In the fall of 2010, Darren Criss made television viewers sit up and ask, “Who is that guy?” when he joyfully belted Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” as a guest star on Glee.
Criss’s sweetly charismatic character, Blaine Anderson, quickly became a fan favorite on the show, and to the actor’s surprise, Glee provided a springboard to Broadway, where he debuted in a sold-out three-week run in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Three years after that taste of Main Stem glory, the 28-year-old is headed to the Belasco Theatre on April 29 to play what he calls “one of the great contemporary roles in American musicals,” the title heroine in the Tony-winning revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
“I equate this experience to being asked to join your favorite band or fantasy sports team,” an ebullient Criss says during his first week of rehearsals. It’s an apt comparison, since he’ll be following the man who cocreated Hedwig with composer/lyricist Stephen Trask and originated the role Off-Broadway: John Cameron Mitchell. “I saw the [2001 Hedwig] film when I was about 16, and it’s been a dream of mine to work on this show ever since.”
Like his Broadway predecessors Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, and Michael C. Hall, Criss gained fame in a role that could hardly be more different from the platinum-wigged East German rocker he’s about to play. On Glee, boyish Blaine had a penchant for bowties and plaid blazers and sang “Our Day Will Come” at his wedding to Kurt Hummel (original cast member Chris Colfer). But Criss insists it’s not that much of a leap from covering the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” to storming the stage during Hedwig’s blistering anthem “Sugar Daddy.”
“It’s all storytelling, just in different clothes,” says Criss, who began acting on stage as a child in his native San Francisco. “Television was an interesting journey for me after so many years doing theater — Glee was the first time I played the same character for a while, so it’s exciting to reinvigorate my sense of play [as Hedwig]. The fact that I get to do it with heels and lashes and attitude is just a bonus.”
Criss understands the fierce loyalty Hedwig inspires among fans because he felt the same way about it as a teen. “It was so wildly different from anything I knew,” he says, referring to his real-life happy childhood as the son of an investment banker and arts patron. “When you’re in high school, you cling to things that are subversive and countercultural, and Hedwig is a walking, talking contradiction. She’s a little bit tragic and a little bit comic, and that combination makes great theater. By the end, the show empowers everyone who sees it.”
Beyond his fondness for Hedwig, Criss admires John Cameron Mitchell’s achievement as cowriter and original star. “He didn’t come from the drag world; he came from the acting world,” Criss says of Mitchell, who had appeared in The Secret Garden and two other Broadway shows before Hedwig’s debut at the Jane Street Theatre in 1998. “I’m a fan of being creative with your peers and making something from nothing, and that’s what John did. And when the story and the character matches the appeal of [Stephen Trask’s] music, you’ve got a hit on your hands.”
By the time he became fascinated with Hedwig, Criss could play multiple musical instruments (he studied violin for 15 years, beginning at age 5) and was writing songs himself. After earning a theater degree from the University of Michigan, he teamed up with college friends to form a theater company called StarKid and gained internet fame for composing and starring in Harry Potter musical spoofs. Then came his irresistible rendition of “Teenage Dream,” a top spot on the Billboard digital sales chart, and instant TV stardom.
Glee creator Ryan Murphy may not have known the extent of Criss’s musical talents before casting him as Blaine, but he soon found out, as his young star sparked $4 million in ticket sales during a brief Broadway run in How to Succeed. Criss never pitched any of his own songs to Glee until the sixth and final season went into production last fall. With nothing to lose, he presented the inspirational anthems “Rise” and “This Time” to Murphy, and both made it on-air. What’s more, “This Time,” an emotion-packed summation of the themes of Glee (and future staple at high school graduations everywhere), was sung by Broadway vet Lea Michele in the very last episode.
“Everything that came out of Glee was unexpected and serendipitous,” Criss says now. “I had no idea that all the things I was interested in would coalesce in such an all-encompassing way. The show allowed me to work with so many talented people associated with musical theater, something I’ll forever be grateful for.”
Broadway is always hungry for fresh talent, and Criss cemented his up-and-comer status when he was tapped to appear in the 2013 HBO documentary Six by Sondheim. He joined Laura Osnes, Jeremy Jordan, and America Ferrera in singing “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along, with the master himself chiming in as a crusty agent. “We worked together as actors,” he marvels of Sondheim, “chatting about songwriting and wisecracking on the set. It was an amazing couple of days.”
Now, under the tutelage of Mitchell, Trask, and Tony-winning director Michael Mayer, Criss is having a ball getting inside a character who “transcends the lines of reality.” The key to playing Hedwig, he stresses, isn’t the giant wigs or glittery eye makeup — it’s exploring “the metaphysical bond that exists between Hedwig and the audience. Fans love how sassy she is, but her story is also very moving.”
As he delves into the psyche of this larger-than-life leading character, Criss can’t wait to soak up every new experience that comes his way during his three-month run. “I idolized the Broadway community,” he says, “so I feel like the kid in the metaphorical cafeteria of the entertainment industry. The fact that this community has welcomed me with open arms is my favorite thing about my career thus far. I love being part of this world.”