The first time Glee viewers met newcomer Darren Criss, out-but-tortured Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) was visiting the all-boys Dalton Academy to suss out whether it would suit his escape from McKinley High. Lost in a sea of navy blue blazers, Kurt nervously sought the aid of a handsome stranger named Blaine (Criss) who immediately clasped our protagonist's hand and was leading him on a shortcut through the school's Versailles-like halls before Kurt knew what was happening. In that brief, fantastical sequence, the two teenage boys ran in slow motion to an ethereal piano interlude until they reached the site of the anticipated gathering, a performance by the Warblers, Dalton's glee club. Once there, Blaine released Kurt's hand and launched into Katy Perry's 'Teenage Dream,' flirtily crooning it his way. For Kurt, the moment was a first glimpse at a future in which he could be himself and belong.
The next day, Glee's version of 'Teenage Dream' shot up the iTunes charts, becoming the most downloaded song yet from a show that had recently surpassed the Beatles' record for the most singles to chart on Billboard's Hot 100. And in a world teeming with undeserving reality TV insta-stars, Criss became a bona fide overnight sensation.
But the 24-year-old's charm and talent were only part of the equation. After a season and a half of building sympathy for Kurt, Glee's fans want him to find happiness. And ever since Glee cocreator Ryan Murphy let on that Kurt will have a boyfriend this season, the Internet has been filled with speculation about who it will be. (After Bieber-esque new kid Sam, played by Chord Overstreet, proved straight, conjecture turned to Blaine.)
This is more than just a teenage dream, or even a gay one. As a top 10 show among men ages 18 to 49, Fox's kooky jukebox musical has a fanbase that extends beyond the usual coalition of teenage girls and gay guys who tune in to Gossip Girl or 90210. Commercial time on Glee commands top dollar (behind only Sunday Night Football and American Idol, according to Advertising Age) and big-name stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Britney Spears line up for guest appearances. Its coveted berth after the recent Super Bowl -- of all things -- shouted one thing: Glee has become the only true network TV breakout hit of the last few years.
In casting Criss, the show's producers inadvertently landed an ideal spokesman for a new generation of all-American male -- comfortable enough in his own sexuality to be perfectly at ease with someone else's. Knowing that "Are you gay?" would be among the first questions lobbed at him, Criss initially thought he would tell reporters something ambiguous and "idealistic" like "It doesn't matter if I'm gay or straight -- I'm playing a role." Though new to Hollywood, he's wise enough to know that such a tactic could have backfired. He concluded, "I didn't want to make it troublesome."
So Criss came out, as it were, as straight, and now he regularly says things like "I think it's more empowering to everybody, including myself, if I'm articulate about identifying myself as a straight male playing a gay character. Ultimately, that's more powerful for both communities."
Criss's backstory is so good it seems tailor-made for this moment. He grew up in San Francisco (translation: he's gay-friendly), where he was a big musical theater geek (see previous); his mom is Filipino and his dad is Irish (so he's appealingly multicultural); he graduated from the University of Michigan in 2009 (in other words, he's a smartie); his self-produced EP and the Harry Potter musical parody he and his UM friends made became worldwide viral video hits (he's creative, resourceful, and of-the-moment); he auditioned three times for Glee (that's persistence); and he's still deeply involved in Team StarKid, the theater company he started with his friends in college (he's grounded).
When I show up 10 minutes early for our interview, at a nondescript Hollywood caf' a few blocks' walk from his apartment, Criss is dressed in comfortable layers, perched on a stool by the window. A black and blue knit cap conceals his curls while horn-rimmed glasses obscure those thick, look-I'm-the-kid-from-Glee eyebrows. A couple of days' stubble contrasts Blaine's clean-shaven look. This portrait of the artist as a young man comes complete with a napkin full of scribbled lyrics and a few stray lines scrawled on the back of his hand.
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 Glee. Me 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?"