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The StarKids Are All Right: The rise of a 'U' theater troupe from the Basement to the national stage

By Kavi Shekhar Pandey, Senior Arts Editor
Published November 2, 2011

About two years ago, in a basement on a North Campus far, far away, a group of friends from the University’s theater program put on “A Very Potter Musical,” a lovingly witty tribute to The Boy Who Lived and his wizarding pals. Inadvertently, the musical’s international fame blossomed, and its creators, members of the group now called StarKid, followed up with the legendary Basement Arts performances “Me and My Dick” and “A Very Potter Sequel.”

The founding members of StarKid, who are all alumni of the University’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, have moved base camp to Chicago, where they continue to put on original musicals like last February’s “Starship.” But tomorrow night, the crew will return home to the Michigan Theater for the opening leg of their S.P.A.C.E. (StarKid Precarious Auditory Concert Experience) tour.

Everyone knows the fame: Darren Criss in “Glee” and his impending succession of Daniel Radcliffe’s role on Broadway. Everybody knows the numbers: The group’s channel has more than 100 million views on YouTube. But the story behind their rise to global stardom reveals how truly remarkable and down to earth these StarKids are.

A StarKid is born

The beginning of StarKid can be traced back to a Basement Arts stage adaptation of one of the great fantasy tales of our time — no, not “Harry Potter” (that came later), but “The Hobbit.” Back in 2006, then MT&D student Nick Lang pitched the idea to put on a “Hobbit” play to Basement Arts. The student group approved it, but that was before Lang had actually read the play. Once the script was in his hands, Lang realized it wasn’t good and decided to rewrite it — which is against the rules of Basement Arts.

“But that’s a big part of StarKid,” said 2009 alum Joe Walker. “Doing whatever the hell we need to make the show good.”

“The Hobbit” begat April 2008’s production of “The Hobbit 2: The Lord of the Rings” which featured much of the current StarKid cast, including 2009 alum Lauren Lopez as Frodo Baggins, 2008 alum Brian Holden as Aragorn and Walker as Boromir, Faramir and their father Denethor (who Walker calls the “asshole humans”). While Lang’s version of “The Hobbit” toed the line between proper story and parody, this production was more explicit in its absurdity — Sauron was defeated by tying his shoes together (delayed spoiler alert), for one.

Alas, there’s no opportunity for StarKid fans to see a video of the “Lord of the Rings” adaptation, but the show succeeded in developing a working relationship among the StarKids-to-be and making an impression on those who weren’t directly involved with the play.

“I’m a year behind, so my freshman year I saw the show and thought, ‘Holy shit, that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen,’ ” said 2011 alum Joey Richter, who would go on to play Ron Weasley in the “Potter” musicals.

At this point, there was no conception that the actors were in some sort of troupe — they just took classes and were friends with each other in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Walker and Richter described the theater program as a “small fraternity” where everyone, if not friends, at least knew each other.

Meanwhile, the concept of a “Harry Potter” musical had been bubbling in the minds of brothers Matt and Nick Lang (graduates in 2010 and 2008, respectively) for years. Some of the key gags that would appear in the musical were jokes they had been floating around, and these ideas eventually drove the creation of a definitive script. The writers — the Lang brothers and Holden — were savvy of the acting skills of close friends and classmates and often wrote the parts to fit the strengths of the actors they had in mind, a tactic they often practice in current productions.

The premiere date for the “Harry Potter” musical was set for April 2009, and the weeks leading up to the show were as haphazard as one would expect from a student production. For starters, much of the cast was in another play two weeks before opening night — a show called “Summertime,” directed by 2009 alum Julia Albain (who’s also directing the current tour) — which trimmed the rehearsal schedule to about a fortnight. While everyone else was tied up with the show, Walker and 2011 alum Brian Rosenthal spent the time knocking out their scenes as Voldemort and Quirrell, fine-tuning the tricky blocking that comes with standing back to back for most of the first act, with their heads sharing the neck hole of a single robe.

Once the rest of the cast was done with “Summertime,” the next two weeks were a mad rush to make sure the show would be ready in time for the premiere. Criss had to use the time to nail his lead role and finish writing all the music and lyrics with 2011 alum A.J. Holmes. Holmes completed the last song — “Voldemort is Going Down” — two days before opening night.

“My dad had come into town to visit, and he came in to watch one of our rehearsals on the Monday of the week of the show,” Richter said. “He looked at me after rehearsal and said, ‘You guys sure you’re going to go up on Thursday? You don’t want to give yourselves one more day?’ ”

But aside from a few minor miscues, the first show — which was the first time it was performed seamlessly without stopping — was a success. The Basement Arts audiences were treated to the magic of Voldemort dancing a jig, Ron’s endless caloric intake and Draco Malfoy (played by Lopez) slithering around on stage, and the cast and crew went home happy.

“We didn’t even expect people to show up to the show,” Richter said. “It was just for fun, and even after the show it was an, ‘OK, that was fun. It’s over. What a good time we had.’ ”

The video that launched a million hits

The decision to put the “Harry Potter” musical on YouTube was motivated by geographic and economic necessity. The mostly graduated cast had gone off to start careers in New York City and Los Angeles and wanted to be able to share the show with friends and family, so the cheapness and convenience of YouTube was preferable to creating and distributing DVDs.

Their stardom ignited when links to the videos were sent to friends at “Harry Potter” news sites, including MuggleNet and The Leaky Cauldron. With the huge traffic and influence of these websites in the Harry Potter fan community — along with the impending theatrical release of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” just weeks later — the videos became an instant sensation.

At the time, Walker was making a road trip from Los Angeles to New York and deciding which city to settle in.

“Literally the day after I left L.A. they put it up on YouTube, and by the time I got into New York, it had 300,000 views,” Walker said.

Other cast members couldn’t stay away from the computer, constantly checking the number of views.

“Every day, I was like, ‘Oh, but this is where people will forget about us,’ ” Lopez said. “Every time the numbers went up and up and up on the views, I thought, ‘But this is the cap. It can’t get any higher,’ and it kept going.”

The true brunt of their fame hit the cast later that summer when some of the actors decided to go to the “Harry Potter” convention Azkatraz in San Francisco.

“Right as we walked into the main entrance there were people who knew us,” said 2009 alum Dylan Saunders, who played Dumbledore in the “Potter” musicals. “It was very jarring … they had this ‘I’ve seen you on YouTube’ kind of aura.”

Holden, who co-wrote all the StarKid productions and played Remus Lupin in “A Very Potter Sequel,” recalled an impromptu performance they did at the convention.

“One day, Darren had his guitar, and we did a little sing-along with 50 people,” Holden said. “And we were like ‘50 people, holy shit!’ We were just thrilled … that had never happened to us before.”

It was eerily familiar, this sudden realization that people knew who these University students were — it almost seemed to parallel Harry’s revelation in “Sorcerer’s Stone” that everyone in the wizarding community knew who he was.

The production originally had the generic moniker, “Harry Potter, the Musical,” But when the videos were uploaded on YouTube, StarKid discovered the name broke copyright laws, so the videos were taken down and retitled “A Very Potter Musical.”

This was also around the time the group took on the name StarKid. The YouTube user name and Twitter handle were created as “StarKidPotter,” a reference to Draco’s line in “A Very Potter Musical”: “Look at this, look at rocket ship Potter! Starkid Potter, moon shoes Potter, traversing the galaxy for intergalactic travels to Pigfarts!” The name stuck.

Fall came, and the creative forces behind the production wanted to tap into this newfound fame and momentum. The newly dubbed Team StarKid put on the musical “Me and My Dick” in October 2009, starring Richter as a (presumably) fictional version of himself and Walker as his titular appendage. The show was based on a rough version called “The Penis Play” created during the annual “24 Hour Theater” display in fall 2008.

The soundtrack to “Me and My Dick” was a raging success, debuting on the Billboard Top Cast Album chart at number 11. More importantly, it proved StarKid had an audience beyond what its members had imagined.

“That was like, ‘Oh, they’re actually looking at our other work, and it’s not just Harry Potter-related,’ ” said 2010 alum Jamie Lyn Beatty, who played Sally in the show. “ ‘Me and My Dick’ is as far as you can get from a Harry Potter musical, and we still got people tuning in and watching and singing the songs and listening to the album.”

The next step was “A Very Potter Sequel,” continuing the adventures of Harry, Ron and Herman — pardon — Hermione through song and dance. And though StarKid was now on the map, the group didn’t fret about higher expectations.

“The first one was such a fuck-around, (it was hard to imagine) the idea that now there’s an expectation,” Walker said. “If such a high bar was set by accident, you go, ‘Can’t be that hard of a bar to meet.’ ”

“A Very Potter Sequel” was performed in May 2010, with production starting after classes ended so the student cast members could rehearse and perform without schoolwork on their minds. The video for the sequel premiered later that summer at the Harry Potter convention Infinitus in Orlando, eternally gracing the world with Severus “Butt Trumpet” Snape (2009 alum Joe Moses) and Walker as uber-man Umbridge.

To Chicago and beyond

When the Potter sequel was done, the future of StarKid wasn’t immediately clear.

“We were all pretty depressed,” Beatty said. “We were like, ‘Gosh, we are at our happiest when we’re with each other and when we’re performing these shows … In an ideal world wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all create a mini-Ann Arbor somewhere else, just do these shows for the rest of our lives?’ ”

These wishes soon came true, as members of Starkid decided to take a giant leap and continue the company beyond the University. Last fall, members relocated to Chicago, a city with an established, youth-driven theater scene and a relatively affordable lifestyle, and where members could focus on productions rather than balance full-time jobs to pay rent.

StarKid’s first independent production premiered last February, a “Starship Troopers”-riffing space odyssey called “Starship.” The show continued the streak of success, selling out within a matter of days, but the professional world came with brand new challenges.

“It was the first time we had to rent the theater, we had to insure the theater, first time we had to pay the actors and design a full-fledged set,” Saunders said. “There were a lot of ingredients that … we had to suddenly come up with on our own.”

This past summer, StarKid returned to Orlando for the “Harry Potter” convention LeakyCon, performing for a crowd of almost 3,000 fans — a nice bump from the audience of 50 two years ago. In the spring, the group performed alongside the Gregory Brothers of “Double Rainbow” fame, and the fun of the mini-tour inspired StarKid to put on a tour of its own.

After the opening night of the S.P.A.C.E. tour tomorrow, StarKid will continue on to 14 cites, concluding in New York City and reuniting with Criss for that performance. The tour features a cast of seven including Lopez, Richter, Walker, Saunders, Holden, Beatty and 2009 alum Meredith Stepien. To open each leg of the tour, they’re bringing along 2009 alum and singer Charlene Kaye and her band.

“This is a chance for us to really celebrate what we’ve been able to do over the last three years, to celebrate the fans and thank them,” Albain said. “We couldn’t do it if we didn’t have this incredible fan base.”

As Richter noted, StarKid’s ability to fill a void in the heart of Harry Potter fandom led to its initial success.

“Our play kind of came around at this really opportune time to garner a fan base, because it’s a fan base looking for more things to be a fan of,” he said. “We came at this pristine moment where it was like ‘Man, all the books are done, we have nothing else … But what is this?’ ”

StarKid provided that something else, an enchanting experience made for fans by fans — the tenets for triumph in today’s viral video world. The viral platform is a medium in which stars vanish as quickly as they appear, but StarKid has sustained its success by tapping into the hearts of its fans. For starters, the term “StarKid” refers not only to the members of the performance troupe, but to its fans as well.

“We call (the fans) StarKid, they call us StarKid,” Holden said. “It really does help break down the separation between us.”

The legacy of StarKid is yet unwritten — part of it may be the “Potter” musicals, part of it may be “Me and My Dick” or another gut-busting musical in the future — but much of it will certainly be about the group’s role as torchbearer in a world where the division between fan and creator is increasingly indistinguishable.

Correction Appended: An earlier version of this article stated that Darren Criss wrote the song “Voldemort is Going Down.”