and Mitchell Jarvis met in the original company of the 2009 Tony Award-nominated Best Musical Rock of Ages. Taylor, who appeared on the NBC musical drama "Smash," played Franz, and Jarvis, formerly of Broadway's Fiddler on the Roof, played Lonny. Before Taylor made a splash on television, the two were creating backstage "mock-umentaries" four years earlier.
"It was a creative way to stay fresh in [Rock of Ages'] long run and a kind of creative satisfaction when we were doing the show," explained Taylor. "We would just be making all these videos backstage — it kept it exciting."
The videos he referred to were "Rock of Ages Productions," a glimpse into the backstage life and drama of Broadway that they filmed at New World Stages, where the show opened Off-Broadway in 2008, and the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where the production later transferred for its Broadway bow. (Click here to visit the RockofAgesProd YouTube page to watch the series.)
"Rock of Ages Productions" led to "Billy Green," the second web series featuring members of the Rock of Ages team and the Broadway community, in which Taylor (as frequent — and clueless — auditioner Billy Green) tries to make it big in the business.
Taylor and Jarvis decided to up the ante — purchasing a Canon Rebel T3i camera, editing with video software Final Cut Pro X and exploring the use of lighting and sound — to produce a pilot that they could shop around to various cable networks to bring their backstage shtick to a broader audience. "It Could Be Worse" — a comic series following Jacob Gordon (Taylor) as he navigates the world of Broadway, boyfriends and bad luck — hit the net (exclusively screening its first season on Playbill.com).
In the process of raising funds for their big screen dreams, Taylor and Jarvis began writing. "Mitch was like, 'Well, let's just start working. Let's just shoot a couple sketches in the meantime while we wait, right?' So, we shot the scene in the first episode in the bathroom — the ladies' bathroom sketch," said Taylor, who pulled from real-life situations. "It was something that happened to me in my personal life — a McDonald's audition, so the stakes were lower — but it was still like something that I will never forget… I [thought], 'We have to tell this story.'" The pilot of "It Could Be Worse" introduces Jacob (played by Wesley), who — at an audition — finds himself in desperate need of the bathroom.
The duo paired the bathroom sketch with their original idea — a pilot entitled "Veronica" (a character who is introduced later in the web series and played by Alison Fraser) — for the storyline.
"Once we linked that all together," said Jarvis, "we said, 'This is kind of a substantial little short.' And then the gears started turning, of course."
Watch the pilot below:
Jarvis and Taylor began to focus on casting "It Could Be Worse." But, with a shoestring budget, how were the two able to lineup a roster of Broadway stars?
"The main cast is our friends," confessed Wesley, who brought in Spring Awakening actor Gideon Glick to play his needy boyfriend Phillip Klein; Peter and the Starcatcher's Adam Chanler-Berat as Ben Farrel, Jacob Gordon's new boy-toy; and two-time Tony Award nominee Alison Fraser as Veronica Bailey, the female lead of the series who is the star vehicle of the fictional new Broadway musical The Ice Queen. Taylor met Fraser on NBC's "Smash," and Jarvis said it was "her youthful energy" that drew them in.
"I think the great thing about being in the industry ourselves, as actors, is that we have this resource — this talent pool — that's immense," said Taylor. "Just going through our phone directory when we need a part… It's the easiest way. We're just casting our friends."
Jarvis added, "The creative team for the fake Broadway show, [The Ice Queen] — we put together in less than 24 hours!"
"They're giving [their time] to us for free," said Taylor, who wrangles a group of young Broadway talent on the spot for various shoots. "I feel very lucky because I feel like people trust us. They trust our brand of comedy, and they've seen it's much easier… The more we do our content, the easier it is to get people, and that is reassuring."
Guest stars in "It Could Be Worse" include Audra McDonald, Kyle Dean Massey, Laura Benanti, Ephraim Sykes, Nick Adams, Lauren Molina, Alice Lee, Matt DeAngelis, Andrew Durand, Meghann Fahy, Ann Harada, Taylor Trensch, Savannah Wise, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Alexandra Socha, Justin Sargent, Christopher Sieber, Mo Brady, Jessica Lea Patty, Robert Creighton, Alex Wyse, Andy Mientus, Michael Arden, Jeremy Jordan, Ashley Spencer, Nick Cearley, Krysta Rodriguez, Jeremy Woodard, Lilli Cooper, Remy Zaken, Max Crum, Michael Urie, Will Chase, Debra Messing, Julia Murney, Santino Fontana, Max Von Essen, Betsy Wolfe and Roger Rees, among many others.
Watch episode six of "It Could Be Worse," where star Fraser is introduced in the series:
On the production end, Jarvis refers to Taylor as "the production organizer" and manager. "He'll always get the schedule together, get the actors there, scout [locations] and secure locations," said Jarvis, who is usually behind the camera unless he is playing Sam Atkinson, Jacob's drugged-out agent. In order to produce professional video quality, Jarvis read up on lighting tricks, sound quality and emphasized cutting out material that "exposes" the web series as "amateur."
"Oh, we're very ghetto," confessed Taylor. "I mean, Audra McDonald called us 'Ghetto Productions.'" Although the series creators admitted to using tricks such as actors also being the microphone operators, their web series quality is crisp, clean and professional.
Watch the third episode, where Jacob Green encounters Ben Farrel (Chanler-Berat), the new object of his affection. Taylor admitted that in close scenes with Chanler-Berat, they often alternate holding the microphone underneath the camera sightlines.
"It's tricky," said Taylor. "We're a two-person crew. We don't have people helping. My boyfriend Gregg Wiggins is a director, [and] he was [assistant director] for us on our last big epic shoot of 30 people in a small studio apartment — 20 extras and the cast. It was a ten-hour shoot, and it was so epic, and we needed someone to help us. [Mitchell's] girlfriend wrangled the extras, and my boyfriend ran the day… It was surprising how much easier everything was when you have someone making sure you're not running low on time and announcing each shot and telling the background what to do… Usually it's just me and [Mitchell]… I feel like most of the magic happens in the editing [room], and it just gives you so much respect for editing…"
"It's a beautiful lie," Jarvis interjected. "It's probably I'd say 60 hours [of editing] work an episode — depending on the content of the episode."
Watch the tenth episode of the series, in which Jacob has a big party (with 20 extras) at his apartment:
The series, which wrapped its first season at the end of May, has plans for a second season. The first season concluded with The Ice Queen finally landing on Broadway (at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, the current home of the Tony Award-winning musical Kinky Boots). Aside from screening on Playbill.com, YouTube and ItCouldBeWorse.TV, the creators have high hopes for the series to make a smash onto bigger platforms.
"There are web series that start on Internet sources and then get picked up for cable television," said Taylor, who explained that the goal is for "It Could Be Worse" to live beyond the Interwebs. "As we're going episode by episode, we're broke. You don't realize how much it's going to cost to rent all the rooms… We keep upping the ante equipment wise."
The two have considered crowd-funding websites such as Kickstarter to get a second season of "It Could Be Worse" off the ground, with hopes that the series can eventually take off on its own — with a bigger storyline, bigger platform and larger audience. Current plans are for the duo to begin shooting this winter in Los Angeles.
While audiences may compare it to NBC's "Smash" — the series about the life of Broadway that Taylor also appeared on, which didn't seem to remain afloat on national television — they emphasized "It Could Be Worse" is more than just a look at the backstage happenings on the Great White Way.
"I view it as a character study more than anything," said Jarvis.
Taylor added, "It's about sex and relationships, embarrassment, humiliation, success… It's not about 'theatre,' although we're writing what we know. It comes form that world."
While "It Could Be Worse" lives in the world of Broadway, the series focuses on the lives of twentysomethings in New York City. With the success of "Girls," the Lena Dunham series set in Brooklyn, and the classic HBO sitcom "Sex and the City," about four city-living ladies and their sex lives, "It Could Be Worse" can be the next series to slip into the city-life genre (this time, with Broadway as the show's backdrop).
Watch the first season finale, and click here to watch behind-the-scenes footage:
(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.)
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