Inside Darren Criss' Team StarKid: From 'A Very Potter Musical' to SPACE Tour
As Team StarKid took the stage Saturday night (Nov. 26) at Irving Plaza, they did so in a cheeky parody of 'N Sync's second-ever American tour -- something many fans in the room were too young to remember. On that tour 'N Sync entered in slow motion and wearing space helmets -- as did StarKid Saturday evening, complete with rolling fog and a slow reveal of the seven troupe members finishing their month-long trek across the country.
It's not unrealistic to compare Team StarKid to the first iterations of the iconic boyband, who in 1998, when 'N Sync was pulling the spaceman stunt, was not an album-selling, pop-culture phenomenon just yet. They were, however, a cult hit among young people, part of a mass wave of new pop coming to surface after the grunge era of the early '90s, poised to take over the musical landscape. They were undeniable, and the masses of fans that similarly support StarKid might enable the group to shake up the pop culture map in a huge way.
StarKid isn't a boyband, or even close to it, but they're on the same precipice as the boybands of yesteryear, tapped into a hyper-connected youth culture and a tad confusing to the adults in the room. The group defies easy explanation, the kind of thing you often have to fall head-first into to actually get their appeal. At the base, they're a performance troupe that specializes in pop-culture reference laden, emotional musicals, who springboarded to fame from a viral video hit with their "A Very Potter Musical" in 2009 to expand to fully original works and a spiraling fandom that supports the group and individual members' projects. One co-founder, Darren Criss, who is best known now as Blaine Anderson on " Glee," was first known to his loyal following as Harry Potter. Criss' success may have brought them to greater national attention, but those in the know understand that Criss is just one moving part of the great StarKid machine, and have been tracking the StarKid triumphs across a variety of creative avenues with a fanatical pitch not easily matched, except perhaps by the StarKid performers themselves, who mirror back that enthusiasm with intensity and hold their fans above all else. (Instead of partying with his costars and celebrating two successful New York shows, Joey Richter, who played Ron Weasley in the "Potter" musicals, left the double-header show with his visiting parents in tow to surprise a young fan at her birthday party in the area Saturday night. That's not unusual for the StarKids -- last year Criss flew across the country in the midst of Golden Globes weekend to sing for a teen fan's celebration.)
To love a StarKid is to be a StarKid, and one of the key aspects of the troupe is that the performers on stage are not the only ones considered StarKids, but the entire audience is made up of them as well. That sort of inclusively is what sets the group apart and makes them ripe for fame in our digital age. Criss described the tour as "a celebration of the franchise, both fans and people in the show. Somebody said to us that the cool thing is it's not us versus you, there's no kind of separation. It's a big ole party for anyone who's been involved in anything StarKid, whether you're very familiar or vaguely familiar."
Fellow StarKid Joe Walker likened the experience to being a DJ, and the collective nature of their performances were often the crowd drowns out the StarKids on stage. "We are up there, and everyone is singing," he explained. "Yeah, we're singing, but they're singing too."
Without those singing fans, Team StarKid might have never fully existed. Ever since "A Very Potter Musical," originally performed at the University of Michigan and put online in what was supposed to be an easy way to share the production with friends, exploded into a worldwide phenomenon, things haven't slowed down for StarKid. Since then they formed their production company, their videos have accumulated more than 100 million views on YouTube, and two of their five albums have charted on Billboard, including the first-ever appearance of a student-produced college musical on the Billboard Top 100 Cast Albums. Previously they've performed small, one-off reviews at Harry Potter fan events or standing shows in their home-base of Chicago, but the S.P.A.C.E. Tour was their first national run, and a chance to connect with their numerous fans offline, performing 21 times in 16 cites in November.
"It's great to see people who have experienced us on the Internet being able to experience it in person, it's really invaluable," Criss told Billboard.com before the afternoon New York show. "I think the tour is an absolutely necessary step in our progression as a performing entity. We're basically a band with four or five albums that never toured. And the purpose of tours is to promote and to reach out and spread the fanbase, which I think we have. This was the first tour and it's been a success."
Before Team StarKid took the stage in New York for the second time ever, fellow Michigan alumnus Charlene Kaye opened, playing mostly selections from her forthcoming Kickstarter-funded new album, but also left room for fan favorites like "Dress and Tie," a duet that features Criss. His appearance on stage, the first glimpse of him for the night and only fourth show of the tour he'd been able to make due to "Glee" commitments, drew the first truly ear-shattering screams and crowd surge. Kaye and Criss spent a lot of time building grassroots fanbases touring together before Criss' put his solo career on the back-burner for television, and that musical synchronicity shows in their ease together. Even without Criss on stage the crowd clapped and sang along for Kaye, especially on the earworming title tracks from the in-production "Animal Love." But the crowd's enthusiasm for Kaye was just a warm-up for the main event: StarKid's grand 'N Sync entrance and first songs, a selection of tracks from their most recent musical, "Starship," back to the two "Potter" productions.
The setlist for these final shows included a few adjustments thanks to the arrival of Criss, who slotted in seamlessly with the group, who often joked about his arrival changing things or playfully suggesting they go on with the original plan and completely ignore his presence. Criss, of course, wouldn't be ignored. Nor would the crowd let him be, surging forward en mass at this first arrival on stage, and screaming out their love for him on his few solo numbers, most notably "Home," a Potter song he dedicates to his mother in the audience.
Criss wasn't the only StarKid to shine, or to attract screaming fans. Each performer had their share, with Richter and Lauren Lopez performing the fan-favorite duet "Granger Danger," and while many of Dylan Saunders' solos were reappropriated by Criss for that evening's show, his duet with Joe Walker stood out for both as solid numbers. Those duets in particular, and their surrounding banter, received an interestingly queer reading thanks to the lack of costuming on tour (Walker and Lopez both play opposite of their gender in the Potter StarKid productions). Jamie Lyn Beatty was the most rubber-faced of the girls, her expressiveness shining on tunes like "No Way." Brian Holden may be the best dancer on the StarKid tour, providing moves for Walker's performance of "Stutter," as well as his own featured vocals on various numbers. Meredith Stepien riled the crowd up with some stand-up and discussion of Criss' newfound fame status (he doesn't travel by limo, he's still riding via dragon like always, she joked) before singing "Coolest Girl," a song sung by Hermione Granger in the plays, and something of an anthem for the predominantly female fanbase.
All-in-all, the troupe barreled through 21 of their numbers, most of which were performed in a group setting complete with dance moves, jazz hands and charm, the latter of which is their greatest weapon. The only group-favorite tracks StarKid left off their setlist were some from "Me and My Dick," the most adult-oriented of their musicals -- since the shows were all-ages, they opted to keep things as PG as StarKid gets. Overall, the performance was both loose and well-rehearsed, with stage banter filling time as the StarKids set or strike their own equipment, keeping in tune with their DIY ethos.
Watching StarKid on stage, especially for theater geeks, is a little like witnessing what you and your friends would find fun on a lazy childhood afternoon, putting together musical numbers and dances, only with more polish. The group numbers were some of the night's best, including the upbeat "Days of Summer" from "A Very Potter Sequel," the kind of production number that could easily translate to the charts as a pop single akin to Godspell's "Day by Day." That transitioned to their calling-card number, "Goin' Back To Hogwarts," the track that is performed in the first minutes of their first viral video. The fans singing along easily pitched above the StarKids on stage, and by the end it was more pure singalong than performance, capped with confetti cannons and a massive crush of seemingly anyone and everyone in New York that night who'd touched StarKid during its evolution, all crowding on stage for a bow.
There are still kinks to be ironed out in the transition from full productions to a revue-style event. Sometimes pacing was off, and a intermission performance by half the StarKids as their side-project Jim and the Povolos was sweet, but slightly out of place. Not that the throngs of young adults in the audience were complaining -- they're insatiably thirsty for anything and everything StarKid, which leaves the group cautious about setting any future plans in stone.
"We're really reluctant to say what we're doing next because our fans will be mad if we don't follow through," said Criss while the rest of the StarKids chimed in with increasingly absurd theoretical plans (Richter: "Maybe a performance of 'Doubt'." Walker: "We're going to release the iPhone 5.") The only consensus among the group: Rest.
As for more tours are in their future, Walker was optimistic. "This is the first time we've done it, so it was an experiment in a way and we're learning a lot," he said. "But now it's a totally viable option. Now we can do musicals and tours, because those are things we know how to do. We'll continue to expand our repertoire."
And while they'd love to take a musical on tour, Criss pointed out that such an endeavor requires many more moving parts than a revue-style production like S.P.A.C.E. tour. "Having a show tour requires so many other things to happen, while this tour is all about us," he explained. "The fans want to know the people themselves, whereas a show would be something to develop over time and really nail it to a place where we're really happy with it continuously running."
For fans who didn't get the chance to attend this go-around, Lopez told us they're hopeful about releasing a DVD of the experience, and Holden promised behind-the-scenes footage they've been capturing along the way. In the meantime, the group noted that fans have taken the burden of documenting the tour for them. Despite an announcement barring video recording, arms were aloft all night capturing clips, and videos were uploaded and transformed into .gifs before the StarKids had a chance to escape the venue for the evening. There's perhaps more documentation of the StarKid tour on the Internet than tickets they could physically sell, but the fans and Team StarKid wouldn't have it any other way.