Darren Criss acts as playwright when he writes songs. He’s far more confident, and certainly more vulnerable, when he allows himself to play the part. In such a way, songwriting opens up a whole new world that pulses with untapped potential. So much of what he has accomplished in 15 years resides in his willingness to expose himself to what his imagination and intuition have in store. He steps into a playwright’s shoes with considerable ease (just look at his resume), and always one to put on plenty of bravado, especially during our Zoom face-to-face, it’s the natural order of things.
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“As I get older and write more and more songs, I really recognize that I’ve always preferred to write for another context other than my own,” Criss tells American Songwriter. He speaks with a cool intensity, gesturing emphatically to accentuate a sentence, and when you let him go, he’s like the Energizer Bunny 一 “I can tell by just how quiet you already are that you’re fucked,” he jokes at the start of our video chat. But he remains just as engaged and focused when listening.
He soaks in the world, taking astute notes about behavior and emotional traits he can later use in song. His storytelling, though, arrives already in character, fully formed portraits he can then relay to the world. It’s not that he can’t be vulnerable, like such greats as Randy Newman, Tom Waits, and Rufus Wainwright, who have all embroidered their work with deeply personal observations, it just doesn’t feel as comfortable. “I’ve always really admired the great songwriters of the world who are extremely introspective and can put their heart and soul on the chopping block,” he muses. “That’s a vulnerability that I think is so majestic. I’ve never had access to it. I’m not mad about it. It’s just good to know what your deal is.”
Criss’ strengths lie in his ability to braid his own experiences, as charmed as they might be, into wild, goofy fantasies. In the case of his new series “Royalties,” now streaming on Quibi, he walks a fine line between pointed commentary on the music industry, from menial songwriting sessions to constantly chasing down the next smash, and oddball comedy that is unequivocally fun. Plotted with long-standing friends and collaborators Matt and Nick Lang, co-founders of Team StarKid, created during their University of Michigan days (circa 2009), the show’s conceptual nucleus dates back more than a decade.
If “Royalties” (starring Criss and Kether Donohue) feels familiar, that’s because it is. The 10-episode show ─ boasting a smorgasbord of delightful guest stars, including Mark Hammill, Georgia King, Julianna Hough, Sabrina Carpenter, and Lil Rel Howery ─ captures the very essence of a little known web series called “Little White Lie.” Mid-summer 2009, Team StarKid uploaded the shoddy, low budget production onto YouTube, and its scrappy tale of amateur musicians seeking fame and fortune quickly found its audience, coming on the heels of “A Very Potter Musical,” co-written with and starring Criss. Little did the trio know, those initial endeavors laid the groundwork for a lifetime of creative genius.
“It’s a full circle moment,” says Criss, 33, zooming from his Los Angeles home, which he shares with his wife Mia. He’s fresh-faced and zestful in talking about the new project. 11 years separate the two series, but their connective thematic tissues remain striking. “Royalties” is far more polished, the obvious natural progression in so much time, and where “Little White Lie” soaked in soapy melodrama, the former analyzes the ins and outs of the music world through more thoughtful writing, better defined (and performed) characters, and hookier original tunes.
“Royalties” follows Sara (Donohue) and Pierce (Criss), two struggling songwriters in Los Angeles, through various career exploits and pursuits. The pilot, titled “Just That Good,” features an outlandish performance from Rufus Wainwright as a major player in dance-pop music, kickstarting the absurdity of Criss’ perfectly-heightened reality. As our two main characters stumble their way between songwriting sessions, finally uncovering hit single potential while eating a hot dog, Criss offers a glimpse into the oft-unappreciated art of songwriting.
In his own songwriting career ─ from 2010’s self-released Human EP and a deal with Columbia Records (with whom a project never materialized) to 2017’s Homework EP and Computer Games’ debut, Lost Boys Life, (a collaboration with his brother Chuck) ─ he’s learned a thing or two about the process. Something about sitting in a room with someone you’ve never met before always rang a little funny to him.
“You meet a stranger, and you have to be creative, vulnerable, and open. It’s speed-dating, essentially. It’s a different episode every time you pull it off or not. All the big songwriters will tell you all these crazy war stories. Everyone has a wacky story from songwriting,” he says. “I slowly realized I may ─ I can’t flatter myself, there are tons of creative people who are songwriters ─ have prerequisites to just put the two together [TV and music]. I’ve worked enough in television as an actor and creator. I can connect the dots. I had dual citizenship where I felt like it was really time for me to go forth with this show.”
But a packed professional life pushed the idea to the backburner.
Between six seasons of “Glee” (playing Blaine Anderson, a Warbler and lover to Chris Colfer’s Kurt Hummel), starring in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” on Broadway, and creating Elsie Fest, a one-day outdoor festival celebrating songs of the stage and screen, he never had the time. “I was lucky enough to be busy,” he says. “As Team StarKid’s star was continuing to rise with me being separate from it, I was trying to think of a way to get involved again with songwriting.”
At one point, “Glee” had officially wrapped and his Broadway run was finished. It appeared “Royalties” may finally get its day in the sun. “I went to Chicago for a work pilgrimage with the Langs. We had a few days, and we put all our ideas on the map: every musical, feature film, show, graphic novel, and animated series we’ve ever thought of,” he says. “A lot of them were from the Langs; they were just things I was interested in as a producer or actor. We looked at all of them and made a top three.”
“Royalties” obviously made the cut.
Fast forward several years, Gail Berman’s SideCar, a production company under FOX Entertainment, was looking to produce a music show. Those early conversations, beginning at an otherwise random LA party, showed great promise in airlifting the concept from novel idea to discernible reality. Things quickly stalled, however, as they often do in Hollywood, but Criss had at least spoken his dreams into the universe.
“I finally had an outlet to put it into gear. It wasn’t until two to three years after that that things really locked in. We eventually made shorts and made a pilot presentation. We showed it to people, and it wasn’t until Quibi started making their presence known that making something seemed really appealing,” he says. “As a creator, they’re very creator-centric. They’re not a studio. They’re a platform. They are licensing IP much like when a label licenses an indie band’s album after the fact.”
Quibi has drawn severe ire over the last few months, perhaps because there is a “Wild Westness” to it, Criss says. “I think that makes some people nervous. Being my first foray into something of this kind, Quibi felt like a natural partner for us. If this had been a network or cable show, we would’ve molded it to be whatever it was.”
Format-wise, “Royalties” works best as bite-sized vignettes, charming hijinks through the boardroom and beyond, and serves as a direct response to a sea of music shows, from “Nashville” and “Empire” to “Smash.” “Those shows were bigger, more melodramatic looks at the inside base of our world. I’ve always been a goofball, and I just wanted to take the piss out of it,” he says. “This show isn’t about songwriting. It’s about songwriters… but a very wacky look at them.”
“30 Rock,” a scripted comedy loosely based around “Saturday Night Live,” in which the focus predominantly resides around the characters, rather than the business itself, was also on his mind. “It’s about the interconnectivity of the people and characters. As much of the insider knowledge that I wanted to put into our show, at the end of the day, you just want to make a fun, funny show that’s relatable to people who know nothing about songwriting and who shouldn’t have to know anything.”
Throughout 10 episodes, Criss culls the “musicality, fun, and humor” of Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger and Max Martin, two of his biggest songwriting heroes, and covers as many genres as possible, from K-Pop to rap-caviar and classic country. While zip-lining between formats, the songs fully rely on a sturdy storytelling foundation ─ only then can Criss drape the music around the characters and their respective trajectories. “I wanted to do something where I could use all the muscles I like to flex at once, instead of compartmentalizing them,” he says. “I really love writing songs for a narrative, not necessarily for myself. I thrive a little more when I have parameters, characters, and a story to tell.”
Bonnie McKee, one of today’s greatest pop architects, takes centerstage, too, with an episode called “Kick Your Shoes Off,” in which she plays a bizarro version of herself. “She has her own story, and I’ve always been fascinated by it,” says Criss, who took her out to lunch one day to tell her about it. Initially, the singer-songwriter, known for penning hits for Katy Perry, Taio Cruz, and Britney Spears, would anchor the entire show, but it soon became apparent she would simply star in her own gloriously zany episode.
In one of the show’s standout scenes, Pierce and Sara sit in on a label meeting with McKee’s character and are tasked with writing a future hit. But they quickly learn how many cooks are in the kitchen at any given moment. Everyone from senior level executives to publicists and contracted consultants have an opinion about the artist’s music. One individual urges her to experiment, while another begs not to alienate her loyal fanbase, and then a third advises her to chronicle the entire history of music itself ─ all within three minutes or so. It’s absurd, and that’s the point. “Everyone’s been in that meeting, whether you’re in marketing or any creative discussion that has to be made on a corporate level by committee. It’s the inevitable, comedic contradictions and dissociations from not only rationality but feasibility.”
Criss also draws upon his own major label days, having signed with Sony/Columbia right off the set of “Glee,” as well as second-hand accounts from close friends. “There are so many artists, particularly young artists, who famously get chewed up and spat out by the label system,” he says. “There’s a lot of sour tastes in a lot of people’s mouths from being ‘mistreated’ by a label. I have a lot of friends who’ve had very unfortunate experiences.”
“I was really lucky. I didn’t have that. I have nothing but wonderful things to say,” he quickly adds.“It wasn’t a full-on drop or anything. I was acting, and I was spreading myself really thin. It’s a record label’s job to make product, and I was doing it piecemeal here and there. I would shoot a season [of ‘Glee’] and then do a play. I was doing too many things. I didn’t have it in me at the time to do music. I had written a few songs I thought were… fine.”
Both Criss and the label came to the same conclusion: perhaps this professional relationship just wasn’t a good fit. They parted ways, and he harbors no ill-will. In fact, he remains close friends with many folks from that time. So, it seems, a show like “Royalties” satisfies his deep hunger to make music and write songs ─ and do it totally on his own terms.
“I still say I want to put out music, and fans have been very vocal about that. I feel very fortunate they’re still interested at all,” he says. “That passion for making music really does come out in stuff like [this show].”
Five years since his songwriting-based Emmy Award nomination (for “This Time” in the “Glee” series finale), he eyes an even bolder endeavor. “Royalties” is Darren Criss at his most playful, daring, and offbeat. It’s the culmination of everything he has tirelessly worked toward over the last decade and a half. Under pressure with a limited filming schedule, he hits on all cylinders with a soundtrack, released on Republic Records, that sticks in the brain like all good pop music should do. And it would not have been the same had he, alongside Matt and Nick Lang, not formed Team StarKid 11 years ago.
Truth be told, it all began with a “Little White Lie.”