My Wednesday last week offered no evidence that it would be anything but normal — that was, until I found myself opening an e-mail from one of the original StarKids, Brian Holden, a 2008 Music, Theatre & Dance alum, inviting me to come to their rehearsal to interview the group. I have made multiple friends through a shared love of the group. Their shows helped remind me how much I love the theatre, and their humble start at the University left me with the hope that I, too, could create and stage my own show — which I did. So it’s pretty safe to say StarKid has had a pretty big impact on my life. I immediately cleared my to-do list, rearranged my work schedule and conveniently forgot about my classes.
For those who don’t know, StarKid is a theatre group that originated here at the University in 2009 when they performed their original musical, “A Very Potter Musical,” a parody of the Harry Potter series. They uploaded the show to YouTube, and soon the group of college friends found themselves launched into Internet fame. The production is still their most popular with more than 11 million views, but they have gone on to do many other successful parodies. The group has since moved to Chicago, and while it has added members over the years, it’s still made up almost entirely of University alumni, including “Glee” star Darren Criss.
It didn’t take long for me to make my way to the Power Center, and then suddenly I was in the room and shaking Brian’s hand and he was introducing me to the entire group. Darren was the first to stop and introduce himself, shaking my hand and letting me know he was there to help with whatever I may need. I returned the handshake with a polite smile and pretended as though I didn’t already know his name and I wasn’t a huge fan. This would eventually become a theme throughout the day.
I sat and observed for about 20 minutes until I noticed Lauren Lopez, a 2009 Music, Theatre & Dance alum, taking a break. Lauren is best known for her portrayal of Draco Malfoy in “A Very Potter Musical,” but she has been with StarKid from the beginning and has starred in almost every production. I approached slowly, asking what made her want to come back and do the reunion show.
“There wasn’t even a question,” she said. “It was an immediate yes, because the chance to come back to Ann Arbor, not only come back but to come back with a group of friends that I’ve known for 10 years, who we all share a college experience, and to come back to the place where literally all of this started is super special. It is just a really special opportunity.”
Very quickly, Nick Lang, 2008 Music, Theatre & Dance alum, called Lauren back up on stage, but my first StarKid interview was a good start. Nick was taking on the role of director for the concert, but he is best known for writing the StarKid shows, along with his brother, 2010 LSA alum Matt Lang. Others have assisted with the writing on different shows, but Nick and Matt are the only ones whose names can be found on every StarKid script.
The group received a break a few minutes later and Lauren came back over to talk to me. Moments later, Joey Richter, 2011 Music, Theatre & Dance alum, and Dylan Saunders, 2009 Music, Theatre & Dance alum, joined her and I was suddenly talking to a group of StarKids.
The Michigan Daily: So I asked Lauren already, but what made you guys decide to come back and do this reunion concert?
Joey Richter: Well …
Dylan Saunders: Because they asked us to.
Joey: It was kind of like a resounding …
Dylan: No duh.
Joey: Yeah. That happened a couple years ago when there was like the third Potter thing. When they were like, “Does everyone want to come back and do this together?” and we were like, “Yeah, absolutely.” And I think that a lot of it has to do with being able to be back here, too, because there’s a lot of us who haven’t gotten the chance to spend time with each other a lot over the past couple years, but we have been lucky enough to be able to do a lot of performances with StarKid all over places, but I think coming back together in Ann Arbor is something that we haven’t done since the concert tours. But then to actually perform in a school function thing is pretty cool. Not as a concert, but doing it like an actual show where we’re doing scenes from shows.
Dylan: Yeah, it’s good to be back in a spot where it’s etched forever. This is where we were developing a lot of this stuff, you know what I mean? It’s just cool after like a five-year break to be back in this exact space. It’s just like really wild and really fun.
Joey: And to be developing as human beings.
Dylan: Totally. To look back with a little “Oh, OK, I get it now.”
Lauren: To look back with a little perspective.
Dylan: Yeah. There’s a ton of that.
(Darren Criss sits and joins the conversation.)
TMD: What was the last show you guys remember doing on this stage?
Lauren: I was in a show called “J.B.” with Dylan. Dylan played J.B. It was a big deal.
Joey: I was in “Macbeth.”
Lauren: Don’t … you can’t say that in here!
Lauren: What’s wrong with you?
Darren: You totally can say it.
Lauren: No you can’t.
Joey: I was in “The Scottish Play.” We said the name during the play.
Lauren: Just forget it.
Joey: I was Banquo.
Dylan: Um, yeah. The last thing I did was “Tommy” and “Pride & Prejudice.”
Darren: You were so good in “Tommy.”
TMD: How do you feel the University helped get you where you are now?
Joey: Honestly, for me it just has everything to do with meeting the friends I met here. It’s like if I didn’t go to this University and meet all these friends and have all these people that are the only people I spend time with now in my life …
Lauren: My life would be 100 percent different.
Joey: Exactly. My life would be 100 percent different.
Dylan: As a foundation, this set the stage for everything that’s happened since. Like literally everything.
Darren: When I first went out to L.A. and started meeting people in the industry, it was predicated upon the fact that I went to Michigan.
Lauren: Yeah. U of M has such a crazy alumni network.
Dylan: All of our first agents went to Michigan.
Darren: I think this is the part where we’re supposed to talk about how great the School of Music was. I always feel bad when people are like, “What was the best part about Michigan?” and I go, “My friends, uh, the times I had.” It all has nothing to do with the actual institution. For most theatre people, artisan types, stereotypical kids from high school, they tend to gravitate toward small, liberal arts colleges because it’s just sort of the vibe of the school, it’s just a bit more typical. And somebody told me, “You can always make a big place small, you can’t make a small place big.” The cool thing about this school is, yeah, there are 30,000 kids running around and our class was anywhere from 16 to 20-odd people, so we had our tiny little community, and it was great.
Dylan: It was a tiny family within a giant operation.
Joey: It was like being in a mixed-gender sorority and fraternity.
Darren: So we had the small thing, and if the small thing ever got annoying, we had the big thing.
Dylan: And being able to switch back and forth is great, especially when you’re studying an art form. Do you know what I mean? Because you need a break sometimes.
Darren: Because there’s a huge chunk of people at this University who don’t know anything about theatre or the department, and I’m fine with that.
Dylan: Which is so fine. Which is all good because …
Darren: I don’t know things about certain parts of the math department, which is cool because when I’m on the bus, (I’m like), oh cool, you do what? Awesome. That’s amazing.
TMD: Has the dynamic changed in the group since you graduated?
Dylan: Other than geographically, I mean, not really.
Lauren: We’re all a tiny, tiny bit more mature, but other than that it’s pretty much the same.
Darren: We’re still dumb enough to be doing this, so that’s good.
Lauren: Yeah, we’re dumb in the right places.
TMD: Has being so spread out made it harder to keep doing projects together?
Dylan: I think so, but the advantage is that everything is ultimately produced for the Internet.
Joey: But then it’s always really special when it happens. It always feels like a reunion. It’s like every time we do do something, it’s that feeling: “Ahh, I get to see all these people again.”
TMD: Are you guys working on any upcoming projects?
Lauren: A lot of people are doing their own side projects.
Joey: I am going to be writing and producing a musical with my sketch group, the Tin Can Bros that Brian (Rosenthal) and Corey (Lubowich) are in, and that’s happening in L.A. in March. And we’re kick-starting that right now. Joe Walker is going to be in it and, like, a bunch of other friends, so that’s pretty fun.
Dylan: Yeah, it’s a lot of individual pursuits. I just finished a cartoon for Nickelodeon, which aired last week.
At this point, their short break was over and Lauren, Darren and Joey were all called back on stage to rehearse, so I made my way over to Jaime Lyn Beatty, 2010 Music, Theatre & Dance alum, who had just taken a seat after rehearsing “Rogues Are We” from StarKid’s 2012 musical “Holy Musical B@man!”
TMD: So what made you want to come back and do this reunion concert?
Jaime Lyn Beatty: This is like a dream come true. I think we all pretty much jump at any opportunity to come to Ann Arbor to be together so nothing made me. My own willpower and love for my friends.
TMD: How did the University help get you to where you are now?
Jaime: Basement Arts gave us and gave me the gumption to do stuff on my own, and to not be afraid to go against the big man and create something. The University is just a great place. It nurtures everyone’s abilities.
TMD: Is it strange having your friendships out there in the world for other people to comment on?
Jaime: It’s really weird.
Dylan: Um, yeah. There was an aspect of a lot of what we did where we were just ourselves, so like you’re presenting a version of yourself.
Jaime: It’s like a caricature of yourself out there.
TMD: Have you had any truly memorable fan experiences?
Jaime: Fans make the most beautiful art. I’ve saved every single letter I’ve ever been given. And that’s just the most touching. Everybody shows their love and geeks out about it in their own way. Oh, one girl gave us a tiger whisker on tour. Sometimes we’ll get weird, funky gifts.
Dylan: I actually got a handmade, beautiful Michigan-color quilt once. The stories I think are the most memorable to me are the ones about people who meet as a result of the group. People who forge friendships because they met each other on some kind of online forum or at a show or at a concert. That’s the coolest to me. At the end of the day, if we can create connections with other people and allow that to live on, that’s pretty special, I think.
TMD: What do you think has been your favorite role?
Dylan: Oh man. There’s so many factors that go into it but I think in terms of where we were as people and where we were as a company, I’d probably have to say it was in “Starship,” and I played a character called Tootsie Noodles that was based on my actual persona in a lot of ways. It was like written in some respects after things I had actually said, and it was also the first time we had left Ann Arbor and were doing it on our own, so it felt pretty special to be able to create completely original work in a new city and try to ingratiate ourselves into the city in that way.
TMD: What do you love the most about being a part of StarKid?
Dylan: (Stopping to laugh at the rehearsal of a scene) This. I can look up and see people that I haven’t seen in years and you fall right back into a routine of performing and of camaraderie and of friendship. And then I also love that it kind of exists, for me at least, in a bit of a bubble. We do it for 48 hours and it’s beautiful and then I’m home. It’s crazy how transient it is but also how important it is.
Jaime: Because I’m an only child, this is the closest I’ve ever come to siblings.
TMD: You guys have parodied a lot of big things, like “Harry Potter,” Disney, “Star Wars” and DC Comics. Is there anything you’d love to parody?
Dylan: A new parody? Oh man, I’ve always wanted to see StarKid do a revamped “Little Shop of Horrors” and bring back some of the puppets and puppeteering. I’d probably also want to parody something from the ’80s like a “Ferris Bueller” or “Home Alone.” Like, take some of the tropes from ’80s coming-of-age stories and spin them on their head. I’ve always wanted to see “Back to the Future” as a musical, too. Yeah, a “Back to the Future” parody would be pretty wild cause you’ve got three stories right there to make into a show.
It was around this time that the dinner break was announced and I realized I had already spent three hours with StarKid. I didn’t want to be bothersome, but after Dylan invited me, I needed no further convincing to join. It ended up being one of the most entertaining and strangest experiences I’ve ever had. Multiple people stopped at the table to chat and ask for photos. And none of them seemed to care that I wasn’t a StarKid. I was sitting at the table, which meant I was going to be in the pictures. I still can’t imagine getting used to such an occurrence, but everyone handled each fan encounter with poise and politeness.
After the break, we returned to the Power Center, where the tech team was preparing to start a cue-to-cue and the costume designer was helping everyone get into his or her first costume. I found Nick sitting off to the side on his own, so I grabbed a seat in the row behind him and asked if he had a chance to chat. He said he refused to believe that the show had sold out, and that he had never expected StarKid to have the impact it has had.
“I don’t accept that that is real,” he said. “I’m continuously surprised that people like it.”
As the night wore on, it became harder and harder to conduct more interviews. The cue-to-cue turned into a soft run of the full show, so the cast was running all over the place. I was a little disappointed I wasn’t going to be able to speak with every StarKid member, but luckily, toward the end, Joe Walker, a 2009 Music, Theatre & Dance alum who is best known for playing Voldemort in “A Very Potter Musical,” found a few free minutes and sat down to speak with me.
Walker mentioned that he is moving to L.A. to star in Joey Richter’s new musical, and he said that this show felt like “a retrospective” on the last five years of his life. I asked him what he loved most about being a StarKid.
“The jokes,” he replied. “I think our stuff is funny and it makes me laugh. That’s why I did it in the first place. Five or six years is a really long time to do one creative endeavor, but no matter what, I’ll hear a joke that was written five, six years ago for whatever, and I’ll go ‘God that is so stupid and funny,’ you know. It’ll really make me laugh. So I think that’ll be the thing that I’ll always love.”
And thus ended my final StarKid interview. I continued watching their rehearsal until the end, finally emerging from the Power Center at 10:30 p.m., almost nine hours after I arrived. As I walked home, I was struck by the fact that StarKid was truly just a group of friends trying to make each other laugh and who never imagined that one day, millions of people would know their names and be invested in their lives. It was remarkable and unforgettable to be at the center of it all.