TODRICK HALL

[ 0 ] August 9, 2017 |

STRAIGHT OUTTA OZ
Hold On To Your Broomsticks, Bitches!

~ by joel martens ~

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…” That’s the indelible line Judy Garland made famous, as she landed amongst the Munchkins in the fabled, fairytale land of Oz. Rightly so, for many a gay man, she and the beloved musical became a symbol of hope that there might be a place just over a rainbow “Where troubles melt like lemon drops…” where people who were just a little different, like the Tinman, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, could find a loving place of acceptance.

I am not a big fan of remakes, especially one’s taking on classics that just can’t be topped, in any way. Remember the recent television version of The Sound of Music? I literally had to turn it off, it was so ghastly to me. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t mean the talent wasn’t there—we all know that Carrie Underwood can sing— but in comparison to Julie Andrews in the role? Well, for me, it’s like comparing apples to oranges…Unripe, bitter oranges.

There are notable exceptions to that rule and I’ve recently run across a shining example. To be clear, it’s certainly can’t be classified as a “remake.” More specifically—it’s nothing short of a complete remastering—maybe reinvention is an even better descriptor. Using the favorite, childhood Ozian tale as the base for his original endeavor, Todrick Hall, who took over Broadway’s famed Lola role in Kinky Boots after Billy Porter, has waved his magic wand and graced us with a fable-turned-on-its-head, original musical called Straight Outta Oz. This time it’s set in Texas and using the original cast of characters (many played by him, though in very updated contexts), to tell the semi-autobiographical tale of his rise to fame in Los Angeles (you guessed it, Oz). Somewhere between a Glee-esque mashup and Hamilton’s soulful reinvention, Hall has given us sixteen original and truly heartfelt songs—along with a few thrown in by friends like Raven-Symoné, Tamar Braxton, Shoshana Bean and Tracie Thoms—taking audiences on a commanding, emotional journey, not unlike the twister and its symbolic transmogrification in the original.

You may think I’m over-the-rainbow here, but if the Broadway producers who have been knocking on Hall’s door are any indication of Straight Outta Oz’s powerful allure, then it’s just a matter of time before the Great White Way takes the journey over said arch, bringing the story and music to an even greater audience.

Gushing over…Let’s get to know Todrick Hall and his musical genius.

I’ve been so blown away around what you’ve managed to amass, creatively in your life. I’m curious, what motivated you and how early on did you discover your interest in music?

This isn’t my first memory, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind. Watching Sister Act 2, when I heard Lauryn Hill sing, “His eyes on the sparrow.” That was a moment when I realized, “I love this.” The other is the first time I walked into my grandmother’s room and I saw Mariah Carey singing “Dream Lover” in a hot air balloon. I fell in love with her immediately and she became my favorite person in the world. Those are the two moments that I remember realizing how much I loved music and that I wanted to sing someday.

I’m always fascinated to know what performer’s early memories are because it’s so often the thing that sparks their drive. You’ve talked a great deal about The Wizard of Oz. Was that a big influence early on, as well?

It was, it was…I saw it as a young kid, but I thought it was called Cinderella. (Laughs) Every week I would say to my mom, back when you’d go to the grocery store and rent movies for the weekend, I would say, “Mom, can you bring me Cinderella?” Every time she rented it, I would be like, “No, the one with the witch in it.” (Laughs) She would re-rent the movie every week and finally I was like, “Fine, I’ll go with you to the store, because clearly if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself!” (Laughs) I saw then it was The Wizard of Oz that was my favorite movie. When I finally realized what it was, I wanted it all the time. After renting it so many times, my mom just bought it for me and I would watch it so much, it was crazy. I always loved the story so much.

What was the first thing that you performed in front of people, on stage or otherwise?

I was in the gifted and talented program in my elementary school, ironically, we had to write musicals. The movie Leap of Faith had just been filmed with Steve Martin and a scene from it was filmed near where I lived, in Plainville, Texas. For Easter, instead of Leap of Faith, we did Hop of Hope and all of us were dressed as rabbits. It was a bunny version and I performed as a bunny ballerina. My teacher’s daughter was the owner of the dance studio in town, called Tip Tap Toes and I decided after she came to work with us and told me, “You have to pursue this, you actually would be really good at dancing.” That really was my first stage experience and led me to start dancing.

Adorable. That tenacity comes across in your work, you can definitely tell you’ve been honing your craft for a long while. I especially noticed it in Straight Outta Oz. The overall story and execution of it is very impressive. You take on some heavy topics in your work and seem to have a strong understanding of the power your medium has and that of the arts in general. Do you go into the writing and creation of your shows with that kind of thought process from the beginning?

I honestly don’t. I just go in thinking, “This is how I’m feeling right now and I really just want to get those feelings out.” I want to explain to people what I’m going through and hopefully, someone else who might be going through the same thing can relate. I never sit down and think, “I really want to hit all these topics…They just happen to be topics affecting my life personally at the time.

 

Sometimes I think that it might be so personal and so customized to my life, that other people won’t identify with it. But then I hear otherwise from people who aren’t just black men or gay men, or gay women, the people who would typically identify with a story like this. People who are moms have told me they felt something, because they’ve had issues with their children, or people have had issues with their parents not understanding them and not believing in them. It’s been really, really eye-opening to see how they identify with the work and songs so much.

I feel the industry has changed so much in the last four or five years, putting out something that long ago would have been a completely different situation. Now, I think people are super ready for truth in music. They don’t just want to hear songs about big booties or twerking. (Laughs) It makes me feel confident that I can take the risk and do the things that I have sometimes doubted I could do.

I recently spoke to the singer Wrabel, he also talks a great deal about his emotions and experiences as a gay man in his music and online, as you have in Straight Outta Oz. How much do you think access to social media and so many online resources are responsible for that?

I think YouTube and other online sources have had a huge impact on it. Growing up, I only had things like The Ricky Lake Show, Maury or The Jerry Springer Show or something ridiculous like it, my grandparents would be watching and that was the only example of what a gay man was for me. Then too, people would explain to me what it was and there was always a disgusted undertone about it. So, I was like, “I never want to be like that.”

Kids growing up today come to my concerts and—I get choked up even just talking about this—to watch them clap for me as I tell my story about falling in love with another man at 16-years-old, live on stage is powerful. To have them be exited the way I was so excited for Rachel McAdams in The Notebook, was so eye-opening. For people to bring their children to see the show because they accept it and think it’s beautiful…is the most amazing thing that could ever happen.

I think that now, parents who might have an old-school mentality and tell them “This is what gay is,” these kids can go on YouTube and see that this isn’t. That’s not what Tyler Oakley is like, or what Joey Graceffa is like or who Todrick Hall is and they are able to form their own opinions. There are commercials too, and because of the anti-bullying movement, people are more afraid to bully openly. It still can be an issue, but I think kids are much more accepting about it. Some even think it’s cool to be gay and want to have a gay best friend. (Laughs) I think that is really awesome in a humongous way and a step in the right direction. People aren’t afraid anymore. I think it is really cool and has opened up so many opportunities for people like me.

Tell us a little more about Straight Outta Oz and the documentary Behind The Curtain, what they mean to you and what else you have coming up.

Straight Outta Oz has been like such a healing thing for me. Often times, I think we as artists and performers can focus on the negative aspects of life and how it’s not fair. That’s what I was doing before I wrote Straight Outta Oz. It allowed me to express everything I needed to express, but without seeming like I was a bitter black man or a bitter gay man who felt the world was mistreating him and I was able to turn it into art. People were able to appreciate the show and it reached so many more than I could have sitting alone in my room complaining to my friends.

It also helped me to prove many things to myself: I never thought I could sell a record and be number two on the pop charts. That if I work hard enough and sing about things I’m passionate about and put in the time and effort, then I can write my own future. I can create my own destiny and find my own path. I so love the fact that Awesomeness TV was there to document all of it, too, because I didn’t understand when it was coming out what was going to happen. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and now I have Broadway producers knocking at my door to take the show and translate it into a Broadway musical.

I am so grateful for the opportunity and that people will get to see the documentary as well (Behind the Curtain). To not only see the creation, but to see the hard work it takes to make it all happen. People see you online with millions of views and always say, “I really want to do this. How can I do it?” This really shows the amount of dedication, the lack of sleep and amount of time and effort it takes to make it happen. I’m really grateful and really proud of it and I hope that everyone in some shape or form are able to relate.

Straight Outta Oz is on hiatus right now, though you can see samplings of it on YouTube. However, not unlike the fairytale land, it’s based upon, look for Todrick’s live version of Oz to magically reappear soon. The documentary based on it, Behind the Curtain, is available now. For more information on all things Mr. Hall, go to todrickhall.com.

 

You can also catch Todrick Hall on Satruday, October 7 at Gay Days Anaheim during Kingdom, along with RuPaul’s Drag Race stars, Chad Michaels, Morgan McMichaels and Delta Work, taking place at the ESPN Zone Downtown Disney.  For tickets and more information, go to gaydaysanaheim.com.

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