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Team StarKid, 'Harry Potter,' and 'Glee': A Look at Darren Criss and His Theater Company

Darren Criss To say that Glee is a big part of my life is an understatement ("obsessed" with the Fox show is a better way of putting it). Quite a few of my summer Blog Stage posts were about the casting rumors and news from the show's second season.

One of the most recent annoucements, though, excited me more than Gweneth Paltrow’s upcoming appearance: EW's Michael Ausiello reported that Kurt would be getting a mentor -- and possible boyfriend -- named Blaine. But the best part is that the role will be played by "relative newcomer" Darren Criss.

According to all the media outlets, Criss has only done work on the short-lived ABC drama Eastwick. While that credit is accurate, they failed to mention that Criss has been a bit of an internet star for over a year now, thanks to the shows he and his theater company Team StarKid create and upload on YouTube.

I saw a few of the members of Team StarKid perform in the New York International Fringe Festival show Wanton Displays of Affection at the Cherry Pit Theater this summer, and knew that I wanted to share the amazing work the group does. I thought that my window of opportunity had closed… until Team StarKid made it into the news again.

The truly shocking thing is, besides a brief mention from Ausiello, none of the other major media outlets who posted news of Criss' casting even mentioned Team StarKid, or Criss’s starring role in their first production, A Very Potter Musical. I thought that was odd, especially with Glee’s premise being a perfect fit for the man who played Harry Potter in a fan-fare musical. It would be a great way for Glee fans to learn about the actor who is about to take Kurt under his wing, quench their voracious Glee appetites while they have to wait an extra week for "The Rocky Horror Glee Show," and also (hopefully) raise Team StarKid’s profile.

To that end, I give you a crash course in all things Team StarKid!

The first thing you should know is that Team StarKid Productions sounds like any theater student's big dream: a group of friends studying at the University of Michigan, making their own theater on their terms, and being able to continue due to acclaim and rabid cult fandom.

Team starkid_harry potter musical poster The first incarnation of the group met in the U of M’s musical theater department. At its core were friends who wanted to make theater together. What set them apart was the drive, recourse, and sheer creative talent to pull it off. In one year, they created three original musicals and four albums, and found fame via YouTube. Many of these actors found a fan base before they even got their degrees. And the best part about Team StarKid? They clearly still have a good time.

I became obsessed with Team StarKid, like many others, almost a year ago when my friend told me about their Harry Potter musical. I was caught off guard by her glowing review of the piece, because she hates musicals. (This was, besides Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, the only piece of musical theater she sat through and thoroughly enjoyed.) I want to say this is because Harry Potter is near and dear to my generation’s heart, but it’s more than that. This show is not just a parody, but a series of love letters to the wizarding world we have grown to love and secretly wish were real. 

The idea for the show started when the group noticed something odd in the fourth book of J.K. Rowlings hit series. Nick Lang told Michigan Radio last year:

"The character Draco Malfoy is always picking on Harry's best friend, Hermione. And just during the reading of it, we were like, Draco does he have a crush on her? We thought it was going to be a twist that Draco would have a crush on Hermione.
"This idea of a song just kind of came into our heads that was 'I Feel Like I'm In Danger of Falling In Love with Hermione Granger.' And so that was the first idea, and then we were like this could be a whole musical. You could make a musical out of Harry Potter."

The show was soon up and running, with the college grads creating the show: Matt Lang, Nick Lang, and Brian Holden wrote the book, and Darren Criss & A.J. Holmes wrote music and lyrics, with Matt Lang directing the show. They turned to their alma mater, U of M’s Basement Arts to helm the show.

Team starkid_harry potter

The production, originally called Harry Potter: The Musical, was performed for free in April 2009. The two-act musical is a loving spoof on the wizarding world and the characters that inhabit it. Criss' Harry is portrayed as cocky, lazy, and totally charismatic. Joey Richter makes Ron pushy and always snacking on a Red Vine candy, while Bonnie Gruesen’s Hermione gets blamed for everything because her hair is out of control. But the winner is Lauren Lopez, who portrays Draco Malfoy (yes, a girl plays Draco) as flamboyant and overzealous, yet keeps falling over furniture and rolling around on the floor. 

The kids posted the videos on YouTube and steadily became a cult hit, garnering an article on EW.com’s PopWatch blog, and ultimately named one of the best viral videos of 2009. Above all, the show gave the group their name: At one point, Draco tries to show up Harry by mocking, "Look at this! It’s Rocketship Potter! StarKid Potter! Moonshoes Potter!"

Though they hit the scene with Harry Potter, the group’s first work was actually a mini-series called Little White Lie. Set in Michigan, the story is about a brother and sister whose rock band dreams begin to be realized when they play someone else’s song. It was made two years before AVPM, but was finally shared on You Tube after the group's early success. And the two stand-outs from Little White Lie are also the two biggest breakouts from AVPM -- Darren Criss and Lauren Lopez. Lopez plays snotty Tanya Freemont, archenemy of our heroes, while Darren plays her boyfriend and rock god Tony Philips. It was different from what I had come to associate with the group's stage show, but still had a level of talent that I had come to expect from Team StarKid.

The group followed AVPM with two more original shows, including A Very Potter Sequel (which premiered this summer to near pandemonium from their fans and a write-up in EW) and the brilliant musical Me and My Dick. The latter, which premiered late October, is about a "boy with a very special relationship with his very best friend... his Dick! Together they face the trials of growing up, love, sex and high school, but these two best pals are in for the adventure of a lifetime."

The premise might be outrageous at first, but the show was done in a way that won the audience over. In fact, when the soundtrack premiered on iTunes the following March, it debuted at #11 – the only student-produced musical recording in history to hit the charts. Team StarKid hit the charts again this past August with the group's first album, A Very StarKid Album, which featured some of their biggest hits performed by the group.

Many of the actors we met in AVPM got more room to show off their talents in both of these later shows, particularly Joey Richter and Joe Walker in Me and My Dick. Richter was given free reign as the star, and Walker (who played Voldemort in AVPM) was able to show off another side as Dick. Walker also stole the show in A Very Potter Sequel with his turn as Dolores Umbridge, in drag and with a hilarious speech impediment.

But Criss is definitely still the breakout star of the troupe. Not only does he write and perform in the work, he released his own EP, titled Human, last summer. He regularly performs in both L.A. and New York City; Criss performed a solo show last weekend in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

In an interview with EW.com, when asked about the future of StarKid, Criss replied:

It has become a really exciting reality for us. We’re getting to the point -- without revealing too much information -- we want to solidify ourselves as a real theater company, like the Goodman or something like that. You know, have our space, and really workshop things and be a little bit more theater-based, but then still put up things on YouTube. The future for us is that we want to continue to make properties -- two years ago I could’ve given you a novel of everything that we could and will work on, so hopefully, we’ll work on that for as long as we can. Now that we have this completely unanticipated following and base, it gives us this confidence like, "You know, us doing this show isn’t so crazy!" So, it’s a very exciting time for everything. For StarKid, for myself personally, everything.

As for his upcoming role on Glee, Criss told Ausiello in an exclusive interview last week:

"I think Blaine’s most important role is… as a mentor to Kurt. At this point, Kurt’s [sexuality] has been such a sense of discord in his life. Blaine finds [being gay] empowering. He embraces who he is, and sees Kurt [struggling with] the same things that he had to deal with, and I think he wants to impart that knowledge.

"It’s great to see a strong character like this on a hit show that so many people are watching. I can’t really think of any other gay characters on TV that are this young and sure of themselves. I hope all the kids struggling with this issue can look to a guy like Blaine and feel [inspired] by his confidence."

Blaine, a "charismatic, out-and-proud gay teen from a rival school," meets Kurt in the episode airing Nov. 9. Criss can't confirm whether or not the character will be more than just a friend to Kurt ("My guess is as good as anybody’s," he says. "It’s a really big secret."), but we know that Blaine is a student at Dalton Academy, a nearby school where Kurt considers transferring to get away from McKinley High.

I have no doubt that Criss will knock it out of the park in his new role on Glee, but even more, I know that we will see more from Team StarKid. What really makes their work so amazing is that you can tell at its heart, everyone who is working on these productions want to be there, working together with their friends. There’s a reason that the same actors keep working together show after show. There’s a reason that quite a few members of Team StarKid were in the audience at at that Fringe show Wanton Displays of Affection. They are all friends first, and collaborators second.

-- Elizabeth Espinoza

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awesome article. i'm a huge Gleek and Harry Potter fan, but i seem to discover everything last - so i heard a little buzz about AVPM last year (is what i tell myself)but i didn't look it up until about a month ago. it took me almost 5 days to watch AVPM and AVPS, what with work and school, in between i was salivating to get back to my computer to watch the long and brilliant plays. and then i watched all of their other productions, and any Darren Criss Disney cover i could get my hands on. i'm such a fan of Starkid, now. i wish them the best and that their plans come to be... because that would be totally awesome.

This best write-up thus far for this wonderfully talented group. I hope they go far. I know I will invest in any of their endeavors, I hope to see many of their performances in the near future.

Criss co-wrote the Harry Potter Musical with composer AJ Holmes, who also wrote the majority of the other Starkid show, Me and My Dick.

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