Todrick Hall Talks Visual Album 'Straight Outta Oz' & Hiding Who He Was on 'American Idol'
It's no easy feat pulling off a visual album Beyonce-style, but American Idol alum and YouTube medley master Todrick Hall was able to shoot 16 videos in two weeks for his latest offering Straight Outta Oz, a 57-minute-long opus inspired by his favorite film The Wizard of Oz.
His musical flick has already landed 1.3 million views on YouTube since its June 23 release, but grabbing eyeballs -- and ears -- is familiar territory for the Texas native. Pop starlets like Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift have co-signed his "4" medleys, in which he tackles a medley of an artist's hits as he sings and dances in four individual frames.
Packed with 20 original songs, Straight Outta Oz -- which he is performing in full across the country this summer -- spotlights his multiple talents while telling the tale of a dreamer who moves from his small-town roots in Plainview, Texas, to the shimmering city of "Oz Angeles." While stomping around in his sparkly red Timberland boots, he encounters shady business folk and morphs into different versions of the beloved Oz characters, including Dorothy, the Wicked Witch of the West, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man.
Musically, Hall also belts his heart out about love ("Color"), heartbreak ("If I Had a Heart"), money ("Expensive") and social issues ("Water Guns"). He even manages to squeeze in cameos and contributions from Amber Riley, Wayne Brady, Nicole Scherzinger and Jordin Sparks. Below, Hall discusses his love for Oz, how Idol made him decide to be openly gay and remembering Trayvon Martin, Christina Grimmie and victims of the Orlando shooting in his full-length feature.
What inspired you to deliver Straight Outta Oz as a visual album?
Well, I was so inspired by what Beyonce did with "Formation" and the Lemonade album. I also love Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is the genius who created Hamilton. I loved The Wizard of Oz so much to the point that I've gotten a full-sleeve tattoo of Wizard of Oz-inspired art. I've just always loved the story so much and I was like, "I would love to take this story and tell it in a way that my fans haven't seen me do it before." I've done three or four Wizard of Oz-themed videos but I also auditioned for The Wiz. I got so close to getting the [role of the] Scarecrow and I didn't get it. I was super depressed. Performers go and do auditions all the time and when you don't get them, it's like whatever but because it was The Wizard of Oz and that story is so special to me, I was like, "There's not a person in America who would want this role more than I would want it." I decided to turn all the negative things in my life into positives and was like "I didn't get The Wiz so I'm gonna go make my own version of The Wiz."
What is your earliest memory of The Wizard of Oz?
When I was a little kid, my mom showed [the film] to me and I thought it was called Cinderella because it was in the wrong box so I would always ask my mom to get Cinderella with the witch in it. I just always identified with Dorothy, being a misfit kid growing up Texas. I always knew that there was something bigger and better for me outside of the little black-and-white world that I lived in but it was just difficult for me to figure out. There was no internet and stuff then so it was difficult for me to realize where I wanted to go but I just knew I didn't really fit in there. And just my journey, my life is like, in some weird way, parallel to the journey I feel Dorothy had in [The Wizard of Oz].
In Straight Outta Oz, there's a lot to unpack. You bring up how your grandma said that the most important thing was Sunday service. How much was spirituality a part of your upbringing?
It was a huge part. My mom is the most Christian person I've ever met in my entire life. I've never heard her say a cuss word, never seen her drink anything, and I think she's genuinely like that. If she's faking it, she's the best actress in the world and she deserves the EGOT because there's no way that anybody could pretend that much. I lived with her for my whole life and so I had to sing every Sunday morning and I hated it. I hated having to sing at church because I just didn't like all the attention being on me. I was very shy as a kid, which is so weird. I didn't even remember that until I was watching the project that we did and I was looking at myself sing.
You could just tell I was like, "I'm so ready for this to be over." Church was a huge part [of my life] and I remember very vividly my dad teaching me at a very young age that being gay was wrong and that you could not make it into heaven if you were that. It was something that sat with me for a very long time. I was afraid. I had never really fully opened myself up to my first true love, because I was always afraid. I was always like, "I know that I'm a gay man. I know that I'm attracted to other men and I know that I'm in love with this guy but my religion won't let me marry him." And so I ended up breaking up with the person that I sing about in this show, and in large part, because of the religious aspects. I was always looking for a reason to break up with him. I wanted him to break up with me so I couldn't hurt him 'cause I was like, "I'll never to marry you. My family would never accept that." Now, I'm just so happy that I'm at a different place in life, and that I can look at people and say, "Yeah, I would marry that person" and that I'm allowed to legally. It's just such a privilege.
When did you decide that you would be openly gay?
After I was eliminated from American Idol. I remember being on there and Ryan Seacrest would ask me questions. I would stiffly wave and try to deepen my voice so that people wouldn't be like, "Oh, he's gay" even though some people knew. A lot of the little girls who were voting for me didn't and I was also encouraged by the Idol producers [to do so]. They were like, "Make sure you do things that appeal to middle America" and so the undertone of that was like, "Don't be 100 percent yourself because if you come off too gay, then it's not gonna work out in your favor." Adam Lambert did that same thing -- he was very himself, auditioned in a hoodie and then on the last episode, he had rhinestones all over. In the past four or five years, the world has changed so much. People are a lot more accepting of going on television and being who they are but after I got eliminated from the show, I promised myself I would never be on another show and not be myself because I felt like I got kicked off for being someone else. I don't know if America would've liked me or not because they never really got to know me and I never allowed them to. I just decided I would rather be slightly less famous or slightly less successful and be me, be a role model or hopefully someone to pave the way for some young black kid looking at me, because there were no black gay role models on television my whole life growing up.
Is that your goal?
I feel like I already am on accident. I was putting out videos thinking people wanted to see us twerking and stuff. Then I went on tour and was completely blown away by seeing the faces of the people who watch our videos. We all post pictures on Instagram, and they get likes but you don't ever really know who those likes are sometimes -- it just becomes a number. That happens with your YouTube views -- you see a million views but you don't really think about the magnitude of what a million people is. I've had over 350 million views on my channel. When I think about that number, it's mind-boggling to think that those are actual people watching [my videos].
When I'm meeting these kids on tour, they're telling me these stories and their dads are bringing their trans sons or trans daughters to the show or a mom is bringing her gay black son and saying, "You're the only person my kid watches and we had to come to this concert." It was just happening organically. But I took that responsibility on and changed my brand and tried to not say cuss words. And if I am saying a cuss word, there has to be a reason behind it like I'm playing a character who would feel this way. I don't just frivolously cuss online anymore because I just feel like there's a lot of responsibility that comes with all these millions of kids watching you.
In Straight Outta Oz, you touch on your relationship with your dad and how he said, "Black man teaches another black man to be a man." How has your relationship with your dad changed since you came into your own skin?
I didn't talk to my dad for probably 10 or 12 years and then he showed up at my concert last summer. That was the first time I had seen him in a long, long time. The dynamic has completely changed. My dad is so supportive now. He shows up to all my shows. Doesn't matter if he has to fly somewhere to do that. It's just really cool to see people come full circle because I think most people don't change. You can try to change people. All my girlfriends are coming to me as their GBF (gay best friend) to try to get love advice, and I'm like, "They're never gonna change. Don't try to change them. It's not gonna work!" But I feel like my dad has genuinely changed. He's a much better person, and I think he actually cares about me as his son, which was the most heartbreaking part of growing up. I felt like, how could you have a kid that was out doing all these things and just not care? You just don't care if he's alive, you don't call on his birthday, Christmas, you don't make sure I'm okay? My mom took care of me my whole life by herself. And when they do come around, you're like, "Why do you feel entitled to be my father?" But I think our relationship is in a really good place -- he knows his place, he doesn't overstep his boundaries, he doesn't try to come back and rekindle or re-fix or stitch together something that took 30 years to build. He just is trying to find his place in my life, and I think that's all you can ask for any human -- to do the best that they can. I truly genuinely believe that he's doing that now.
You also pay tribute to Christina Grimmie and Trayvon Martin in "Water Guns." How have current events hit close to home for you?
Christina was a part of the YouTube community so me and my friends knew her. I'd never worked with her, but I met her a couple of times, and she was just an amazing person. I sang at Pulse Nightclub and performed there probably three or four times in the past two years. I'm there all the time, I know all the staff, they give me free Sprites because that's all I drink when I go to the Pulse bar. Every time I'm on tour, it's immediately where I go after I get off stage. That was like a second home to me. My first job after living in Texas was working at Disneyworld. I lived in Orlando for a year and frequented Pulse and what happened recently completely broke my heart.
I actually wrote "Water Guns" before [the shootings happened]. The day Christina Grimmie was shot, then we performed it the next day 'cause we were shooting so fast. Then that night, the Pulse situation happened, so I went back in and did shots of me doing graffiti to dedicate these songs that were already written but so timely. I just think this project is like a God-given gift. I feel like He gave me something special that He wanted me to share with the world. I feel like this [show] has the potential to be more than just a YouTube video. This could be the next Tony Award-winning Broadway show or something. I think it's an American classic that everybody knows, much like Hamilton mixed with The Wizard of Oz. I just would like to see it expand and do much bigger and better things. I think that the gun violence being a part of this story is just really relevant and it's something we all need to take action with. I don't know what that action is but I just think our country should just be very aware of what we're gonna do and make a decision of what we can do to prevent these horrific crimes from continuing.
Lastly, you have so much star power in this visual album. How did you get Wayne Brady, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nicole Scherzinger and others on board?
I have no idea! You have to ask them! I was literally crying sometimes, not even because of the content we were creating but just because I have looked up to Wayne Brady and Nicole Scherzinger. I loved the Pussycat Dolls. I love Amber Riley -- I'm this huge fan of Glee. With Jordin Sparks, I was a huge American Idol fan before I was ever even on the show. Joseph Gordon Levitt saying he would come and be the wizard. I was like, "Are you kidding me?" For those people to come and lend their services, 'cause I just wanna be clear, they came and donated their time 'cause they believed in this project -- it cost them money to be in it. They had to pay for their own parking, get themselves there because I self-funded this project with the help of AwesomenessTV a little bit in the end, but most of it came from just hard work and calling in a lot of favors. I'm always thinking they're not gonna show up at the last minute but they all came, they helped move sets, they helped dress themselves, they helped to do their own hair and makeup. It was just a really, really cool energy on set every single day. Grateful doesn't even begin to describe the word that would portray how I feel.