Photography by Luke Fontana | Styling by Michael Cook. Fashion Assistants: Manolo Morales, Tommy Jefferson, Gaving Ramiscal. Groomer: Angel Di Carlo. Suit and shirt by Marc Jacobs. Tank top (below) by Dior Homme
"I was rehearsing for 'Midnight Radio' and I started to tear up a little bit," Criss admits. "I didn't bawl or anything, but I got kind of choked up, and kept it to myself. The song is very anthemic. I get emotional even thinking about it -- thinking of all the people out there like me who looked at something like this show and felt connected to something greater than themselves. The fact that I get to convey that back to them is really gratifying -- a little overwhelming, frankly."
Now that emotion is on display six days a week at New York's Belasco Theatre, where the 28-year-old has slipped into the wig and heels of Hedwig, theater's most famous East German transgender rock singer. Telling the story of a woman in transition couldn't be better timed for Criss, who's at his own emotional crossroads, having recently wrapped five years playing Glee's beloved Blaine Anderson.
"A lot of things have been hugely shifting in my life," explains Criss, who made a pit stop at his family home shortly before starting rehearsals for Hedwig. "Forget the career that I've gotten to have in the past few years. I don't care who you are -- looking through your teenage years is crazy," he says. "I was getting in touch with a part of myself that I hadn't really thought about in years."
Part of that childhood history was Hedwig, a show he first connected with at 16, playing songs from the soundtrack with his older brother, Chuck. Amid the hieroglyphic-like math exams and doodled-on day planners, Criss found his original Hedwig CD, complete with guitar tabs in the liner notes so he could learn to play the music.
"Hedwig was sort of fish food for us," Criss says, his exuberant charm mixed with a quiet, yet keen, focus. "It was candy. There was an obvious attraction to the subversive and subcultural."
For Criss, the trajectory from his teenage dream to stepping into Hedwig's platforms is part luck, part diligence. He had ambitions of directing the show in college, but instead ended up working on the YouTube sensation A Very Potter Musical. After a move to Los Angeles, he entertained doing his own one-weekend staging of it at a rock club, but when a guest spot on Glee's second season transformed into a series-regular role, he had to wait. And the wait continued, even with the Broadway revival of Hedwig, which kicked off with Neil Patrick Harris in the starring role. The moment he knew his wrap date, he called co-creators Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell, and was slotted in as the next lead.
"He's a genius, virtuoso, prodigy kind of a person," says Trask. "That's what I thought the first time I ever saw him on Glee. He was just of a different caliber."
Mitchell, who finished his own Broadway run days before Criss took the stage, was thrilled that Criss would be the first musician in the role, and cited Criss's upbringing in San Francisco as another plus. "He grew up in the gayest city in the world, and it's rubbed off," he says. "He's the sweetest, hippest straight queer boy on the block."
"That's a high compliment coming from John," says Criss, laughing. "I wear that banner proudly. I think Glee, obviously, has pushed my relationship with the gay community at large in a really cool way. That seems a natural extension of my San Franciscan progressive nature. It's a community that has embraced me and a community that I've embraced."
It's a particular honor for Criss to follow Mitchell, who originated the part in 1998. "Shakespeare is handing me Hamlet," he says. It's not the first time he's assumed a role made famous by another big-name performer; in 2012 he took over from Daniel Radcliffe in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. His turn as J. Pierrepont Finch helped rake in $4 million at the box office in three of the most lucrative weeks in the show's run. But while his previous outing winked at the boundary of the fourth wall, Hedwig tears it down.
"It'll be interesting to let people know that this is Hedwig," he says. "When she's there, when the makeup's on, it's her show. I cannot be held accountable for her actions. That's all I can say. She's in complete control. This is her room. This is her night. Don't fuck with her, because she will fuck with you hard."
As the latest in a long line of performers to channel Hedwig, Criss hopes that as he applies what he calls the "cheat code" of Hedwig -- her heels, her makeup, her wigs -- what the audience will take away from his performance, at its core, is the inspiring story of her character.
"Darren won't be there -- that's the goal at least," he says. "I really want it to just be this woman who is taking these people on a roller coaster ride. My goal is for people to forget that I'm in these heels, that I'm in the makeup. I just want them to remember this person, this attitude, and, of course, the music. If they walk away really being hit by the story, then we succeed."