"First of all, the only person that's more excited than them is probably me because this is something that I wish I had made it to when I was a kid," Criss told Playbill.com hours before the big surprise. "It's a theatre convention, where these kids are already outgoing, already excited, already motivated and enthusiastic, so you put them all together in a big room, and it's just a big ball of joy. That is just an infectious thing to be a part of. Why wouldn't you want to be a part of that? ... The things that makes theatre is: real-time, being there in person [and] experiencing everything together. It's still cool that despite the connectivity that they have [through social media], this is still really important because theatre is about sharing everything in the moment with these people."
Criss was invited on stage at the New Works Presentation, where his friends from the University of Michigan (Tony Award-nominated A Christmas Story songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) were presenting tunes from their musical James and the Giant Peach.
Criss was asked to perform "On Your Way Home" and "Middle of a Moment," two songs that the title character sings from the musical.
"On a personal note," Criss explained, "Benj and Justin are old pals of mine from Michigan. We're all part of the 'Michigan Mafia.' I wanted to come last year. I couldn't make it... This is for me, man. It's completely selfish! I'm here to have fun [and] meet these kids. I'm mad that I didn't make it earlier. I wanted to see a lot of their performances, but I hear they're amazing."
Throughout the festival, middle school and high school-aged children perform selections from a show they've worked on (or are in rehearsal for) in the last year. They are given notes by industry professionals in an environment where they are able to engage with students and theatre enthusiasts from around the country. Criss added, "Young people doing stuff like this is so inspiring for us because you go, 'This is why I do what I do. This is exactly what I do.' There's a lack of inhibitions here... To miss out on that would be really silly, so I'm beyond excited to be here."
Click here to read more about the festival, and check out Playbill on Twitter and Instagram for clips, performances and footage from #JTF15.