It’s 2:30 p.m. and Team StarKid is supposed to start a rehearsal for their final Los Angeles show, but the cause of the rehearsal, Darren Criss, is a few minutes late. It’s by no means a diva move on Darren’s part, despite the “Glee” star being the most well known face of the musical theater troupe — if it weren’t him, it would be one of any number of other cast members.
“This is something that’s a challenge every day, getting 10 people in one place at one time,” Julia Albain, the group’s director and tour manager, explains as she pied-pipers the crew down the House of Blues’ never-ending staircase after he arrives. The most apt comparison is trying to herd kittens.
The crew has been here three days and the stairs are definitely becoming a hassle. “They’re killing us, we have to plan bathroom breaks because we don’t want to keep climbing up and down all night,” says Jaime Lyn Beatty, a powerhouse vocalist who has had various roles in StarKids multiple productions.
| Scenes From Apocalyptour
“To Have a Home”
Formed informally at the University of Michigan, the StarKids shot to digital fame in 2009 when they uploaded their show, “A Very Potter Musical,” on YouTube. Almost instantly Harry Potter fans latched on to the parody and the group garnered attention from mainstream press and a voracious fan following. The StarKids didn’t let that go to waste, forging an Internet presence and connection with their fans that sustains. They’ve created six musicals to date, and their cast album was the first student musical to break the Billboard Cast Albums chart, a feat they’ve since repeated. “Apocalyptour,” their current run of shows that focus primarily on the West Coast, is the second national tour the troupe has launched in the last 9 months. Their last, the S.P.A.C.E. Tour, was more of a musical review held together thematically by a few set pieces and sparse dialogue. This time around the tour resembles more like an actual StarKid production, with a plot about saving the world from an ancient Apocalypse curse through song and dance. The songs performed tend to be more of their lesser-known hits. Though that matters not to the sea of fans who have been lining up since noon and stretched several blocks down Sunset by show time.
With everyone in place by 2:45, the StarKids converge on stage in their civilian clothes with Clark Baxtresser, their musical director, who undertook the task of re-arranging songs from a variety of their shows into a fresh and compelling orchestration for this new narrative. The StarKids have a core of constant collaborators, but not all StarKids are involved in every production, so for this tour the group involved picks songs and parts they’ve never performed before.
During rehearsal a wide variety of items are used as makeshift mics, from cell phones to water bottles. It’s hard not to crack up, as their rehearsals are raunchier than the stage show, with the StarKids vamping lines seemingly designed to break each other’s composure. The only time anyone really loses it, though, is when Jim Povolo, the generally quiet, towering cast member who plays the threatening Mayan deity “Margaret,” sings for the first time in his deep, exaggerated timber. And in that case it’s only Darren, not used to seeing Jim’s performance every night, who can’t contain his mirth. As they block in Darren it generally takes no more than two tries for him to have the movements down, Dylan Saunders teasing that, “these are Warbler moves, you’ve got this!” Julia stands in the middle of the empty HOB floor dancing along like an especially well-meaning pageant mom on a really strange edition of Toddlers and Tiaras. When the group starts to veer off course into in-jokes or the absurd, she’s the one to reign them back in, a strategic move that allows them the creativity that makes StarKid thrive while keeping them accessible to an audience that perhaps hasn’t seen every last video the group has produced.
Today the biggest distracting point is poking fun at Darren, and how they can put that into the show. They plot an entrance that ends with a “Glee” autograph joke that gets dropped from the actual performance. They work on the end of “A Very Potter Musical”‘s “The Coolest Girl” and Brian Holden, often tasked as the voice of StarKid to media and press outsiders, jokes that they’ll transition next into “Brotherhood of Men,” the final number from “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.” Without missing a beat, Darren, who starred in the show for three weeks on Broadway this winter, starts the number’s tricky choreography, and even begins to teach it to Joe Walker and Dylan before Julia gets the group on track. The gag would probably play well to the die-hard crowd, but there’s a fine line to toe between the insider baseball of StarKid and leaving an opening for newbie’s in the audience to “get it” (the group does have a hilarious line about one of their members being “eaten by a giant Fox” that slays.) They shift around lines and formations to fit Darren in, adding a few solo songs for him as well. Even though Darren only arrived yesterday there’s ease to how they all work together, without distinctly establishing leaders. Very little has to be explained — the StarKids feel each other’s movements, space and timing, then react accordingly. When they get to the final number, from Holy Musical B@man, a show Darren didn’t have a hand in and which has the most complicated choreography of the night, the group tries to think of ways for Darren to work around it.
“Do you want to just be in charge of hitting the beach balls?” Brian H. offers.
“Why not just look like an idiot?” Darren quips, and passes through the choreography he’s got down anyway.
Despite the late start they only run a few minutes over. Between sound check and their VIP Meet and Greet Darren pulls extra time with the band to run through the solo numbers he’ll be adding to the show while the rest of the group retreats up the staircase for some downtime. The gang has learned the art of the tour nap, and finding quiet moments in the chaos. Joe sprawls, eyes closed, as Meredith Stepien, a perpetual jokester, explains her favorite tour-snack creations from their daily platters of veggies, chips and salsa and fruit. Dip a chip in ranch then in the salsa, she offers. The carrots always go first from the platters, and by the time Meet and Greet rolls around mostly the squash sticks remain untouched. Dylan bravely tries a bite and then chucks it at Meredith’s head.
• PHOTOS: Candid Team StarKid
The group sells two levels of Meet and Greet for their voracious fans. The Crystal Skull VIP (priced between $100 and $125 per person, compared to $35 for general admission) allows 25 diehards to come into the venue early for a relaxed party format with the StarKids and to pose for pictures and claim the front rows or the front of a more structured signing line that they open to the next tier of Meet and Greet (priced between $75 and $85). During the first portion girls and boys move in pairs excitedly around the room, waiting for each StarKid to be free for a moment of solo time, diligently snapping cell phone pictures. Most of them come with gifts, and many are in costume — from a Batman and Robin in homage to the most recent production, to throwbacks to Joey Richter’s iconic Ron Weasley ensemble, complete with blue sweatband and tub of Red Vines.
The second Meet and Greet stretches over 100 people long, and while it only officially consists of the StarKids who appear on stage, fans wander up to the tour crew and get autographs as well, something you’d never see at your traditional rock and roll show. There isn’t a line in fans’ minds between an acting member and a tech member or band member; they’re all StarKids. The group comes away from the hour with all sorts of fan gifts, ranging from snacks to homemade necklaces, art and toys. One fan this stop made a mounted poster of cartoon versions of every single StarKid member across all their shows wearing an amalgamation of all of their individual characters’ costumes. The group can’t get over her dedication and attention to detail, but it’s just one in a vast collection of homemade fan trinkets. Upstairs the green room is littered with the spoils of these Meet and Greets – felt dolls for each StarKid embodying an iconic character, ribbon leis in Michigan colors that the StarKids wear around for a while, but eventually end up as part of the colorful clutter backstage.
Things move faster once the doors are open. Dinner is served and group members wander nomadically, eating and chatting in various clumps. They have access to a porch, but fans are still lined up down the block to get in, so Dylan lies across a bench to take a phone call outside unnoticed. When Joey pokes his head out the window even he’s taken aback by the screams that echo back at him. Darren corrals Brian H. for some additional dance practice before putting together his own version of a StarKid costume — all things he grabbed just before he left home this morning — knee-length khaki shorts, and overlong tie and straw cap.
“I never eat before a show but I ate just now and my stomach is going crazy,” Darren tells Julia as he paces the length of half the coffee table — there’s not much room for walking with more than 20 performers and crew getting ready at the same time.
Meredith and Lauren Lopez camp out on the floor in front of the mirror, applying make up. Soon Meredith will primp Lauren’s hair — she acts as tour hairstylist for the girls of the group. Civilian clothes start to come off and their archeological dig attire replaces it, all in varying forms of khaki and green. June Saito, who designed the costumes, said she pulled most of it together (aside from Jim’s elaborate Mayan deity get-up) just a week before tour started.
“That’s just the StarKid way,” she laughs.
Brian Rosenthal has the worst end of the costume stick, though, since as the temperature rises as more bodies pack the venue he’s wearing the most layers – tweed jacket over a vest and shirt, with a hat on top. He’ll eventually change for a number into an all red tux and top hat to portray Joey’s heart. On the other end, Joe is barely wearing anything, with cut off shorts and an open top that elicits screams from the fans when they finally see him. Joey has woken up from a stolen nap to find that Jaime has put pieces of Red Vines all over his tour costume, in his pockets and in one shoe so far. “I keep stepping on Red Vines, I’m going to lose my mind if I find them in the other shoe,” he deadpans. Jaime holds back a smile as Joey discovers another handful of candy in the right foot. Opening act Charlene Kaye, fellow Michigan alum, applies last minute nail stickers before heading down to warm up the 900 plus person crowd. They scream and sing along as if she were the main attraction; StarKid fans are fiercely loyal to side projects and associated performers that the group promotes.
With the curtains drawn the group gathers on stage for a hushed pep talk, ending in a “Super Friends” cheer before most of the StarKids pile into a small 3 by 6 foot tent in the corner of the stage and await their entrances.
As individual StarKids emerge the crowd gasps and squeals, pitching louder each time. Even though Darren’s appearance isn’t a surprise, when he finally takes the stage following the first song camera phones shoot into the air and stay there. While it’s definitely clear Darren is new to the routines, nothing looks sloppy, and the crowd adores anything that edges on imperfection for its authenticity.
• PHOTOS: Candid Team StarKid
Throughout the show not one of the StarKids is relegated to supporting player, each taking a chance to shine during the hour and a half set. Upstairs June and Corey Lubowich, the production designer, take advantage of the quiet and watch the performance on a silent video stream. Sometimes they go down for a full show, but 11 stops into the tour and they’re not feeling the need. In most tour circumstances the opening band would also be lounging in the green room, but Charlene and her band take on double-duty as the StarKid band — there’s not much room for frivolity or excess in the StarKid world. Minus Darren and Jim, the rest of the crew spends most of the show on stage, although they do all pile off en mass between the finale and encore.
What was contained professionalism leading up to the show has bubbled over into unbridled joy, and while they remain focused on their performance the show’s made them loose, brushing shoulders and joking on the small ramp that leads back to the stage, pointing out raunchy graffiti left behind by past performers. They come knocking off after the true finale, laughter echoing off the endless stairs to their dressing room about the balls being “out of control” tonight. It’s beach ball warfare. Darren might have been more helpful managing them after all.
Upstairs clothes come off in typical unselfconscious theater kid fashion, and the group hurries to pack their things so they can enjoy their final night in Los Angeles. Hugs and well wishes backstage are brief, since they need to load out their own set and equipment before they can celebrate. It’s not exactly Beatlemania, but kids do run, scream and snap photos as the StarKids hoist equipment into their trailer for an 11 p.m. departure.
The StarKids exist straddling a very fine line between Theater and Rock and Roll. Rock stars headlining House of Blues across the U.S. don’t load their own gear, and theater productions don’t have roadies. But StarKid has always been a meeting point for the grand new world order of notoriety and the established culture of celebrity. In the last seconds before they’re due on stage, Joe and Darren start singing a parody to one of their own songs, substituting the word “fart” for a key lyric, and soon the whole crew is harmonizing, transcending from a passing fancy to a moment. It’s sophomoric, but if you put 1,000 monkeys in a room with typewriters, eventually one of them will produce Shakespeare. StarKid isn’t aiming for the Bard, but they’re adept at taking the absurd, the weird and simply what they find collectively funny and tapping into something that inspires their audience of digital natives to embrace the wacky and transform it into their own narrative. Their jokes inspire GIFs and art and parody in their own right, and then circles back to engage in the real world, and ouroboros of pop culture.
They’re the new fame.