Darren Criss: The New Kid on the Block

3.15.2011

By Ari Karpel

For 'Glee' Actor Darren Criss, it didn't take long to become the big man on campus.

Criss is scrambling to complete the music and lyrics for Starship, his theater company's upcoming musical, starting a sold-out mid-February run in Chicago. "It's basically The Little Mermaid meets Aliens," he says, pitching the storyline about "an insect alien who wants to be a human being." (The show's tagline is "One small bug will remind us all what it means to be human.")

His sci-fi/Disney musical aesthetic may be unique to Criss's generation, but the "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" ethos he shares with Glee is at least as old as Babes in Arms, the 1939 Rodgers and Hart musical film starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. It's Criss's favorite and the source of one of the songs that helped him nail his audition for the role of Blaine: "Where or When," a wistful ballad about romantic d'j' vu. In a two-pack of earnestness and irony, his tryout paired that song with a slowed-down version of Britney Spears's "'Baby One More Time." "I take a lot of joy in recontextualizing songs," says Criss, who supported himself pre-Glee in part by singing a mix of Disney musical numbers and loungy takes on pop songs usually sung by women, at Maggiano's, an Italian restaurant in L.A.'s outdoor mall, the Grove.

Among a certain set, Criss was already a Web celeb before GleeMe and My Dick, a musical about a high school guy and his sex-starved penis, and A Very Potter Musical, which Criss wrote and starred in, are the kind of parodies college theater students have been putting on for decades. Now, they're posted online and Potter part 1 has had more than 4 million views on YouTube.

A supporting role on the short-lived ABC series Eastwick gained him more mainstream media exposure, which fed the popularity of Human, a five-song EP of folky, guitar-strumming angst he recorded in his bedroom. That led to gigs like a quinceañera he played in Ecuador last summer and a bar mitzvah he did in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last month. "I'd booked these before Glee," he marvels. "I just like playing music and hanging out. You want me to play songs for you? Great! You know how inherently gratifying that is?"

Though Glee-dom made a Christmastime tour of the Philippines possible -- Criss's manager booked him solo shows in front of 3,000 to 5,000 people each -- what happened there demonstrates that the multihyphenate is a new kind of young star: talented, ambitious, and a savvy self-promoter, with the world at his fingertips thanks to the Web.

"I thought it would be all Glee," he says of the audiences' interest, "but I had to change my playlist because they wanted StarKid." The Filipino teen girls were sporting StarKid sunglasses, T-shirts, and headbands they had bought online. "I'm on a worldwide network television phenomenon, but they're there because of a kind of ghetto-fabulous musical I did in two weeks with my friends in college. Who would have thought?"

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