Darren Criss Gets a Star Turn on BroadwayMonday, January 02, 2012
UPDATED: Jen Namoff tweets:
- Darren Criss to be at party with Dan Radcliff and Nick Jonas tonight (Jan.1)
- and, no. He’s too busy with rehearsals to attend
- But he showed up anyway
- Photo of Darren
“I’m very specific and ambitious in plotting out my goals and never take no for an answer — so it’s not like things just fall in my lap, mostly because I'm the one on laps.”
In a rehearsal studio off Times Square last week, Darren Criss — a breakout star of the Fox high school musical series “Glee” — was performing a bit too perfectly.
Preparing for his Broadway debut on Tuesday night as the corporate climber J. Pierrepont Finch in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” Mr. Criss was leaping into the air during the number “Grand Old Ivy” and tucking in his feet as a dancer would. This drew a correction from the director, Rob Ashford, who wanted Mr. Criss’s feet to be flat and extend sideways like those of an outstretched marionette, because his character should lack finesse.
“What you’re doing is almost too good,” Mr. Ashford told Mr. Criss, who stood panting slightly in dress slacks and a blue T-shirt from his alma mater, the University of Michigan. A moment later Mr. Criss nailed the leap with precise imprecision.
There are few higher compliments on Broadway than being called a triple threat: a performer who can act, sing and dance to extraordinary effect. (Think of Hugh Jackman.) Mr. Criss is the latest to strive for this status, and the producers of “How to Succeed” are betting on him to an unusual extent. They are spending tens of thousands of dollars to rehearse and pay Mr. Criss for just three weeks of performances this month, before he returns to “Glee,” in hopes of molding him into a theater star they might build a Broadway musical around someday. (Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers will play Finch, the role held by Daniel Radcliffe of “Harry Potter” fame, from Jan. 24 through July 1.)
For Mr. Criss, this detour from Hollywood has been a moment to savor rather than a ticket to an ego trip. At 24, he exudes a perceptive maturity — “I was nobody a year ago,” he said, “so I want to make smart choices to keep the good things going” — with enviable self-confidence. You might almost consider him cocky if not for his strong tendency to poke fun at himself as he mentions his detailed knowledge of “Star Wars” minutiae or refers to himself (with his small, lean frame in mind) as a “dainty dude.”
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“I always shoot for the moon in my work, so that I’m happy when I land on the roof,” Mr. Criss said, a phrase he used twice during an interview at an Upper West Side diner. “I’m very specific and ambitious in plotting out my goals and never take no for an answer — so it’s not like things just fall in my lap.”
This three-week offer to play Finch, relatively rare for a newcomer to Broadway, is the latest height in a dizzying rise for Mr. Criss, who became a literal overnight sensation after his first appearance on “Glee” in November 2010.
In that episode Mr. Criss — playing a gay member of a high school choir being eyed by a series regular — sang vocals covering “Teenage Dream,” a pop hit by Katy Perry. Other “Glee” cast recordings had been released to success on Billboard charts, but “Teenage Dream” became a meteoric seller.
Soon the curly-haired, dark-eyed Mr. Criss was an idol, appearing solo in GQ (under the headline “King of the High School Musical”) and on People magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive list. This season he became a main character on “Glee,” a promotion he said he had no reason to expect a year ago.
Television fame remains a little surreal to Mr. Criss, given that he grew up in San Francisco, working in theater. He appeared in plays more than musicals as a teenager and college student, developing a love for commedia dell’arte in Goldoni’s “Servant of Two Masters” and notching an early romantic role as Peter van Daan, the love interest of the title character in “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
At the University of Michigan, a training ground for Broadway singers like Gavin Creel and Hunter Foster, Mr. Criss said he had never done a musical until he wrote one with friends. “A Very Potter Musical,” their parody of the Harry Potter books and movies, became a cult hit on campus; a filmed performance has drawn millions of views on YouTube, and Mr. Criss and his collaborators soon formed their own theater company, StarKid Productions, in Chicago.
In between “Glee” shoots last season, he wrote the music and lyrics for the company’s musical called “Starship,” which he referred to as “my baby.” It ran at the Hoover-Leppen Theater in Chicago last winter, drawing mixed reviews from critics but gathering a fan following on StarKid’s YouTube channel. (His moxie extends to the hope of seeing “Starship” or another StarKid show on Broadway in the next five years.)
“Starship” was typical of the “four or five projects” that Mr. Criss said he had going at one time, relying on e-mail and iPhone applications to help him stay working beyond “Glee” land. In fact, he described his eight-performances-a-week schedule in “How to Succeed” as “the easiest thing I’ve done in a while, in the best sense,” compared with “Glee” shoots that can begin at 6 a.m.
“This lifestyle isn’t so different from when my mom drove me from theater rehearsal to soccer practice to violin lessons in a single day,” said Mr. Criss, whose boyish face was masked by modish black-rimmed glasses and the light beard he often grows when he’s away from “Glee.”
Even though he looked different from his “Glee” character, Blaine Anderson, a succession of fans came over in the diner to ask for autographs, including three tween girls from Buenos Aires who were briefly dumbstruck when he asked how to spell their names.
Mr. Criss credited his parents with “giving me a sense of humility and the good judgment about how to spend every day.” Those instincts, he said, led him in 2010 to meet with the film and theater producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who were impressed with his “Glee” work.
Soon afterward, as they were producing “How to Succeed” with Broadway Across America, Mr. Zadan and Mr. Meron said they asked Mr. Criss to consider filling in during Mr. Radcliffe’s two weeks off in September. Mr. Criss was game, but Mr. Radcliffe ended up skipping his vacation. (He did not miss a single performance in his 10-month run.)
The producers then proposed having Mr. Criss succeed Mr. Radcliffe, and the “Glee” producers agreed to let him out for three weeks (to which he added his two-week winter vacation for rehearsals). The Broadway producers said they would be delighted to have him return to the musical during a future “Glee” hiatus.
“We’d also definitely be up for finding another show for Darren, once he is not tied down to ‘Glee,’ ” said Mr. Zadan, who added that so-called Gleeks, StarKid fans and others have helped sell out Tuesday night’s opening performance and made ticket sales for the three-week run “very strong.”
Mr. Ashford, the director, acknowledged that many actors feel that they don’t settle into a solid performance until they have spent several weeks onstage, but he predicted that Mr. Criss would find his footing quickly.
“He is rehearsing and perfecting musical numbers every day on ‘Glee,’ and he comes to us with skills already,” he said. “I think by the end of three weeks he’ll be giving, at the least, a version of his best possible performance.”
Mr. Criss was still mastering his lines for “How to Succeed” last week, yet he laughed a little dismissively when asked if he was wishing he’d spent his “Glee” winter break on a tropical vacation with a lady friend. (Though he is straight, the series has made him a gay role model; as for his love life, he declined to comment.) Mr. Criss also politely shrugged off the idea that he was giving Broadway a try to stretch as an actor.
“To say something was a stretch would mean I was intimidated by something,” he said. “But I love challenges that are big and hard. I mean, part of me would love to be a fat tenured professor of theater someday.”