Inside Darren Criss' Plan to Create an Annual Music Festival With Broadway Performers

Darren Criss Hedwig H 2015
Greg Allen/Invision/AP

The inaugural Elsie Fest at New York City’s JBL Live at Pier 97 features Lea Salonga, Leslie Odom Jr. and Aaron Tveit singing show tunes, pop covers and even Disney hits amid a beer garden, food trucks and a piano bar.

In the heads of even the most devout musical theater fans, Broadway definitely doesn’t equal beer garden.

However, Darren Criss — the Glee breakout who fronted revivals of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and How to Succeed Without Really Trying onstage — hopes to change that Sunday with the first-ever Elsie Fest, an outdoor festival at New York City’s JBL Live at Pier 97 featuring Lea Salonga, Leslie Odom Jr., Aaron Tveit and Criss’ band StarKid, singing show tunes, pop covers and even Disney hits amid a beer garden, food trucks, meet-and-greets with performers and a Marie’s Crisis piano bar.

As a fan of music festivals, Criss saw a gap in Broadway’s outdoor event calendar, filled with offerings that are more show-specific and geared toward promoting ticket sales. “That's fine, but Broadway is not just the song and the shows; it's the individual performers and the community,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter.

That community — specifically, its newer fans — now regularly converts to ticket holders online, with Anthony Rapp’s message board posts during Rent’s reign and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Twitter feed of updates since the early stages of Hamilton.

"No matter how much we're on our phones, going to the show is the goal — you look at things online and watch videos and read blogs and comment, all so that you can go in person and see it yourself, and meet these people in real life, and then so you can go home and talk about it again on your screen,” Criss explains of theater today. “But it all leads up to what you can experience in person. It's an amazing endgame.”

Plus, theater audiences are usually older and “of a certain tax bracket,” but Elsie Fest’s programming and marketing is strategically skewing young. “I'm curious to see [the demographic that attends], but I wanted it to be as accessible as possible, which Broadway really has trouble with in general," says Criss, who created the event with his manager Ricky Rollins and producer Jordan Roth, his collaborator on How to Succeed Without Really Trying in 2012.

The atmosphere of Elsie Fest — named after “a pill-addicted dead hooker" from the show tune “Cabaret,” Criss suggests — is new to both the genre’s fans and actors, whose performances outside their productions are still quite formal, occurring at charity fundraisers or at 54 Below showcases. In other words, unlike at a rock show or pop concert, singing along from the audience is not usually allowed.

Criss wants to change that, too. “I sent an email to everyone saying, ‘Just know, you're gonna go out there, and there are gonna be people not paying attention and just milling around and grabbing a beer. Be cool with that. They're gonna be talking and singing along, there's gonna be noise during your ballads. Invite it. It's gonna be different.’ ”

Live Nation and iHeartRadio are partnering with Criss to promote the event. “I do think it's an obvious idea once you hear about it, and I'm not really sure why it hasn't happened yet,” says Tom Poleman, president of national programming platforms, Clear Channel Radio. “The first time you do anything, people always take a minute to try to figure it out, but once you witness it in person, the word starts to spread and it gains momentum year after year. So I think this is the start of a fun New York tradition that will be around for a while.”

Criss shares the same goal, even though the actor, who only began planning the fest a few months ago and organized most of it while shooting in Italy, accidentally scheduled it on the same day as the Broadway opening of Spring Awakening ("I wish I could go, all my friends are in it, I feel terrible, my set is the same time as curtain!" he says).

“I'm perfectly prepared for this not working — maybe festivals are just for specific music, I don't know — but I had to try,” he says while trying to nail down the show’s last logistics and finalize his own setlist. “I’m very excited and proud of what we have. If you're doing an annual event, every year is an early advertisement for the following year. As long as we get those YouTube moments and great shots of what happens, I think we'll continue to exponentially grow.”