The Accidental Rise of 'Glee's' Darren Criss

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Photo Source: Mitchell Nguyen McCormack
Darren Criss is giving himself a headache. The "Glee" star has already spent 45 minutes running through his entire adult life over the phone in painstaking detail -- "I'm getting ready to write my memoir," he jokes -- and cutting it short is hard.

When he arrives on set for makeup, Criss, 24, tries to multitask. "I'm gonna be really L.A. I'm gonna put the Bluetooth in my ear," he says remorsefully. Within 15 seconds, though, he's abandoned that idea and escaped his glam squad in order to keep talking without interruption, marveling at his luck and plotting his next act out loud.

One might say "Glee" is Act 2 -- the first is set at the University of Michigan, where Criss, a mop-topped San Francisco kid fond of covering Alan Menken-era Disney songs, staged the very viral "A Very Potter Musical" with friends, started a musical theater production company (StarKid), co-produced the first student musical to chart on Billboard's Top Cast Albums ("Me and My Dick," in March 2010) and released an EP of singer/songwriter tunes ("Human"). In November 2010, of course, he landed the role of curious, confident and openly gay Blaine Anderson on "Glee" in his third audition for the show.

It's not like "Glee" was hurting for success before Criss arrived. But with his dark curls and a rich tenor that envelops pop hooks not unlike a bearhug from your No. 1 high school crush, Criss has made an instant impact on the show's music sales. "Teenage Dream," the Katy Perry hit performed by Criss and his fellow Warblers (played by the Tufts University Beelzebubs), became the fastest-selling digital track in "Glee" history, and arguably ushered in the trend of more current pop hits being reworked by the cast.

As Fox and Columbia Records gear up to release an all-Warblers "Glee" soundtrack (scheduled for April 19), the question of whether Criss will ultimately sign a solo deal -- so far, only Matthew Morrison has inked one, with Mercury Records -- hovers, and Columbia/Epic chairman Rob Stringer is happy to entertain it.

"We have huge belief in Darren Criss -- huge belief," Stringer says. "And when the time is right, we'll do good work together on his solo record." When, however, is still up for speculation. "Part of the joy of the show is in the ensemble-ness of it, so we're taking it very slowly and very carefully," Stringer says. "I don't think 'Glee' is going away, so we've got time."

Criss talked to Billboard about his beginnings, running StarKid and playing arenas on the "Glee" tour.

Billboard: How did you first get into musical theater?

Darren Criss: For me, it was Disney. I remember seeing people's reaction to "Aladdin" and thinking, "Oh, man, I want to be a genie when I grow up!" Robin Williams is a pretty big character in San Francisco. I was like, "I want to do whatever that guy does. What does he do, Mom? He's an actor? OK, I want to do that." I was all over the map, musically. I had all the "Les [Miserables]" and Andrew Lloyd Webber records, and I was a kid growing up in the '90s, so [I listened to] whatever pop was out at the time.

When did you first start to perform?

I was writing a lot of music in high school, and I enjoyed playing my own stuff but only if people asked. I figured at an open mic, I could either play a song about my own personal struggle with x-y-z, or I could play a Disney song, like "Part of Your World." If you can tap into someone's nostalgia, you've got it. People get into it. It's the gateway drug into "What else does this guy play?" That was my parlor trick.

After college I continued to play at coffee shops in L.A. because I had this huge backlog of music. I'd play for like four hours straight, and I'd never play the same song twice. I'd do it for like 50 bucks and it just made me happy. What's crazy is everything I'm doing now on "Glee" is just an extension of what I've been doing my whole life. If they hadn't given me "Teenage Dream," I would have been playing it in a cafe somewhere.

Rewinding to college for a second, what was your reaction when "A Very Potter Musical" took off?

The day we put it on YouTube was the day my life turned completely upside down. There was a completely unanticipated, bizarre reaction where we fell ass-backward into this phenomenon of the Harry Potter fan community. Within a week we had like the No. 1 viewed video in 50 countries. We thought, "We have an audience -- we should start a production company." We put my "Human" EP out at the same time as the StarKid albums ["Me and My Dick" and "A Very StarKid Album"], so we had three albums charting in a year. I think the record labels were like, "What? How is this happening? Who are these kids?" It's a testament to what's possible in our generation. Case in point, Rebecca Black.

Does your "Glee" contract give you the flexibility to continue working with StarKid?

I was pleasantly surprised with how accommodating they all were. ["Glee" co-creator] Ryan Murphy has been extremely supportive. He knows about StarKid . . . and he's come to my shows. And there's a certain amount of credibility that they lend to it, which I'm appreciative of. So while I continue to work on our next musical, "Starship," I'm not singing on that record; it's just me as a writer.

How creatively fulfilling is it to record a "Glee" album?

Considering I didn't ever expect what happened, I'm certainly grateful for it. I can't believe they've decided to make an album out of all this stuff. My mom is like, "Oh, I can't wait for your album!" I'm like, "Mom, it's not really my album. My album will come out eventually. I was about to have it out. You'll be able to listen to it soon." Which is not to sound ungrateful. It's just not my music -- it's other people's songs, and it's not just about me -- it's about "Glee" and a character who does these things with the Warblers. I look at it as a collective thing.

How involved are you in your day-to-day business?

I'm incredibly anal about everything that I do. Obviously because I'm so busy with so many things, people have to help me out, and I'm sure they feel like they're running me. But honestly, there's not a single decision that happens on my behalf that I don't feel I have complete control or say in.

I'm very specific about my goals. When I get home, I'm on the phone with StarKid and discussing things with them. It's tough because I'm helping run a ship over the phone in Los Angeles, and they've moved to Chicago rather recently. But I'm involved. Part of the reason I have the traction I do is that I have a pretty healthy relationship with everybody I work with, and it's really conducive toward being able to do all the massive amount of things that I run around doing. It's not just me being an actor -- it's musician and writer.

Do you have any creative input on the songs you get to perform on "Glee"?

I'm still the new guy, so I don't want to go around saying, "We should do this. We should do that." But Ryan is always open to ideas, and I did at one point say, "Hey, Neon Trees' 'Animal' is a really great song." And about a week later it showed up in the script. So whether or not he did it because of me, or if that was an idea he'd already had, I don't know, but it was a suggestion that I made and it became a reality. It just goes to show how open and receptive he is to ideas.

What was it like recording the Warblers album?

About 90% of the Warblers album I recorded in New York, because it's easier to fly one guy from L.A. to the East Coast than the 14 Beelzebubs guys from the East Coast to the West Coast. Things are very rush, rush, rush in Los Angeles because of the shooting schedule -- typically for a "Glee" track, they only have anywhere from about 20 minutes to an hour or two. But I really lucked out when I went to New York because we could spend numbers of hours and get some food, have a beer and really organically grow something. It's a luxury that I do not take for granted, and I'm very careful to advertise that because I don't want to make the other "Glee" cast members mad at me for having that kind of situation.

Your character, Blaine, was singing so much at one point this season, the show itself even joked about it in a recent episode.

They kind of called it out, which I'm glad they did. Blaine definitely had his moment in the sun. I think it's time to focus back on the characters that fans of the show really know and love. Completely objectively from watching the show, I was like, "Why does Blaine get all these songs? This is ridiculous. I want to hear other people doing stuff." I think we're focusing a little more back on New Directions and taking a little bit of a break from the Warblers.

Do you envision releasing your solo album under the Sony Music family eventually?

We're working on it -- we're really excited and it's something I've been wanting to do for a long time. I'm so thrilled that it's something that can happen because of "Glee," and like the Warblers album I hope I can do it justice and make it something that people can really enjoy.

Are you mentally prepared to play big arenas on the "Glee" tour?

Everything is so much bigger than myself, it's hard to comprehend. A year ago, I was so psyched that my first show in L.A. was at the Troubadour. I grew up dreaming of playing the Troubadour one day. Talk about so much for baby steps. It's like, "Wait -- Staples Center, are you kidding me?" I was happy to drive around in a beat-up, crappy old van with my bandmates and just go to small clubs around the country.

When I look back on "Glee" and on this album, it's like I was offered to live in a golden marshmallow house in the sky. It's like, "Sure! I'll take it!" I never thought that it would ever happen, that I would get a magical marshmallow castle in the sky, but my God, thank you.