Darren Criss readies festival celebrating musical theater

NEW YORK — Darren Criss says adding "Emmy winner" to his name feels good since it "used to be Emmy loser."

Criss won best actor in a limited series for his acclaimed role in "The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story" last month. He was previously nominated for best original song for writing "This Time" from "Glee."

"Maybe my posture's gotten a little straighter. It's certainly a very flattering feather in my cap. I don't think it means I'm going to work any harder, or work any less harder than I already am," he said in an interview this week.

He's excited, though, that it could help the music festival he created — Elsie Fest — gain new fans: "If it means more people are interested in taking a chance on something like Elsie, awesome!"

The fourth annual Elsie Fest, which blends the musical theater and pop music worlds, takes place Sunday in New York's Central Park.

"I was the only guy that I knew that had as seasoned of a dual citizenship between this sort of Broadway/cabaret/musical theater world, which isn't just about performing; it's about knowing the people and the culture and where that culture has presence in other areas of culture," said 31-year-old Criss, who has starred in Broadway's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," as well as appearing in numerous TV shows and films.

"So between that and working in rock venues and actually being a musician and touring places and knowing how to package a tour with an artist, I started seeing these margins of disconnect between worlds that should be pretty similar. These are all artists that are storytellers that have chosen different kingdoms to speak their language. And I started to realize that there was a disconnect and I wanted to put them together.

Sutton Foster — who won Tonys for "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Violet" and stars on the hit TV series "Younger" — will headline the festival. Other performers include singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, former "Glee" stars Matthew Morrison and Alex Newell, voice actress and singer Jodi Benson, Casey Cott of "Riverdale" fame, three-time Tony nominee Joshua Henry and "The Flash" actor Grant Austin. The festival, hosted by Z100's Elvis Duran, will also feature performances by the cast of the musicals "Be More Chill" and "The Prom" as well as the musical film "Anna and the Apocalypse." Marie's Crisis, the West Village piano bar, will host singalongs on its stage.

Past Elsie Fest performers included entertainers who have successfully jumped from the Broadway stage to the pop charts to TV and movies, including Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Evan Rachel Wood, Todrick Hall, Lea Michele, Tituss Burgess and Pasek and Paul.

"I think three or four years ago it was a pain in the (butt) to try to explain this to people because there was no precedent for it, so not only to festival-goers but to artists and investors there was sort of this uphill climb," Criss said.

"If we were starting a huge rock festival or pop festival, you can reference other things and other models that people can latch on to categorize what we're trying to do. We've set our own precedent and we're very proud of that and while it was frustrating in the beginning, the proof of concept just worked."

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Online: https://www.elsiefest.com

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