Rewind to summer 2015. YouTube darling Todrick Hall is stepping out. He’s landed a major entertainment manager in Scooter Braun. He’s premiering his own MTV reality show in August.
The young man from Plainview, Texas, whose mother had to drive him as a kid two hours, both ways, for his ballet classes is now poised to enter the glittering infamy of Hollywood success.
Speed up the tape to 2016. Hall, 31, has lost his manager, his MTV show, and failed to land the part of Scarecrow on NBC’s The Wiz Live!
“Over the past year, I’ve gone through some real-life problems,” he tells Out. “I wanted to create something to make people think about life and look at life through a different set of glasses—some that aren’t so rose-colored.”
Out of his “frustrations with the entertainment industry,” Hall created Straight Outta Oz. The hour-long visual album parallels his life story with the classic tale of Dorothy embarking on her journey into a promising, magical realm.
“The Wizard of Oz has been my favorite story since I was little kid,” he says. “I’ve watched it countless times. I can quote every single line. I never knew how much I identified with the character of Dorothy. I always wanted to find a place that was more colorful, more accepting.”
The openly gay, black performer found early fame on YouTube with his poppy, resplendent mashups of Disney classics and contemporary hits, such as “Mickey Minaj” or his several parodies of Mean Girls. However, he always dreamed of making his mark in “the business”—believing that the West Coast offered his only chance at a big break.
“I realized how much I wanted all this success in my life, and I was looking to someone else to make my dreams come to life,” he says. “I didn’t know I had the power to do them all along. I needed to learn that for myself.”
The album features 17 original songs, ranging from heart-melting ballads to harsher hip-hop slams. Hall is also taking Straight Outta Oz on a 30-city tour kicking off July 7 in Vancouver. The tour will have six original songs that weren’t included on the visual album.
“I wanted there to be some edge to the show,” he says, “something for people to look forward to.”
Straight Outta Oz is nothing but edge, honed razor-sharp—a clean sever from the fluffier world of Hall’s past work. While Hall’s playful aesthetic—what he describes as a cross of “Katy Perry, Pee-wee Herman, and Willy Wonka”—still comes through in the Oz fantasy, each song bleeds as Hall confronts his first love with a man, his conservative family roots, his fallout with his mother, and the perils of navigating Hollywood as a black, gay man.
“There just weren’t roles being written for someone like me,” he says. “I have no problem with stereotypical African-American roles or stereotypical gay roles. I’m not one of those guys who waves his flag and says gay guys can’t be hairdressers in TV shows. But we should be able to do more than that, and gay men should take on leading roles as leading men. We’re all still waiting for a wizard to come along and give us permission to go out and chase our dreams.”
Hall quit waiting. He wrote and produced Straight Outta Oz in about six weeks. That impossibly tight schedule speaks both to Hall’s mammoth talent and the strong network of star power standing by him.
The visual album includes performances from drag superstars Alaska, Willam, Kim Chi, Laganja Estranja and Mariah; fellow YouTube sensation Pentatonix; Glee alum Amber Riley, who plays Hall’s mother; RuPaul's Drag Race winner Bob the Drag Queen; Perez Hilton; American Idol winner Jordin Sparks; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
“The last six weeks have been nothing short of a cyclone,” Hall says. “In the last two weeks, people came in with no idea what they were singing or what they were a part of beyond one little chapter. I honestly didn’t know it was all going to come together until the night before it released.”
Most of the stars donated their time to the project because they trusted Hall and they respected his audience.
“To be willing to donate your time for something like this, that speaks volumes about the power of social media and how the industry is changing,” he says. “We’d be having a very different conversation if Fox or NBC helped me produce this because there would have been 10 different people in the room with their own egos trying to take ownership. Today’s kids, the ones watching us, they can see that.”
The bare authenticity of Straight Outta Oz peeks through the fantasy in every song, but breaks out completely in “Water Guns”—the song featuring Sparks that tackles gun violence.
Hall, a former Idol contestant, wrote the song the night before singer Christian Grimmie was shot and killed in Orlando.
“The energy at the shoot the next day was so real, so heavy, so current in people’s hearts. Jordin brought so much heart to it,” he says.
The next day, the Pulse nightclub shooting killed 49 LGBTs and allies in Orlando. Hall couldn’t afford to rent the camera again to include “We Are Orlando” in the video. So he sat next to his phone thinking of ways to ask for another donation. The phone rang before he could call.
“The camera was donated to us for free,” he says. “They called me before I could call them. Everyone came back for a few more hours to include ‘We Are Orlando’ in the song.”
That kind of heart and respect for talent pushed the album to No. 2 in the nation after releasing—second only to Beyoncé. The visual album has over 1 million views in just a week. Most of those views likely belong to Hall’s mother.
“She’s probably watching it right now,” he says, laughing.
Riley delivers two songs as Hall’s mother in Plainview, Texas. Hall describes his time there as “the African-American version of Billy Elliot.”
“My mom was my best friend,” he says. “When I came out, that was a huge strain on our relationship. We got into a lot of fights. We didn’t talk for half a year. She called every single day, though. She left messages. She kept telling me she would fight a bear underwater for me—something that she’s been saying since I was kid. She’s so proud of what we’ve done.”
As Hall prepares for his tour, he looks over his life journey, chronicled in these songs. He speaks with the fatigue of travel and rehearsal, but there’s a steady confidence to his tone—the self-assurance of someone who has shaken off emerald-tinged artifice to discover his own artistry.
“I’m just this kid from Texas trying to make a name for myself,” he says. “And I’m doing it through mutual respect. That’s what I have with these performers and my audience. That’s what turned a self-produced musical from a gay man into a chart-topping album in just the first week. Every single person did what they could. That’s what really warms my heart.”