Criss teams up with LiveNation and iHeartRadio to present Elsie Fest (which may be a nod to Sally Bowles' girlfriend "known as Elsie," although Criss won't confirm) Sept. 27 at JBL LIVE at Pier 97, and he's already enlisted the help of Tony winner Lea Salonga, Next to Normal's Aaron Tveit, Hamilton's Leslie Odom, Jr.; Tony-nominated Cinderella Laura Osnes; Chicago-based musical theatre company and YouTube sensation Team StarKid (a group he can't wait to reunite with); and musician, actor, radio host and Playbill.com columnist Seth Rudetsky.
Elsie Fest is the brainchild of Criss, talent manager Ricky Rollins and Broadway producer and Jujamcyn Theaters president Jordan Roth. The outdoor festival will run from 2-9 PM with performances throughout the day, including surprise guests, and concertgoers will be offered exclusive meet and greets with their favorite stars, merchandise, food trucks and a beer garden. Elise Fest will be hosted by 106.7 LIteFM personalities Christine Nagy and Helen Little with Rudetsky, and a portion of the proceeds will be donated to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
Hot off the Great White Way from his acclaimed run in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Criss is now in planning mode for the festival, which he hopes will become an annual event that will eventually grow bigger and better than any musical theatre concert before.
Tell me all about Elsie Fest! I'm super pumped for it. Where did you come up with the idea?
Darren Criss: I go to a lot of shows in general. I spend most of my free time going to see theatre, concerts and a significant amount of rock shows. I go to a lot of concerts and hip-hop shows… And, I feel like my interests are compartmentalized between: "This is when I go to theatre" and, "This is when I go to a rock festival," [but] they are the same in my mind. I enjoy them the same way, and I just thought, "Why don't I put these together?" I was at Coachella maybe a year or two ago, and I think somebody did a standard, and the juxtaposition of the vibe… Everybody really got into it because it's just not something you're used to seeing outdoors, and I just [thought], "Why cant we have this for all these amazing acts I see at 54 Below or Joe's Pub?" A lot of these people who are really avid fans have this really raucous enthusiasm that seems bigger than the venues that they're in — the concert halls, what have you — so I thought it would be great to put this energy into an outdoor setting and chill vibe where you can ditch the suit and tie and the cocktail dress and really let your hair down and just enjoy the more rock-show atmosphere [that includes] standards from stage and screen. I thought, "Why not throw a festival?"
You have a kick-ass lineup! Where did you begin?
DC: I just sat down and made up a list. There's a document on my computer that has probably upwards of maybe 150 people from all walks of life, whether they're music artists, TV actors, film actors or people that are known for other things other than Broadway, and I just tried to make a list as big as I could of people that I knew or didn't know, but I knew had backgrounds in Broadway. The cool thing about a lot of people who are performers is, more often than not, a lot of them have some sort of personal tie with Broadway. A lot of rock musicians have that moment where they saw a musical when they were a child or a teenager, and that stuck with them. A lot of these people don't have an excuse to celebrate that and play those songs, and so I was just looking for as many people as possible, and it ended up gearing down to some people who are more known for Broadway, and they were just kind enough to say yes, frankly. There are so many people that I look forward to having in the future, and I think these are really great people — an eclectic group of people to set the bar. Are you expecting this to be an annual event?
DC: Oh, this first festival is just us getting on our feet — it's just us getting started. I'm very thrilled with our lineup and what we have. The show hasn't even happened yet, and I already have things that I wish I did better, but for the most part, my vision for this festival is very much in the future. I'm excited for what we have and to see how it goes, and I'm excited to see what we can improve, but I really want to establish this as something that can be kind of a New York-staple festival and something that the whole community — both the Broadway community and the pop-cultural sphere — could look forward to and as a place to really do songs that you might not otherwise do in that atmosphere. So, yeah, this is something that I'm really hoping for the long haul, and I think we have a great group of people to help us get it started right, and it's on the same day as [the annual Broadway Flea Market & Grand Auction].
Yes! I was going to ask — has that created any kind of conflict or does it work to the festival's advantage?
DC: In my mind, I was so excited when I saw that it was the same day because I should hate for anyone to think that there is any kind of conflict at all. We're both associated with Broadway Cares/[Equity Fights AIDS], and we're both doing what we do for an amount of proceeds [to] go to Broadway Cares… I'm trying to create some kind of synergy between the two things. I'm trying to give Broadway a big, outdoor day — whether you start there, then go to the festival or go to the festival and then you go there, it's an all-day kind of thing, so as far as I'm concerned, I think it's wonderful. The more you can immerse yourself in our little Broadway world, the better! So, I'm so happy that it's the same day.
On the Elsie Fest website, it says you're getting food trucks, beer gardens, sing-alongs… What should we be expecting?
DC: Festivals are about the "hang out," the atmosphere, spending a day. The shorthand people have been asking me, "You're doing the Coachella of show tunes?" I go, "Well, Coachella is a massive festival with art installations and stuff," so obviously that is kind of a stretch as far as comparisons are concerned. As far as the vibe that's created, you go to hang out and meet people that have similar interests to you, and hopefully you discover new artists. I like to think that if there are people on the lineup that you're not as familiar with, then you come and enjoy them and hopefully go on to look at their stuff in the future — whether it's on Broadway, film or television. There's that aspect of things, but it's a hang out. You get a beer, get some food, and in between sets, the Marie's Crisis Beer Garden is in the back there. There are 15-20-minute set changes between performers [where] you can go back and have yourself a little sing along [and] make some friends. There are much more things that I am looking forward to [incorporating as] part of this festival [in the future], but I think this is a good maiden voyage. We have a lot of fun stuff that I think can really provide a really fun day out and celebrate our little community and share with people who might not be as familiar with it and just want to go to a festival.
What kind of show tunes are we going to hear? Will there be a Lea Salonga/Darren Criss reprise of "A Whole New World"? What can you tease?
DC: [Laughs.] Absolutely! … My thing that I'm really excited about is we have a lot of really special guests coming up that I think people will be really surprised and hopefully delighted to see.
So, there are still a couple more people to announce?!
DC: I think there are going to be people that "show up" at the show who will be wonderful surprises for everyone who decides to come. As far as sets are concerned, we say "show tunes," but "show tunes" is like a shorthand for theatrical music, whether it's standards or [songs] from musicals or from film and television… StarKid, the group that I was with before "Glee" that I kind of got my start with — we've done several tours together, and all of those songs have never been performed on Broadway. We've performed them in theatrical ways and on YouTube, and these are still theatrically musical things that are performance-based and are still, to me, part of what a "show tune" can be. So, the set runs the gamut. Some of our artists are doing pop and rock stuff… It's not all just show tunes. It's a celebration of the people who love that kind of thing, so if it's somebody from a Broadway musical that's singing pop stuff, great! Or, if we happen to have somebody from the pop world singing musical theatre stuff, that's the kind of thing we're going to see. That was a little hint!
Cool! Are you excited to join forces with StarKid again?
DC: I am! Somebody told me this, and I didn’t realize this, but we haven't performed together since — may it rest in sweet, sweet peace — Roseland Ballroom three years ago. It was our final show of our tour, the Apocalyptour, and it was one of the [most fun] shows we've ever played. We've since had two musicals come out, so we have more to add to the repertoire. StarKid is the only group that's performing, so it'll be fun to have that group vibe. It always is a thrill to me because a lot of people, when they come to our shows and they're not familiar with us, it's fun to put on as great of a show as possible and them go, "Whoa! This is really fun," and that's without a Marie's Crisis Beer Garden in the back and a food truck, so…
So, what exactly is the Marie's Crisis Beer Garden?
DC: It started because, when I started the festival, I wanted to offer other things. It's not just about the show. If people decide to be there all day, I don't want them to just stand there; that's a long time. Even people that go to most music festivals — you're not just staying at one set; you're walking around. I really wanted to provide things for people to interact with and enjoy, and I [thought] we want [you] to have yourself a good, old-fashioned sing along, and I called up some pals over at Marie's Crisis, and I was like, "Would you guys be interested in leading a piano-bar type thing in the back?" So, theoretically, if you want, you could spend the whole day there. That could be fun, too. You don't even have to watch any of the sets. The idea is to provide as many things for as many people as possible, and we're still coordinating things and putting things together, so there very well may be more goodies and treats and things for people to check out at the festival. For now, that's kind of my main staple: If you're not watching the show, you could be doing that, so there's plenty to do.
The Broadway Flea Market gives theatre fans such a great chance to meet and interact with the performers they love and adore. What excites you about that happening at Elsie Fest, too, and how much are you going to be able to interact with the fans? How personal is this going to get? What opportunities will there be for the fans to really connect with you guys?
DC: I'm trying to figure out a way to get as much fan interaction as possible, whether it be them requesting songs on the spot and coming up or having fans come up and sing. It depends on the sets of other people… I'm still figuring that out.
Aside from performers, I know that you have such great ties with musical theatre songwriters, such as Benj Pasek and Justin Paul… Are we going to hear music by new songwriters? Will contemporary musical theatre songwriters be there?
DC: If you only knew! I wanted to [have them], but they were too busy, unfortunately. First of all, most of the sets and the content of what people's sets are really depends on whatever the performer decides to do. I will say that there was a point where… There were a lot of composers that I really wanted to have be a part of this, and they're just doing their own thing. In the future, I really plan on having multiple stages and having it be more of a festival where you have the "Composers Stage" — where you have the Benj and Justins, and you have Alan Menken coming up and singing his own songs, where you have Stephen Schwartz coming up and singing his own songs, etc. — and having a "Disney Stage" or a "Joe's Pub Stage" and different categories of things that people might want to see, but for this first go, it's all bare bones. The important thing to do when you're starting something, especially when you're putting on a show, is just make sure that the show is great. God forbid one of the food trucks suck… God forbid any of the other things don't really work, as long as we have a kick-ass group of performances, the rest can figure itself out later, so that's really what I'm focusing on now — making sure that everybody's set is fun and unique and individual to Elsie. That's really all I could hope for, and then from here on out, we can figure out how to up the ante for next year.
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)