It’s a twentysomething sci-fi geek’s dream: Move to a big city after college with your best friends, live together, and forgo underpaying, soul-sucking desk jobs to watch movies all day. Chicago newbies who call themselves Team StarKid are doing just that—and they’re writing a full-length, original musical while they’re at it.
The recent University of Michigan theater grads became viral sensations last year when their student-produced plays—the Harry Potter parodies A Very Potter Musical and A Very Potter Sequel—scored 55 million YouTube views and their show Me and My Dick (about a guy’s relationship with his, um, special friend) hit No. 11 on Billboard’s Top Cast Albums chart. Oh, and one of their founding members is Glee star Darren Criss, who recently shot to fame with his cover of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.”
Last fall, a dozen or so members of the troupe—not including Criss, whose Glee character was made a series regular in November—ditched day jobs in New York and L.A. and moved to Chicago to work on their new musical, Starship. Why here? “Most of us are from the Midwest, and Chicago is a really supportive theater town, so it made sense,” says Brian Holden, who wrote Starship’s book with longtime pals Joe Walker and brothers Nick and Matt Lang, who also directs.
The play premieres this week at the Center on Halsted’s Hoover-Leppen Theater, marking a couple of firsts: The StarKids have never mounted a show as a professional company (or outside of Ann Arbor), and they’ve never produced one on their own dime. “We actually had to rent a theater, buy costumes and pay actors not provided by the university,” says Holden, adding that the crew lives on savings from post-college jobs (Holden was a soda jerk in an L.A. Disney restaurant; Walker, a Manhattan bellhop). “We’re dealing with big-kid stuff,” Criss, who penned the show’s music and lyrics, adds by phone from L.A.
The Starship seed was planted in Criss and Walker’s college apartment four years ago when the self-proclaimed sci-fi fanboys were joking about making a musical based on the 1997 movie Starship Troopers, about an outer-space war between humankind and an arachnid species. “I thought it would be funny because Neil Patrick Harris is in the movie and he’s a big Broadway guy,” Criss recalls. “I was envisioning tap-dancing bugs.” The idea was shelved to make room for other projects—the Potter musicals, Dick, a Lord of the Rings spoof—but Criss kept at it. “He’d write little ditties and say, ‘This is for Starship!’ ” Walker recalls. “I’d say, ‘Ha, ha. That thing will never happen.’ ”
After years of talking about Starship, the StarKids—who formed the company in 2009, after bonding over Arrested Development reruns—began bringing it to life last September. Holden, Walker and the Lang brothers logged 12-hour days, churning out drafts from their Irving Park apartment; actors Lauren Lopez and Julia Albain scouted spaces. “I literally Googled ‘cheap theater,’ ” Lopez says. Meanwhile, Criss lent feedback via Skype chats and wrote the score on guitar and piano. “It’s very Top 40,” he says of the music, which was inspired by ’90s Disney flicks (think Alan Menken’s scores for Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin). “We wanted to keep that fantastical quality, but there’s definitely an adult bent.”
Starship, which takes place in the future on a distant planet inhabited by life-size bugs—aptly called Bug World—is a sci-fi fan’s love letter to the genre: It draws largely from Starship Troopers, with bits of Star Trek and early-20th-century novels We and Star Maker, which Walker and Holden read in a sci-fi lit class. The 13-actor play centers on hive-outcast Bug, who’s spent most of his life exploring a human starship that crashed on Bug World 20 years prior. “He’s an individual; he doesn’t like to eat poo like the other bugs,” Holden says. When another human starship lands on Bug World, Bug’s loyalty is tested. “It’s kind of like Little Mermaid meets Aliens.”