I first met Darren Criss a little over four years ago in November 2010, the same month he debuted on "Glee" as the game changing (and openly gay) Dalton Academy Warbler Blaine Anderson. He was performing "Teenage Dream" on MTV's "The Seven," and I was interviewing him for People magazine.
"Since the People interview at 'The Seven' at the Viacom building in Times Square, things have been more of the same," Criss downplayed with a laugh. "It's been great!"
In actuality, things have been far from "the same" since 2010. He skyrocketed to stardom following the "Never Been Kissed" episode in the show's second season, became a heartthrob for young girls and boys (deemed one of the Sexiest Men Alive in 2011) and was the new poster child for teens struggling with their identity. We caught up again in 2012, when he made his Broadway debut as J. Pierrepont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (a ticket that was nearly impossible to come by following his addition to the cast), and since then he's been thriving in the worlds of theatre, TV and music. Yesterday, he was announced as Broadway's newest Hedwig.
Last month, we were spending a weekend in Atlanta, GA, where over 4,000 youngsters were attending the Junior Theater Festival, a safe haven for theatre kids where they learn about their craft and make new friends from around the world. He knew about the festival from his University of Michigan friends, Tony Award-nominated A Christmas Story songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who've previously attended and raved about the students. "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."
Criss arrived in secrecy. It was planned that he would surprise the students by coming on stage at the New Works Presentation, where he sang "On Your Way Home" and "Middle of a Moment" from Pasek and Paul's James and the Giant Peach.
"First of all, the only person that's more excited than [the students] is probably me because this is something that I wish I had made it to when I was a kid," Criss told me backstage hours before surprising the students. "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 is set to make his theatrical return April 29 for a 12-week limited engagement through July 19 in Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Belasco Theatre. And, he'll be pretty stoked to get back in with the community.
"The theatre community is a real, real thing. We all work together," he said. "In film and TV, which I love, its inherency is… It's an industry that's built on a lot of separation — and I don't mean that in a bad way — it's just that things don't need to be as familial. You have different departments that are separate. People are in rooms editing, people have things to do with shooting, people are in offices making decisions. In the theatre, everybody is really, really involved together, so if you get to [take part in] something like the Tonys, everybody who is nominated against each other — they all know each other, they all worked with each other… It's a real family, for a lack of a better cliché."
For over the last four years, Criss has been conquering the world of television, starring as Blaine in Fox's "Glee." He was initially cast as a recurring guest star, but when TV audiences responded so strongly to his character, he graduated (in high school fashion) to the series' main cast.
Looking back, he said, "The show was a big deal when I was a senior in college. It had already hit its mark when I was not a part of it, so when it came out, I wasn't shocked that it was doing well. But everybody else was like, 'Wow, this is hitting people in really serious ways and hitting young people in a really positive way.' It's been around for roughly six years now. [For audiences] between [the ages of] 40 and 46, there's not much difference, [but] between 16 and 21 — when you're a teenager and into your 20s — [the show made] a huge difference. These kids grew up with that show [and] literally became adults. I've met kids who watched it in high school, who now finished high school, finished college and are now in the workforce — out there trying to get a job. The way that the show is part of their consciousness is really crazy. There's a great scene in '21 Jump Street,' where they say if 'Glee' is cool then bullying is stupid, and it's this reverse pendulum of positivity. So, being any part of that machine is pretty cool.
"It makes me wonder what the next [phenomenon is] to push forward. Where does this leave us? What do we have left to [do]? I don't know. It's been extraordinary to watch. I would have been curious to know what it was like to be in high school while that was happening. I was too busy on set, so I could never really see what the outcome was, but we'll see what's next."
Before "Glee," however, Criss experienced his fair share of disappointments and setbacks, and the gang at the Junior Theater Festival was more than happy to talk about the everyday struggles of an actor. Criss confided, "I'm very lucky because when things tend to work out despite failures, you forget them. But, I will say, I was fired from a gig. It was a non-paid, non-union gig, which [did] not motivate why I was less than punctual to most of the days I was supposed to be there, [but] I was writing a musical at the time. I was the only independent there; most were kids. I was the 22 year old amongst a lot of teenagers that lived nearby. I had to drive across town. I was working two jobs — it was like the worst thing in the world, but I was like, 'The opportunity is great!' I won't say what it was for. If people are reading this, they'll know what it's for, but I don't want to throw anybody under the bus because it was a lovely experience, [but] I could not keep up for the life of me with everybody. And, I basically got fired, and then Skylar Astin took over for me, who I would become friends with years later and work with on 'Glee.' So it worked out great because the job I booked right after that was 'Glee.' So you just keep going!
"I think for a lot of actors, people forget that for every yes, there's been about 100 nos. And, everybody always goes, 'No, you'll be fine.' It's like, 'No really, man. I know what it's like to struggle.' There was a long time where I wasn't booking any jobs, so I did this theatre company — I was with StarKid, and I put my time and energy into that. It's not all a bed of roses as everybody knows, but you just got to keep going!"
Going he has been. Before his Hedwig casting was set, he told me, "I would love to go back to Broadway as soon as humanly possible. There's a lot of ducks I have to get in a row first, [and there were] a lot of things that I kind of had to hang up on the shelf when 'Glee' happened."
As for his dream roles, he said, "I have tons, but if I was to tell them, then I would jinx them. If I end up doing one of these — and I'm not being cryptic! — at the opening night for that show, and we're talking, I'll say, 'This is one of those.' I'll tell you then."
You better remember at your first performance of Hedwig, Darren Criss!
(Playbill.com staff writer 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.)