In 2016, Todrick Hall, a YouTube and Broadway star who has roots in Arlington, released an original musical called Straight Outta Oz. Presented both as a visual album on YouTube and as a touring stage production, the musical serves as a semi-autobiographical telling of Hall's life seen through the lens of the classic fairy tale The Wizard of Oz. It's a little like Hamilton and a bit like Beyonce's Lemonade, if either of those had drag queens, a wicked witch, a coming out story, struggles with faith and a tin man.
While the musical itself is an intimate look into Hall's life, he'll take fans even further behind the scenes in his upcoming documentary Behind the Curtain.
The film offers a lot of glimpses into the star's childhood and personal life (including the wacky ice cream chairs he has in his house), but viewers will mostly see madcap way in which Straight Outta Oz came together, often just barely squeaking by. For example, the tight schedule meant shooting eight music videos in five days — without always having nailed down important parts like cast and choreography.
But Hall's story begins in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where he calls home.
"That's where I fully became comfortable with myself and was able to fine-tune my artistic abilities," Hall says by phone. Though he lived in Arlington, he trained and performed at various D-FW places such as Casa Manana in Fort Worth, the Music Hall in Fair Park and Dana's Studio of Dance in Southlake.
Deep in the heart of Texas
Hall is thankful he was raised with good ol' Southern hospitality. "Once you're infected with it, you can never get rid of it," he says with a laugh. "It's really helped me so much because I walk into a room and I don't see people as someone who can help me get to the next level. I'm not looking for coattails to ride when I walk into a room, I genuinely meet people. I want to have a relationship with them no matter what their social status is or isn't.
"It's just really important to walk into the room and treat everyone with kindness and respect."
Something else about Hall that's very Texan? His food cravings. "Shockingly, I run as fast as I can to the closest Great American Cookies, because we don't have that in LA," he says when asked about favorite places to eat at home.
"I love Whataburger and Sonic, and I always wrap the night up, no matter what, at the nearest Waffle House. ... Those are the places I grew up eating at, and we don't have them in LA. Everything there is super green, and I just want some old Southern junk food."
He also has a lot of praise for the sheer artistic skill of his fellow Texans. "A lot of the most talented people that I know are actually in Texas," he says. "I believe that we have some of the greatest talent because we strive for excellence, whether it be in sports or in the entertainment industry or in cheerleading, whatever. When [Texans] do something, they do it big."
With as much as he loves his home state, it might be surprising that he left it to live in Los Angeles. After all, his career hit its stride on YouTube, which has no geographic requirement for success. But by moving to LA, he was able to be around both YouTube stars and like-minded artists in general, he says.
"When you move to LA or New York, you're surrounded by people who want something greater and are willing to leave their nest to do it," he says.
These ain't water guns
Of the many ways in which his Texas past inspired Straight Outta Oz, one of them is particularly heartbreaking. In Behind the Curtain, Hall reveals that the song "Water Guns," a lament about gun violence in the wake of mass shootings like the one at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, was inspired by his friend Jillian Smith. Smith was an Arlington police officer who was killed on the job while protecting an 11-year-old girl.
Hall was a cheerleader with Smith and her older sister at Bowie High School in Arlington. He says Jill was a big supporter of his, even flying to New York to see his shows.
"We danced to 'Single Ladies' all the time," he says. "I would obviously be Beyonce."
He later said: "She was just such a hero."
"Water Guns" is neither a pro- or anti-police song, though. "I've also had other friends who were shot and killed by police officers," he says. "So my whole thing was not a anti-police moment, it was just about the fact that I think these guns have been used to tear us apart and break down our communities." The song, a standalone version of which has been viewed on YouTube more than 1 million times, has had a big impact on fans who have been affected by shootings, Hall says.
"I'm so grateful that God put that song on my heart to write, and that I was able to put it out and that it was able to help people."
God-fearing and gay
Hall's relationship with God is a central theme in both Straight Outta Oz and Behind the Curtain. It's a relationship that has been strained throughout Hall's life, due in no small part to the fact that he's gay.
"It is something that I've struggled with for a long time because the way I was raised: My sexuality and my religion don't mesh well together," he says. "And I know it's something that a lot of my friends struggle with on a daily basis."
But when you're raised deep in the heart of Texas, religion can be hard to escape. "I grew up on gospel music only. It's such a huge, deep-rooted influence that I couldn't get rid of it if I tried. I grew up singing at church every week. I never went to voice lessons; church was my voice teacher.
"Whenever I hear gospel music, my heart is immediately filled with joy."
Hall had help accepting his complicated spirituality with help from Emmy-winning television personality, singer and drag queen RuPaul.
"He was like, 'You have an anointing and a gift that is something that only God could give you. Even if you don't recognize it, other people recognize that in you,'" Hall recounts. "It's taken a long time for me to understand, even when working with other people and other artists, what that means. When God gives you a gift, it's something that's undeniable. You can't look at someone and not recognize that gift exists.
"All I can say is that I do have a relationship with God, and I know that he loves me. And I believe now — and it's taken me a long time to get to this point — that I will get into heaven. ... Hopefully I'll be there writing music and putting on plays in heaven on whatever version of YouTube they'll have when I get there."
Mostly, though, Hall is concerned with bringing people together with his performances — no matter their religion, race, sexuality or political views.
"Right now in this country, in our current political climate, we need things that just preach love," he says. "I think that we have forgotten that at the end of the day we can disagree about where each other came from, but we can still love each other. ... I think that's what the future is about: People should be coming and supporting art that they love no matter what their walk of life is."