Darren Criss Shares 'Elsie Fest 2016' Playlist, From Ariana Grande to Megan Hilty: Takeover Tuesday

Takeover Tuesday with Darren Criss
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Takeover Tuesday with Darren Criss

It’s Takeover Tuesday time, where Billboard taps artists and tastemakers to compile their own playlists exclusive to Billboard’s Spotify account. We give the artists free reign to base the list on whatever subject they want and add whatever tracks they choose. The only rule? Make it as creative and unique to them as possible.

This time around, singer/songwriter/actor Darren Criss offers up a personal playlist inspired by Elsie Fest, the outdoor music festival celebrating stars and songs from the stage and screen. The shindig, which was co-created by Criss and launched in 2015, will take place Sept. 5 at the Ford Amphitheater at the Coney Island Boardwalk in New York. The second annual show features Megan Hilty, Tituss Burgess, Criss, Rebel and a Basket Case (Evan Rachel Wood and Zach Villa), Jason Robert Brown, Lena Hall, Corey Cott, Pasek and Paul, Julie James and a special guest performance by Cynthia Erivo. A portion of the show’s proceeds will be donated to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

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Below, Criss shares his thoughts on the playlist, Elsie Fest and the many song-and-dance folks that populate the 22-track collection:

I’m a big fan of the rising popularity in performers who can cross-pollinate entertainment platforms, and even more so of the appetite that we seem to have for it nowadays. There’s a new breed appearing between what has historically only been associated with the theater scene and what we know as pop culture. Categories are becoming a little more fluid than they used to be -- I mean, it’s now cool to embrace one’s love of show tunes and standards, in the same way one would embrace pop music and nerdy internet humor.

More and more we’re seeing our favorite acts on late-night television showcasing their vaudevillian chops. How many times have we clicked on (insert favorite celebrity you didn’t know could sing/dance/play an instrument) on YouTube? God knows I spent enough times clicking away at those videos to the point where I thought, well, this needs to have its own music festival.

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So, in the age of Broadway actors playing superheroes on television, movie stars doing internet comedy songs, pop stars releasing cabaret albums, huge singer-songwriters writing scores for musicals... Here are some star-studded folks who have tracks on Spotify that embody what Elsie Fest is all about. From the silver screen to the small screen, from the boob tube to YouTube, from the soundstage to center stage, this list could have gone on forever -- but I had to keep it short. Like I’ve said, it needed a festival.

1. Megan Hilty — “Second Hand White Baby Grand” (live): This was one of my favorite songs to come out of NBC’s Smash. Even if you don’t know anything about the show, this song is a gem and Megan’s voice is stunning. 

2. Tituss Burgess — “Stop Calling Me”: Before his TV-star turn as Titus Andromedon (on the Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), he was Broadway’s Tituss Burgess, a powerhouse high tenor that never ceased to make audiences wonder how his voice could make that sound. And before “Peeno Noir” (possibly not safe for work), he made a few albums of his own. Here’s one funky-ass jam that still keeps me wondering. 

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3. Graham Phillips and Ariana Grande — “A Little More Homework” (from 13): Before her inevitable international pop music radio takeover, Ariana was always a theater kid, and a great one at that -- having originated in Jason Robert Brown’s beloved 13 as a teenager. 

4. Seth MacFarlane – “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry”: It’s almost infuriating how talented this guy is. If Family Guy had never happened, and you had played me this record, I woulda bought all his albums. It’s unfair how wonderful of a singer he is.

5. Kevin Spacey – “That Old Black Magic”: That’s right, in case some of you House of Cards fans lived under a rock (aka: missed the episode where Frank Underwood sang to Claire, or you never heard of Beyond the Sea), Spacey has a pretty outspoken penchant for the Great American Songbook. Case in point, this little ditty. 

6. Anna Kendrick – “I Can Do Better Than That” (from The Last Five Years): In case you missed 12-year-old Anna Kendrick’s Tony Award-nominated performance as Dinah Lord in High Society (spoiler: she didn’t win that year, but spoiler: she became a huge movie star so she kinda did win after all), we’ve been graced with her singing chops in a variety of musical-film projects in the past few years. In line with my love for songwriter Jason Robert Brown, here’s her 2015 recording of a fan favorite from The Last Five Years

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7. Hugh Jackman – “Not the Boy Next Door” (from The Boy From Oz): Yes. The Huge, Jacked Man himself (of X-Men fame) won a Tony for playing Peter Allen in 2003’s The Boy From Oz. And by this point, he was already a pretty big movie star. The fact that he has always been able to dance (literally) between Broadway and blockbuster gigs so seamlessly has proven through the years that he is definitely not the boy next door. 

8. Hugh Laurie – “St. James Infirmary”: Whether folks know him as the brilliant comic counterpart of A Bit of Fry and Laurie from British television or the completely opposite, brooding antihero of House, most aren’t familiar with Laurie’s affinity for the blues and tickling the ivories. Here’s him covering one of my favorite tunes.

9. Tom Waits – “Somewhere”: This has got to be one of the all-time greatest renditions of a classic Broadway tune. An iconic man singing an iconic tune. Like a lot of his records, it’s as haunting as it is beautiful. 

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10. James Marsden – “That’s Amore” (from Enchanted): So speaking of X-Men, who knew Cyclops could sing? Like, this well?

11. Mickey Rooney, Feist, Amy Adams, Jason Segel & Walter – “Life’s a Happy Song” (from The Muppets): I don’t need to explain why The Muppets exemplify the fabulous film/TV/theater crossover crew, but this tune also features the singing stylings of Jason Segel (remember his Dracula musical, anyone?) and another personal favorite, Amy Adams (Enchanted, anyone?). Oh, and also we get to hear the late, great Mickey Rooney and the incomparable Feist herself. That’s a lot of really, really cool people singing on one song. I didn’t even mention any of The Muppets. 

12. The Gregory Brothers & Daym Drops – “Dayum”: Or maybe better known on YouTube as Schmoyoho, these Auto-Tune songsmiths have gifted the world with “songified” versions of countless viral favorites, the original videos of which, in turn, have become even bigger favorites because of how awesome Schmoyoho’s musical versions were. This song gets me so pumped about life. But also about Five Guys burgers.

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13. Meryl Streep – “Last Midnight” (from Into the Woods): Of course she makes the list. It’s Meryl. 

14. Uzo Aduba – “By My Side” (from the new Broadway cast recording of Godspell): Before the world got to know her as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on Orange Is the New Black, I got to see Uzo perform this song in 2011’s Broadway revival of Godspell and was blown away. Now, two Emmys later, and after appearing in NBC’s The Wiz Live!, I hope we all get to hear more of her beautiful voice! 

15. Zac Efron – “Ladies’ Choice” (from Hairspray): Let’s not forget that this mega-star got his start from the ol’ song-'n'-dance game. After High School Musical, Hairspray was the last time we got to see him on the big screen rockin’ a musical number. When you watch him, you go, “Oh yeah, duh, that’s why he’s a mega-star.” Lookin’ forward to when he gets back to it with Hugh Jackman in the upcoming original movie musical The Greatest Showman on Earth. Gonna be sweeeeeet.

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16. Jamie Cullum – “I Get a Kick Out of You”: Like many of the great standards, there are endless versions to choose from for this particular tune from Cole Porter's Anything Goes. In 2003, Jamie released this rendition that made a teenage me’s ears almost explode with delight. The piano solo is insane.

17. Fergie – “Be Italian” (from Nine): Despite Nine’s, uh, mixed reviews, I loved seeing this film’s eclectic cast of Elsie-approved artists all under the same roof. Ask IMDb, since the list is too large to go through. However, Fergie stole the show for me with her vocal performance on this song.

18. Catherine Zeta-Jones & Renee Zellweger – “I Move On” (from Chicago): I mean, come on. These ladies crushed this. Still get goosebumps when I watch this movie.

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19. Todrick Hall – “No Place Like Home”: Todrick has been killing the DIY internet sensation game for a long time now, from his Disney-inspired YouTube parody videos to a toe-tappin’ music video for Virgin America’s safety instructions. His latest work is a mind-blowing audio/visual concept album that nods to everyone’s favorite public domain: Oz. Here’s the opening track.

20. The Lonely Island featuring Justin Timberlake – “Dick in a Box”:  I hope entertainment historians revere this song many years from now as a contemporary musical comedy standard. To me, musical comedy isn’t just defined by what’s on Broadway on an actual stage. The internet is the largest stage in the world. So to understand why I believe this is such an Elsie-approved song, well, one could say you gotta think outside the box

21. Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga – “Cheek to Cheek”: When Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta was a classic cabaret-lovin’ theater student at New York University, I’m sure she would've killed to have the opportunity to make an album of jazz standards with Tony Bennett. Well, luckily she didn’t have to kill anything other than her real name and go on to make a bunch of hit records first. I think it’s so rad that she made this record. Here’s The Lady & The Bennett doing their best Fred Astaire. If only they could've re-created the original scene from Top Hat for a music video! 

22. Vanessa Hudgens – “I Never Want to Go Home Again” (from Gigi): If you happened to have missed a certain Disney musical franchise that launched her career (High School Musical), maybe you did catch Vanessa in her Broadway debut with 2015’s Gigi -- where we got to hear her beautifully showcase her vocal chords beyond the realms of early 2000s pop music production and high school lockers and into the land of early 1900s Paris and a classic score from Lerner & Loewe.