InDepth InterView: Darren Criss Talks GLEE Season Five, SIX BY SONDHEIM HBO Doc, Broadway, Hollywood, Dream Roles & More
Today we are talking to one of the most exciting breakout stars from FOX's hit musical dramedy series Glee all about his Broadway and Hollywood past, present and future while previewing what we can expect in the coming weeks at McKinley High and beyond - the king of charisma, Darren Criss. Detailing the finer points of his upbringing as a musical theatre fan, Criss speaks about some of his early theatre roles and shines some light on his stint starring in the recent revival of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING in addition to musing on some parts he would like to take on in the future, near and far. Besides all about GLEE, Criss also opens up about his recent film projects - such as GIRL MOST LIKELY, co-starring Kristen Wiig (available now) - Revealing first news and fascinating new details about HBO's hotly anticipated documentary centered on musical theatre master Stephen Sondheim, directed by longtime collaborator James Lapine, titled SIX BY SONDHEIM. Criss outlines his participation in the new doc as well as shares stories from the set, spending time with Sondheim himself, as well as Lapine and co-stars Jeremy Jordan, Laura Osnes and America Ferrera as part of the film's "Opening Doors" sequence. Additionally, Criss muses on his foremost early influences, imparts his perspective on his unique place in the performing arts realm, reflects on his recent sold-out national tour and solo music projects as well as looks ahead to what's next. All of that, a generous helping of Glee backstage dish and a tantalizing appetizer of what is to come this season as well as much, much more in this extensive chat with one of the most popular personalities in the performing arts.
GLEE airs Thursdays at 9 PM on FOX. SIX BY SONDHEIM premieres on HBO this December. More information on Darren Criss is available at his official site here.
Don't Stop Him Now
PC: How exciting to be a part of SIX BY SONDHEIM! How precisely are you involved with the film?
DC: I do "Opening Doors" from MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. Man... [Sighs.] I've been raving about this thing for so long and now we finally are talking about it. I can't even begin to...
PC: So, it's simply amazing?
DC: Well, I mean, if you are a musical theatre fan then you don't even have to explain how amazing it is [to be a part of it]. I've had some really extraordinary experiences during my short time on GLEE, which has propelled me into this rabbit hole of amazing experiences, but I honestly put meeting and interacting and conversing with Stephen Sondheim up there if not higher than meeting the president of the United States of America.
PC: Which you actually did not too long ago - with the Instagram proof!
DC: Which I did. Right. Those are two things... [Pause.] Of course, now that I've said that, people are going to be like, "Blah blah blah, more important than the president?!" and, of course, the president is - for obvious reasons - the biggest person for anyone to meet as a world figure, but I wouldn't have gotten to meet somebody like the president if it wasn't for somebody like Stephen Sondheim.
PC: He inspired what you do.
DC: Yeah, I mean, it sounds sort of cliché, but it's true. Here's somebody who contributed to a huge reason of why I do what I do, so that's why getting to hang with him and do that documentary... I mean, God, it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life: I'm sitting there playing the piano - his music - for him, on the piano, and he sort of leans over, and, first, he says my name - which is f*cking crazy - and he says, "Darren, so, do you write?" And, I said, "Yes, as a matter of fact I do!" Then, we talked about music and what it is like to write music for actors and the joy that that is. Oh, my God - I just was in heaven!
PC: It's an Unforgettable memory.
DC: I mean, I guess it's all sort of just a tangential thing, but I wrote it all down because it meant so much to me. And, then, of course, I got to work with Jeremy Jordan, too - who I love. And, of course, I love Laura Osnes and America Ferrera. We all got to share this amazing experience together - which, by the way, was only like two days!
PC: A short shoot?
DC: It was. It was so short! I mean, it's not like we were doing a run of a show, but, because of the stakes of the experience, I felt like I was at summer camp with someone for two days because it was just so surreal and so quick that I feel that I am kind of crazy and over-romanticizing the moment of these two days that I had making that, but, then, I'm like, "No, no, no - you met Stephen Sondheim and worked with him! That's amazing."
PC: Musically, was Sondheim very involved with your performance and the specifics or did he have a more laissez-faire attitude about it in general?
DC: Well, that's more on the musical director's front to answer - Andy, who was our MD for this; a hell of a guy. And, he said it was really kind of crazy - and, I don't want to misquote him, but I remember he was kind of freaked out about it, too, saying, you know, "I have to arrange this to work for Stephen Sondheim himself to sing!" And, I don't want to give anything away, since it is one of the great buttons of the documentary, but he plays the producer - the Jason Alexander role originally - and I apologize if I am giving this away to anyone who sees this, but it's really fun. Stephen Sondheim himself does a performance in the documentary and I almost don't want to tell you because it is such an amazing surprise...
PC: What happens? Spoiler alert!
DC: They split "Opening Doors" into two parts and the second half is where Frank and Charley are kind of pitching their show to the producer, so Sondheim himself sings and performs that part - it was unbelievable! It was so incredibly amazing - Stephen had to sing his own stuff to a track that Andy had to mock up for him. And, then, he had to lip-synch, which I'm sure he wasn't very pleased about - but, he did a great job!
PC: And, of course, "Some Enchanted Evening" is referenced in that section of the song, as well - written by Sondheim's mentor, Oscar Hammerstein.
DC: That's right! Oh, I love the documentary so much. I have watched it four times since I got a copy of it. They found so much great archival footage to use in it, too. It's so fascinating and he's such an amazingly inspirational human being. The cool thing that I also like about this documentary is that, even if you don't know jack sh*t about musical theatre, you just listen to this guy tell you his personal ethos about creation and art and writing - as a songwriter, I was inspired; as an actor, I was inspired; and, I got to be in the damn thing, too! As a matter of fact, when I came on the screen the first time I saw I was like, "Get out of the damn frame!" [Laughs.]
PC: That's hilarious!
DC: "Get off of the screen, man! I'm trying to listen to this genius!" [Laughs.] So, they inter-splice him talking with six of his "big numbers," I guess you would say. And, they are all lovely performances, but, even so, sometimes I was like, "Get back to what he was talking about!" I mean, the best part really is just seeing him talk - personally, I could just listen to him talk forever. Forever. Just talking to him on set - he's as sharp as a tack! You know, when you pander to someone of his stature or his age you might say, "Oh, hey, we're gonna sit down now," or whatever, like you are talking to a baby or something, when it's really like, "No, you are talking to a sharp, witty teenager who is ready to bat whatever you are going to say right back at you!" It was so, so cool, man - I am really excited to talk about it with you because I can really geek out about it for the first time - if you can't tell that already. [Laughs.]
PC: Your passion comes through loud and clear, for sure! What about a full-blown Glee tribute to Sondheim someday? Of course, you yourself performed "Something's Coming" - which premiered on this very site, actually (available here) - and "Tonight".
DC: Well, we've done "Something's Coming" and WEST SIDE STORY and we've done "Not Getting Married", but I guess you're right - it's really only been a taste of Sondheim. But, you know, that might be better than doing a bunch of them at once since they are all so contextual - they are story-songs that are specific to his stories, except, of course, for something like "Something's Coming". I mean, I can't imagine us doing, you know, "God, That's Good!" or anything! [Big Laugh.]
PC: Was it daunting to attempt to put your own mark on such a signature song? It's quite a deceptively tricky song to sing, no?
DC: Well, I'm an actor who sings - that's how I see myself - and I sort of have been thrust into the musical theatre world and I am very happy and lucky because of that, but, make no mistake, I never really had intentions of doing Broadway - I just really liked it.
PC: It was not a primary ambition.
DC: Yeah - the comparison I like to make is that: I like food, but I don't want to be a chef!
PC: What a way to put it!
DC: I was always in straight plays, but I loved going to see musical theatre. I was always a big musical theatre follower and fan but I don't have a big Broadway voice so I would never deign to think I could do it - I don't have a big voice and I don't have a big vibrato, either. I mean, I could never do OKLAHOMA! And, I've been asked to do certain shows and I've said no - not to be self-deprecating or anything or have people tell me, "No, no! You're great," - but, I'm a realist and I am such a fan that I know what I am not good at and what I can't do. Having said all of those things, doing something like "Something's Coming", which is very classic - that's a song that I have listened to thousands of singers sing - I go, "Well, I don't know if my sort of folky/pop voice is going to work for this," so, the only way that I can sort of see myself getting through it is to try and perform the crap out of it when I do it, in my limited capacity.
PC: Give it all you've got.
DC: And, whenever I have it, I love taking advantage of being in the recording studio - they have the ability to capture things in there that... I mean, I don't think I'd ever be able to play Tony onstage; there'd be a vocal prowess that was missing. So, I feel like that's why I have the best of both worlds with Glee because that is done a recording studio - a place where I am really comfortable - and I can really perform it. Actually, in the Sondheim documentary, they have a clip of the original guy doing "Something's Coming" and it's just amazing - his tone is so beautiful and he has such an incredible voice.
PC: Larry Kert?
DC: Right - that's my favorite version of the song, I think. But, yeah - to answer your question - when I get a song like that, I think, "I should be happy they are asking me to do this, so I am just going to keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best that I have this somewhere within what I am capable of doing." But, even with doing "Opening Doors" in the Sondheim documentary, I was glad to be basically doing a patter song. I mean, I am not doing "Agony" or something that requires a lot of vibrato - it's more about the acting of it. And, actually, that's part of why I am such a Sondheim fan: I think that, for actors - and he mentions this in the documentary himself - we love singing his stuff because there is a real sense of performance dialogue and an arc to everything, so, regardless of whether you are a good "singer" or not, you can perform these songs because they were meant to be performed by actors. So, that's part of what helps me get through the challenge... [Laughs.]... The challenge of "Holy sh*t! I hope I don't mess up!"
PC: The sheer terror of it all!
DC: Sheer, absolute terror.
PC: On the note of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, have you seen the recent film of the West End revival? It's spectacular.
DC: Some buddies of mine were going and invited me to go with them, but I was on set [with GLEE] - ironically, that was the exact same night that I got the screener for the Sondheim documentary!
PC: No way!
DC: Yeah - I got home during the screening, so I was watching the documentary while they were at the MERRILY movie screening. I was like, "Dammit, I want to see this!" So, unfortunately, no - I have not seen it yet.
PC: Is MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG a musical you would consider doing onstage or onscreen someday? You would be well-cast in either male lead role, I would venture.
DC: Oh, yeah! I love that show. And, as the years have gone by, all the Sondheim fans have grown to really love it, too, and one of the classic things about it is that the book famously has some problems and didn't work at a certain time, but it has stood the test of time somehow and there is really something to all that. I think it would make an interesting film - but, it would be hard to pull off! I don't think I'm the man for that job. But, I love Frank and I love Charley and I'd love to play either of those guys someday. I have my personal Sondheim favorites that I'd like to play someday...
PC: Such as?
DC: Well, first of all, I'd love to do ASSASSINS someday. I love ASSASSINS and I don't know who I would play - I guess it would depend on what age I am when they decide to put it back on Broadway - but, I'd love to do it.
PC: Did you see the Broadway production? Sondheim himself was a big fan of it - it was perfect.
DC: Oh, with Neil Patrick Harris? Oh, yeah! I am in love with that show - I have that recording, too.
PC: HBO was considering making a film version at one point, I believe. Were you particularly happy to work with them on SIX BY SONDHEIM?
DC: Oh, yeah. I mean, the cool thing about doing the Sondheim documentary with them was that, because of GLEE, I don't get to do a lot of other things, but, I just went to my managers and I said, "Listen: Sondheim. HBO. I dare you to say no." Like, "Punch that puppy in that face!" It was like, "I dare you to say no to that." And, it was amazing - getting to work with HBO; meeting Frank Rich and Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine and all these iconic dudes; and, how kind and how gracious they were to just let me be a nerd. [Laughs.]
PC: Who specifically directed the "Opening Doors" sequence?
DC: James directed "Opening Doors". It was like the motliest crew ever! It was me, Jeremy Jordan, Laura Osnes, America Ferrera, James Lapine, Stephen Sondheim and Frank Rich, hanging out down on some soundstage in Williamsburg with a revolving green screen all around us - like we were shooting a superhero movie.
PC: How 21st century!
DC: Yeah, we did the whole thing on a revolving green-screen where they added this 3D New York set behind us - it turned out really great! But, I remember being on set and being like, "Never in my wildest dreams! What the hell am I doing on this LES MIZ spinning green stage with Stephen Sondheim singing to me?!"
PC: Totally surreal.
DC: Totally! Like, "What is this universe that I have suddenly found myself in?! How did I get here?! What happened?!"
PC: Speaking of LES MISERABLES, what do you think of live recording for movie musicals, particularly as someone who claims to especially enjoy the recording studio experience like you do?
DC: Well, for me, it really depends - for that song, I pre-recorded it, but on Glee I have actually sung live twice. I did a re-arranged version of "Teenage Dream" that I played piano and sang on live, and, also, I did a version of "Against All Odds" last season that was live.
PC: Indeed. Also, your performance of Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" equals or even betters the original - will you be performing "You're My Best Friend" on the show coming up, as an encore?
DC: Yes. You are messing with your credibility now, though, Pat - there is no way I one-upped Freddie Mercury! No way. That's actually a great, great comparison to "Something's Coming", though - when they told me I was going to be doing that I was like, "F*ck! Don't make me do that!" [Laughs.]
PC: Are there are other Queen songs you would like to do in the future?
DC: Well, as you know, we've already done a whole lot of them, but there are a few more that [for Blaine] are just... maybe too fabulously gay! They might hit the nail a little too hard on the head...
PC: Which ones specifically?
DC: Well, one of my personal favorite Queen songs is "Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy" - that's one of those Queen songs that I just am like, [Sighs.] "Please let me do that!" So good! So good. But, back to your question about LES MIZ and live singing, though: my personal thing is all about time and place. I respect the sh*t out of what they did with LES MIZ and I think that there also is a reason why they have done movie musicals the way that they have for so long - and, it's not because those people in those movies couldn't sing and act at the same time or something, it's just because it's a technological nightmare to do it like they did LES MIZ. I mean, there are stories about it being difficult on LES MIZ to do it that way and obviously it turned out to be a very cool and worthwhile thing to do, but there is a reason why, ever since the dawn of the movie musical event era, that it usually does require playback. After all, there is no way to do everything equally well all at the same time, really, when doing something like that on film, so I don't think it's a bad thing to use playback.
PC: Coming up, INTO THE WOODS uses pre-record - as an example of the tradition living on - as well.
DC: I'm glad INTO THE WOODS will be using playback and they are doing it like that - I look forward to seeing it. The convention has been set and there is nothing wrong with doing the conventional thing if it is done well. I mean, there have been bad movie musicals using playback that have been made and there are really, really, really timeless musicals that have been made that use playback - they work because they are shot right and acted well and recorded well. So, for me, I don't think live singing will ever make or break a movie musical alone - and, live singing on a movie musical is really, really hard, so it is almost insane to try to do it at all. It's just an amazing undertaking. I lean either way, obviously, but I don't think live singing is tantamount to a movie musical working or vice versa.
PC: What were your own favorite movie musicals growing up, going in to GLEE?
DC: I think that for a lot of people who have favorite musicals that there are two sides to that question - there is your favorite musical because it's the one that got you into musicals and that sense of nostalgia you have about it; and, then, there is the one that is actually, critically, amazing. For most of us, I am happy to admit, we love a lot of movies that movie professors and stuff probably hate - you know, they might not be the most earth-shattering, groundbreaking things, but, you know what, man? That's the first musical I saw when I was 5, so I love it! For instance, one of my friends loves CATS and people make fun of CATS a lot, but who is really to say if CATS is good or bad? It's what got him into musical theatre, after all - how bad could it be?! So, that's how it is for me: I basically loved every single movie musical that I saw when I was a kid. I mean, I especially loved WEST SIDE STORY as a film - I was just so amazed by how cool and dark it was. That was the gateway drug for me to larger things - then, later on, when I saw CABARET and ALL THAT JAZZ, they were such amazingly intense art films to me, really. They really used both sides - film and musical theatre. So, yeah, I'd say that I think CABARET is definitely one of my favorites - that's a pretty extraordinary film.
PC: You can't go wrong with Liza Minnelli, Kander & Ebb and Bob Fosse.
DC: Definitely not! And, I'm happy to tell you that my ultimate dream role is the Emcee...
PC: Wow! Book the theater!
DC: [Laughs.] I know Alan [Cumming] is doing it [the 2014 revival] and I am so happy for him because he is so amazingly talented and so good in that role, but, I feel like, "Hey, give some of us other guys a crack at it!" you know?!
PC: You could always step in for a spell ala HOW TO SUCCEED!
DC: That's true. That's true.
PC: Do you look back at your HOW TO SUCCEED Broadway debut experience fondly?
DC: Oh, yeah. You know, that role was sort of perfect for me and I am such a big Frank Loesser fan - as you know, his scores, like Sondheim's, have a lot of colloquial, patter-type songs in them. He wrote musicals for people to act and sing. And, so, J. Pierrepont Finch is a character and you can really sink your teeth into playing him and really have a blast doing it - again, it was something I felt that my voice could kind of handle and I could feel comfortable with. It was something I felt like I could have a lot of fun with. So, yeah, that was really a dream role and I've made a pretty decent career out of ruining whatever Daniel Radcliffe did before, so... [Laughs.]
PC: A VERY POTTER MUSICAL, of course! And, he just did THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN which you yourself once did in school, correct?
DC: Oh, my God - I know! That is so funny to me. It's like, hey, what can I say? He's got good taste, I guess! [Laughs.] And, he's such a nice guy and such a talented guy.
PC: Do you have a burning desire to return to Broadway sometime soon?
DC: I do. I would do anything. I would always rather be in the theatre than doing anything else - the grass is always greener, I guess. But, I am a theatre guy, born and bred - I'd always rather be doing a play, on a schedule, in the city, than anything else. But, hey, I love doing film and I love doing television - and, at the end of the day, we're all just mercenaries, so I feel so lucky that I get to pick and choose what I do and I am so, so grateful to be able to do it all. But, if I had my true druthers, I'd like to return to New York in something that I originate - that would kind of be my goal - and I think I would probably do a straight play. I've done more straight plays than I have musicals and that's really where my heart lies. But, even if I am not in anything and I am just in New York, I am so into the theatre - I am that guy who goes to the theatre eight nights a week if I have the night off to do it; plus, two shows on Wednesday and two shows on Saturdays, if I can. I just love it, man. As long as the Broadway community even remembers me at all, that's what matters. So, hopefully, they will be OK with me coming back when I do.
PC: Looking ahead to what's coming up on GLEE, what can you tell us about the next couple of episodes and what we can expect - Lady Gaga and Katy Perry this week; puppets, too, sometime soon?
DC: We've got a lot of things! A lot of fun things. Incidentally, Jeff Marx [of AVENUE Q] actually wrote an original song for the show last year, but that's the only AVENUE Q connection, actually. Ryan Murphy sort of spilled the beans on the puppets - that's not coming up for a while! I took a lot of pictures and I've been waiting to put them out there and he just Tweeted some pictures of the puppets, so I guess I can share mine now, too! I am a big Muppets fan and I was so excited because we shot this whole Muppets thing - there are our Muppets and then there are the Muppets. The puppets of us are online - there's a Muppet puppet version of each of our Glee characters and they are all so cute. I get to do Queen's "You're My Best Friend" with them - which was just a lot of fun to do, especially since I am such a big fan.
PC: What are your thoughts on the recently rumored focus shift to mainly New York City or even a full-blown spin-off?
DC: I have no idea - I have just heard this rumor myself. But, listen: wherever they go, I will go. I'm just happy to be a part of the party!
PC: You're more than satisfied to just go along for the ride, then - wherever it may lead?
DC: Exactly. But, yeah, I don't know where the show will go, but we have a lot of fun episodes coming up right away... first, the Katy/Gaga thing is classic, fun, colorful, crazy GLEE. Then, we have an episode after that which is called 'The End Of Twerk' and that is really silly and kind of fun, too - you know, it wouldn't be Glee if we didn't sort of have our fun with the cultural pulse with twerking!"
PC: To say the very least! And, after that?
DC: After that, we filmed an episode which I really loved shooting because it features music by one of my very favorite artists - I don't know if I'm allowed to talk about it yet, so let's just say: the piano man.
PC: Billy Joel!
DC: Yeah, yeah - it's really great.
PC: Lastly is it true that an unaired Christmas episode exists? Ryan Murphy recently teased it via his Twitter account.
DC: Well, sort of...
PC: Sort of?!
DC: I'll just say: sort of... but, yes. There is a Christmas episode that is unaired.
PC: This was absolutely spectacular today, Darren - I simply cannot thank you enough! I wish you the very best with the new season of GLEE, SIX BY SONDHEIM and everything else in your bright future.
DC: Pat, I really love talking to fellow passionate theatre people and this was an absolute pleasure - I'm sure we could have talked for twice this long. I look forward to next time. Bye.
Photo Credits: Walter McBride, FOX, etc.