Darren Criss Talks What to Expect at His Outdoor Music Festival This Year

Special Features   Darren Criss Talks What to Expect at His Outdoor Music Festival This Year Last year’s Elsie Fest was the first festival the Glee star put together, so he’s made some changes for round two. The singer reveals his plans for this Labor Day’s event.
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Darren Criss Andrew Hendrick/Broadway Records

Darren Criss is back at it again. He’s announced the date, lineup and venue for the second annual Elsie Fest, the outdoor music festival for Broadway fans and theatre lovers. On September 5, Criss and his lineup (which includes everyone from Kimmy Schmidt’s Tituss Burgess to Tony-winning Color Purple star Cynthia Erivo) will head to Coney Island to sing show tunes alongside the Brooklyn beach and boardwalk.

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Like last year, the festival will have a main stage, where each artist will perform his or her set, as well as a Marie’s Crisis Beer Garden, where Criss’ other performer friends (and possibly a few from the mainstage) will serenade theatre fans over bottles of beer and slices of pizza.

After the lineup was announced for the Labor Day event, Criss called in from Philadelphia, where he was performing at the Democratic National Convention, to talk about what new things to expect at this year’s festival.

First off, why the switch to Coney Island this year?
Darren Criss: We looked at a ton of different venues; we initially had it at Pier 97 last year, which is closer to midtown. It had more of a Broadway feel. That area has now changed a little bit because of residential areas that have [been] built around there now, but also, when we saw the venue at Coney Island, we just thought, “Man, we want to make it a destination and excursion for people!” It’s a newer [and] refurbished venue…but it just felt so very New York. What was important for me for the festival was for it to feel very much like a ‘New York’ thing, not only culturally with Broadway people being involved, but geographically, and one of the great things that I love when I mention Coney Island to people, the number one reaction is, “Oh man! I haven’t been there since I was like a kid! I need a reason to go back,” so you can make a day out of it. It’s Labor Day. You can go down to the beach, you can go hang down by the boardwalk, obviously… It’s a day-long thing. It’s meant to be a whole experience beyond just watching a few concerts.

So, the venue is outside?
DC: Yeah, it’s kind of a hybrid. This venue is sort of a little bit of both. September is tricky, so we do have a rain contingency, God forbid that happens. I’ll knock on wood, but it is connected right off the boardwalk, so it kind of feels outdoors. It’s certainly open-air. It’s like an open-air amphitheatre.

I had a blast last year! But, what did you learn from then, and what will you change?
DC: Well, there’s so much that we want to do. My true ideal version of this festival is probably ten years out, which is me being an overly ambitious producer. There’s a lot of logistical things that I won’t bore you with, but it’s certainly just wanting to expand on every little thing. Anything that went well, we just went, “Man, I wish it could have gone this much better.” Every year we are loving the idea that we’re getting to expand a little more. A couple things are different in the sense that…having both Jason Robert Brown and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul representing the composer side of things… People know their music, but oftentimes they don’t get to see them sing their songs, so adding that as an element to our festival was important to me because I always wanted to have that.

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul Dirty Sugar Photography

Also, we have Evan Rachel Wood, who had a great kind of music-crossover-film [career]— she’s a singer, she’s a performer, she’s a total Broadway nerd…. She’ll be playing with her band, Rebal and a Basketcase, which to me is important because I like highlighting these people in pop culture. I want them to be all treated equally in the same place, and I really don’t know another venue where you’d be able to see, again, someone like Jason Robert Brown in the same area you’d be able to see a cool indie band like that. So, it’s important for me that the festival really highlights who the people are, not so much what it sounds like or what it looks like. It’s more the general collection of giving all these people who we love in pop culture a chance to really shine in their element.

It was very Broadway-song heavy last year. With the addition of bands and composers, will we hear pop music, too?
DC: Yeah, at the end of the day, it’s really [dependent upon] the performer. I encourage all of them to do whatever they want. I like the idea of: If we know somebody for a certain type of music to [have them] do a different kind of music. I want the pop guys to do more traditional or jazz stuff or vice versa. To me, the highlights of last year are when you see Aaron Tveit doing something from Taylor Swift. … At the end of the day it’s up to them, but I do lean on my performers to really try and do stuff that they’ve never got a chance to, which also makes it interesting for the audience because I want this to be a place where you can hear songs and see songs performed that you couldn’t see anywhere else. It’s one of those Coachella moments, where you had to be there to hear that tune.

Is StarKid going to join you again?
DC: No, they were with us last year, so we’re going to switch it up every year. I think maybe in another two years.

What’s going to be happening between sets? Last year, the Marie’s Crisis Beer Garden was on the opposite end of the mainstage, so there was a lot of running back and forth to try and catch it all!
DC: Hopefully, we’ll have it streamlined. We’re still figuring out the best places for everything. We announced the roster, but I’m going to make no claims to say that everything is perfected. We still have a lot to do before September, when we get to the venue to decide where things can be and what the best idea can be to maximize everyone’s enjoyment. The cool thing about being at this venue is, because of the way it operates along the boardwalk, not only would you have this Marie’s Crisis singalong, you also have a whole beach and a whole boardwalk at your disposal. So in between sets, if you don’t mind missing a performer or two and you want to walk around like a true festival, you have the architecture of Coney Island built into our grounds. So you can kind of come and go as you please. If you want to ride on the Cyclone in between sets, you totally can.

In terms of food and drink trucks, is it going to be even bigger and better? Last year, one of the only complaints was about waiting in line for food.
DC: It was the worst last year. The fact that that was our worst problem last year is a miracle. The fact that nobody died and nothing catastrophic happened to me was such a large victory. Something as fundamental and easily fixable as food truck saturation is like a joy to be able to mend for next year. I had never done a festival before, so obviously there’s a huge learning curve. I anticipate after this year, there will be a new set of notes with a new set of problems, and we’ll [learn from that] every year.

You have a killer lineup. Will you announce even more as we approach?
DC: Ideally, I think so. I’m hesitant with saying that for sure, but I wouldn’t rule it out. What happens is, with the help of you and with the help of our other friends in the Broadway world, if there’s enough excitement, hopefully we can get some other people. If they hear about it, and they want to be a part of it and they reach out to us, then it would be great, but if that doesn’t happen, I’ll be so thrilled to just have the guys we do now.

You’re performing as well. Can you tease anything?
DC: It is the last thing I think about, and I probably won’t figure it out until the week of. Until then, I’m running around on the phone with clipboards and emails and so much logistic stuff, that’s the last piece.

The special thing about Elsie Fest is that there are opportunities for fan interaction.
DC: Yeah, there will definitely be some meet-and-greets if people are up for that. I think some of the VIP packages have that, but I really wanted to apply the model that we use for a lot of rock bands and pop groups—a lot of standard protocol that I think a lot of Broadway performers aren’t used to. It’s a really fun experience for both sides because the audience members are usually used to just waiting [outside the] stage door, and also the performers aren’t used to getting to meet fans in this kind of capacity. Trying to apply that to this festival is really important to me, so there will definitely be opportunities to meet your favorite folks.

The composers, such as Benj and Justin, will be performing?
DC: Yes, they do their own kind of schtick, and I imagine they’ll have some people come in and out of their set. Last year, our roster revolved around each other—people did duets, and people showed up and did all kind of fun things together—so hopefully we can have the same thing happen. I would be disappointed if it didn’t happen.

Are there any other tidbits that you want to tease?
DC: I think bringing it to this venue is going to be really exciting. I think it’s going to be really fun to have it in Coney Island because once you get there, it’s just so charming and it’s so old-school New York. [With] the poster that we made, we were so hell-bent on trying to make it feel like an old-timey Coney Island poster and bring a sense of nostalgia to what we’re doing. Even though what we’re doing is somewhat new, it’s fun [for it] to feel like a day at the beach and a day of going to a concert to take you away from everything.

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