Darren Criss crosses over

Fri Nov 19, 2010 7:19pm EST

LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - When Fox TV show "Glee" placed No. 6 on Billboard's 2010 Maximum Exposure list, the show's impact was measured by the number of soundtrack albums sold and digital songs downloaded. After only one season on the air, it was premature to measure how its popularity might influence the careers of its individual performers.

But less than halfway through the second season, we have an inkling. On the November 9 episode of "Glee," singer/songwriter/actor Darren Criss, 23, debuted as the character Blaine and performed a rendition of Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream." Within a week, "Dream" became the show's single with the best sales week to date, tallying 200,000 downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Criss then sold out a November 13 performance with his band at a Los Angeles nightclub and added an acoustic solo performance that same night. Videos from those gigs aired on celebrity news TV show "Access Hollywood" with photos appearing afterward on several online gossip sites.

So the question is: How do you transition from Internet flavor of the week into something more substantial?

For Criss, it happened the new old-fashioned way: He signed on as a regular "Glee" cast member, which means routine screen time in ongoing storylines between now and the end of the third season. In a nod to the network's belief in the popular show, "Glee" has already been greenlit for a third season. The series will also start airing in syndication on Oxygen in 2011, an extraordinarily early pickup for a program.

"I would be a fool to want to leave it any time soon," Criss says, acknowledging that "Teenage Dream" was a perfect mix of promotion and plot. Criss' character is a gay student at a rival school to McKinley High who feels an immediate attachment to gay glee club member Kurt, played by Chris Colfer.

"I attribute the success of the track to so many other factors besides myself," Criss adds. "First of all, it's an amazing song -- a fantastic golden single. Then they had it arranged by the ever-delicious Beelzebubs from Tufts University. And on top of it, they gave it to the character that everybody likes to speculate about."

Instead of parlaying his exposure on the show into a traditional record deal, Criss opted to sign with "Glee," which has an ongoing first-look deal with Columbia to release the solo work of its regular cast members. Before "Dream," however, Criss had landed three times this year on Billboard's charts.

He co-wrote the music and lyrics to "Me and My Dick," a production by the theater group at the University of Michigan, which entered Top Cast Albums at No. 11. His digital-only "Human" EP debuted at No. 30 on Heatseekers Albums in July, while "A Very StarKid Album," named after Criss' college production company, debuted at No. 19 on Top Compilations.

After Criss' appearance on "Glee," "Human" re-enters Heatseekers Albums at No. 17; it has sold 4,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Meanwhile, his college production of "A Very Potter Musical" -- Criss plays a guitar-slinging Harry Potter -- gained almost 1 million additional YouTube views.

But neither his YouTube fame nor his previous TV role -- a 2009 five-episode arc in CBS' "Eastwick" -- gave Criss the immediate boost that resulted from about 10 minutes of "Glee" screen time in an episode watched by an average of 10.8 million people, according to Nielsen. And when it comes to growing his fan base, it may help that even before "Glee," Criss' own musical sensibility fit the show's cheeky pop reconstructions.

"When I play live in restaurants and cafes, I don't play my own stuff," he says. "I play jazz and American Songbook standards, and I'll fuse it with top 40. I've had people come up to me after I play a Britney Spears record, and they're like, 'Is that Doris Day?' Uh, nope."

(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

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