Darren Criss:'Glee' and 'Hedwig' star performs at The Nourse

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Wednesday October 21, 2015
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The Nourse Broadway series returns Friday October 30, with host and musician Seth Rudetsky performing in a duo musical concert with the locally-born wunderkid; singing, dancing, rocking sensation Darren Criss. He'll perform Broadway classics, and share some personal stories as well.

"I'm a huge Seth Rudetsky fan, and we got to meet less than a year ago," said Criss, in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "I had seen him perform around town many times, we've performed in two concerts together. One was a fundraiser with him in New York City. He's really involved in foster care philanthropy. Now we get to do something together, on purpose."

Partial proceeds from the concert benefit Project Open Hand, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.

"Seth asked me to do the Nourse series, where we can sing and banter about Broadway, and I get to tell a few of my stories about being born and raised in San Francisco," added Criss. "How could I pass this up?"

Origin of Love
Fans can discover a new side of the talented 28-year-old, other than costarring with Chris Colfer as one half of the popular gay couple on Glee, the multiple Emmy-winning Ryan Murphy/Brad Falchuk musical high school dramedy.

The show, which aired on Fox from 2009 to 2015, broke boundaries with depictions of gay, lesbian, transgender, and disabled teenagers, and a few downright crazy-funny adults, with Emmy-winning song and dance numbers. Criss charmed millions of fans in his Season 2 debut as the dapper Blaine Anderson, private school hunk, with the now-iconic song, "Teenage Dream." The New York Post cited 'Klaine' as "one of the most beloved TV couples of the millennium."

Earlier fans knew Criss from his University of Michigan years, and in the Starkid Productions creation, A Very Potter Musical. The whimsical college parody's video of the stage show went super-viral, and a devoted fandom was born. Other musicals, Starship and Me and My Dick, became chart-topping indie scores. But don't expect any of that at his upcoming concert.

"The set list will surround my chronological story, including some of the shows I did in high school and college, or other shows I performed in at the A.C.T. Conservatory," said Criss. "I'd like to do this journey about getting to know me in some way."

Before A.C.T., Criss studied music and learned to play multiple instruments, and made his professional stage debut at age 10 with 42nd Street Moon. He graduated from Saint Ignatius College Preparatory in 2005, where some of the roots of his musical ambition were imagined, like perhaps the role of a certain German transgender rock singer?

Like one of his Glee moments, it's all there. The starstruck kid sings along to a soundtrack (shared by his brother Chuck Criss, who performs in the band Freelance Whales), and then, ten years later, the kid stars in that show, on Broadway.

"So, of course we're gonna talk about Broadway and musical theatre," said Criss. "It's been a large part of my life since high school."

Before starring in Hedwig and the Angry Inch earlier this year, Criss also starred in the second cast of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, replacing Harry Potter pal Daniel Radcliff.

Criss said his shared concert with Rudetsky is a great fit.

"I've always gravitated towards artists that are really bathed in versatility," said Criss, whose performing styles range from rock to jazz and Broadway. "My whole goal is to be as diverse as possible. Life's a banquet and, you know, why not go for it? I want a spicy meal!"

This Time
But for those who have yet to enjoy his solo EP Human and his trove of other music, Criss' breakout hit "Teenage Dream" still remains his most known song.

With its debut rendition in Glee, the tearful piano bar break-up version, to his many live acoustic variations and his epic rock concert take, Criss also performed the song at benefits, including a Trevor Project fundraiser´┐Ż with Katy Perry, and even at a presidential inauguration gala, paired with Criss' soulful "Not Alone."

Criss has noted the song as having "inadvertently become a sort of anthem" for LGBT youth suicide prevention and other causes "in a way that really surprised and touched me."

And Criss is taking off in, well, new directions, like Girl Most Likely, the warmhearted 2012 comedy with Kristen Wiig, to his concerts at Joe's Pub, and with Michael Feinstein for a PBS New Year's Eve show, and even singing as part of the 2012 Oscars broadcast with Kermit the Frog.

But if you only know the fictional Warbler version, you should catch up. A hometown night of song and stories seems a perfect re-introduction to this charismatic multi-talent.

"Performances for me are always about trying new things," said Criss. "Physically, when we do the rock band thing or me playing instruments or me leading a band, it's one style. With most people in my position, I don't get to do a classic Broadway cabaret, but this is going to be more like that. It's about how much I love that stuff. I'll try to hug that vibe for the Nourse show, especially with someone like Seth."

Criss referenced singer-composers of the past as inspirations for the show's classy edge, and he's showcased his diverse musical talents at his own concerts.

"I love classic performers like Mel Torm´┐Ż, who was a fucking incredible jazz musician," he said. "He had really insane music chops. And Terri Davis is an amazing singer, comedian and personality. I admire the kind of guys who were all over the place, and who got there because there were so diverse. I see it having been done, so it's really inspiring to have a whole range ahead of me."

At the same time, he's eager to keep reinventing himself.

"What's interesting about this day and age for musicians is, it's kind of like being a comedian and burning through material on, say, The Late Show. If you do a set on TV, you're kind of screwed if you use it again after millions of people have heard it. I can do the same material on the road, with my band. But you have to pick when you can really make an impact."

Picture Perfect
Criss is known for his spontaneity at concerts, including his sold out Listen Up tour in 2013, which premiered at The Fillmore, with his family admiring from a stage-side balcony view.

Another view was brought up, specifically the sea of cell phones at his concerts. Multiple videos of his band's tour are on YouTube, including some super-fan's mix of his band's entire set. And nearly every Starkid concert is also online.

"Nowadays, with video recording, every live show I do is internationally viewed, whether it's at Carnegie Hall or a small club," said Criss. "You can even watch an entire bootleg of Hedwig."

From the concerts to what he called "awkward audition songs in my dorm room," to wailing on the piano at Marie's Crisis with Lea Salonga, and even animated GIFs of him shaking his booty on Glee, Criss is well-documented, whether he wants it or not.

"That's been really hard to embrace, somewhat," he said. "I get mad when I see some stuff. It takes everything out of context, and isn't understood by those who were actually there, which is such a great part of going to the theatre. If a joke is made, you're not aware that something happened before it, or if there's a visual gag you didn't see. They have no idea about that moment, and it's not understood by someone, say in, say, Chile. It loses the magic.

"However, despite myself, to play devil's advocate, the fact that somebody in Chile gets to see it is amazing. Mentally, I'm an old-fashioned guy, while I'm trying to embrace new technology, and happy that people are excited about watching stuff. Artists love to perform, and it's something we have to consider. But the fact that people are recording so much makes me think, 'Oh, shit! I better make this good all the time,' because it's gonna be on the Internet forever. It'll be available long after we've left this world... which is kind of terrifying."

Although his concert will include personal stories, Criss reflected on this kind of fame, saying, "I'm a really private person. It's a very weird paradoxical position. There's a version of me that is open to these kids, the fans of Glee and Hedwig and my rock shows. But I do have a private life. I'm not saying it's, like, deep dark weird shit; just stuff people wouldn't know about, and this show will be a great opportunity to tell my version of a few stories."

Criss' upcoming projects are already stirring buzz, like his next album. Of his participation in another Ryan Murphy project, American Horror Story: Hotel, Criss couldn't discuss his upcoming guest role, except to say, "I did film some of it, and I think it should be really interesting."

Darren Criss performing at New York's Irving Plaza in 2011.

The Muse
Asked if he'd been to the Nourse Theatre before it closed for several years, Criss said he'd been gone for so long, "there are a lot of things that've changed. When I come back, or talk to people who live there, they say, 'It's changed a lot,' like it's some tragedy. But everything changes. That's how cities work, man. What disappoints me, though, is a lot of music and theatre venues are no longer there."

One theatre that's still going strong is The Curran, where a touring production of Hedwig will open in 2016.

Asked if he would consider returning to the role, Criss said, "Who knows? I certainly wouldn't be opposed to doing Hedwig again. The thing is, I keep open about work. Two months before Glee ended, I didn't know I'd be shooting a film in Italy. Two months before I finished with Hedwig, I didn't know I'd be doing this concert, or doing American Horror Story. My life's been kind of like the story of a traveling vagabond."

Asked if the demands of another months-long musical run would be exhausting, Criss countered, "I wouldn't call it that. It would only be exhausting if I didn't enjoy it. It was exhilarating; such a dream come true! It's such a privilege for an actor, to be a part of that legacy. If you're up to the challenge, it's such a wonderful experience, and the efforts are so rewarded; taking hold of the audience with songs like those. Everything about it was so positive, despite the chaos of the story itself. It was such a joy to do it every night. There was also a lot of variance with the little freestyle parts."

Those included a few lap dances, and Hedwig spitting on a few (lucky?) audience members, who, he's noted, have their own diverse opinions.

Criss recalled signing programs and posters after a matinee during the run of Hedwig, where, within minutes of each other, different fans said, "I've seen the show ten times; you're the meanest Hedwig!' Later that same day, another fan said, 'I've seen this with five different actors, and you're one of the sweetest Hedwigs I've seen.' And that's live theatre. I never know what the audience is coming in with."

Darren Criss produced and performed at the September 2015 Elsie Fest in New York City.

Ready To Go
His most recent project, the Elsie Fest, held in New York City last month, presented a day of outdoor mini-concerts with notable Broadway actor-singers, and a Starkid reunion with his Very Harry Potter colleagues.

The concert allowed the artists to focus on their best material, with some fun experiments as well. This is just one of many projects, benefits and innovations for Criss. From LGBT causes to disaster relief efforts in The Philippines, the energetic performer keeps super-busy.

"My old-fashioned self and new self in this more tech-savvy world are sometimes at odds," said Criss, when we discussed his focused posts in social media that more often promote his causes and his colleagues.

"People want to share their stuff, but not just randomly. That's exactly why I created Elsie Fest. I want to be able to give artists a chance to find new fans. They want to record stuff their way and be involved, and we should give the artists a space for that. The performers all ended up crushing it! Now, instead of kids' iPhone videos, they have their own little concert to promote themselves. Everybody wins."

The balance of fame and artistic success is one that Criss is handling well.

"There is so much good to be derived from fans who are interested in artists, and how to route it in the most positive way is one of my goals," he said. "If kids wanna capture what they're experiencing and share with people, then lucky us. Who are we to be upset about it?"

But please, resist the temptation to whip out your cell phone at The Nourse, despite how amazing Criss performs.

"The new concert is my opportunity to do something else," he said. "San Francisco is such a huge part of who I am and what I did there. I want to make it fresh and original. I try and do stuff in a different way when I can, because on a tour it's a different kind of feeling. I mean, I would never ask my band to play a Sondheim song."

Then he paused. "But that might be pretty amazing, come to think of it."


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