Arts & Culture News

Arlington Native Todrick Hall Talks First Loves and Why YouTube Is a Young Gay Man's Best Asset

A documentary about Todrick Hall's 2016 concept album based on The Wizard of Oz will screen Wednesday at Texas Theatre. Hall will attend and take questions from the audience afterward.
A documentary about Todrick Hall's 2016 concept album based on The Wizard of Oz will screen Wednesday at Texas Theatre. Hall will attend and take questions from the audience afterward. courtesy the artist

Texas native and Arlington ISD graduate Todrick Hall got his start in entertainment on American Idol, where he made the semifinals, and went on to become a successful YouTube star.

His videos have gotten the attention of Beyonce and Taylor Swift. (He is one of Swift's backup dancers in her music video for "Look What You Made Me Do.") Recently, he made the transition to Broadway, performing as Lola in Kinky Boots and now as Billy Flynn in Chicago.

In summer 2016, Hall self-released his third album, Straight Outta Oz, a visual concept album that borrows imagery from The Wizard of Oz but tells the story of Hall's life. He went on tour to promote the album, bringing the videos to life onstage. Now he's on the road again promoting a documentary about the making of the album.

Behind The Curtain: Todrick Hall will screen at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Texas Theatre, and Hall will stick around afterward to take questions. Before he made his way home to Dallas, we spoke with Hall over the phone about the documentary, his Broadway audition process and his first love.

So where do all of your crazy and creative ideas come from?
I honestly don't know where they come from. I'm always inspired, I'm always constantly out looking for inspiration from random things, and so I think that anything that I watch, it's just in my nature to look at something and not see it only for what it is but for what it could possibly be as well.

Do you get any ideas while you're sleeping or in the shower, or anywhere random?
Not usually while I'm sleeping, but when I'm in the shower that's where most of my songs and frankly most of this album was written. When I'm on long walks, when I'm driving or being driven around and looking at billboards and buildings and just scenery, being on tour in foreign countries. I'm just inspired by random things, and inspiration could strike at any moment.

In the documentary, you explain how you changed the entire album two weeks before it was released. Were you hesitant to make that decision?
There was a lot of hesitation, but I've learned over the past few years from my experiences on American Idol and doing Broadway that my instincts, if they're strong instincts, are never wrong. When my heart just tells me to do something, it's an undeniable thing. I can't ignore it.

And so it was just so important. It felt like something that I had to do. And also, over the past couple of years, I learned to always chase after things and do projects and make artistic choices that scared me. And because this made me feel unsettled, it was like, this could be controversial, this could be offensive to people, some of the language that I'm saying, words that I've never said before and lyrically ... and some of the subject matter are things that are very personal to me that I have never shared with my fan base.

And I thought, "If these people have been following me, some of them for close to a decade now, I think they deserve to know a little bit more about me, and I think sharing some very intimate moments of my life would definitely help some of these people who live similar lifestyles as me but maybe haven't been brave enough to come out to their parents or their family, or to really chase their dreams the way they would want to."

"Growing up, I remember being told what gay people were, or being told what other religions or other races were. But now, when I'm on YouTube, I have the ability to look at people and fall in love with people for who they are." – Todrick Hall

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You speak a little bit about how people in Texas weren't very accepting of you being gay growing up. Do you think Texas has become an easier place to live as a gay person?
I think that the new generation of people is becoming more and more openminded. I love the fact that YouTube exists, specifically, because growing up, I remember being told what gay people were, or being told what other religions or other races were. But now, when I'm on YouTube, I have the ability to look at people and fall in love with people for who they are and not for the stereotypes that they are surrounded by.

And so I think it's really awesome because people can say all day long that gay, LGBTQ people are this and that type of person, but when a child goes online and they see someone like me, or [YouTubers] Joey Graceffa or Tyler Oakley or Connor Franta, and they say, well that's not the person that my parents or other people have tried to make me believe that they are. Then they're able to form their own opinion, and that way I think that we are going to eventually weed out what essentially is just a bunch of hate. I think eventually, after one more generation has gone, the world is going to be in a much better place because now everyone has a voice.

The internet has allowed people who would normally not have been heard to be able to speak their mind and to let other people know that it's OK, that even if mainstream media isn't representing them, that there are other forms of media and other forms of entertainment that are representing them, and they can find people like them and sound like them and live similar lifestyles to them, and realize that there's a different type of success but still a very legitimate form of success that they can also achieve. And I just think that's so awesome.

And when I get to meet my fans and hear their stories of how my YouTube channel has inspired them to come out of the closet because of this, and now they're the board member or they started an LGTB organization at their school because of my YouTube channel, that makes me so happy. It makes it all worthwhile, and it's the reason why I started to make YouTube videos, to be able to touch people's lives.

I can't believe that you never actually sent in your audition tape for Kinky Boots. I saw you in Kinky Boots, by the way, and you were incredible.
Thank you! Thank you.

Were you surprised when you did get the role?

I was surprised, actually. You know what? It's really crazy because my fans always talk to me about how my channel has inspired them so much, and how my bravery or my courage or just my, you know, all of the things that I exude is just so much confidence. I'm literally one of the most nonconfident people in the world.

Oh, please.
When I was on Broadway, and that's hard for people to believe sometimes, but I'm really not, I just have a very good poker face. I would have never gone in to audition for Kinky Boots because I wouldn't be able to do that every day, or I wouldn't be able to sing those songs. I had never sung anything in those ranges. I remember trying to reach Billy Porter notes when I was working at Six Flags Over Texas and the fact that I was taking over a role that he won a Tony award for and doing it eight shows a week on Broadway was so overwhelming for me that I can't ever remember ever, a single time in my life, that I have been as nervous as I was the opening night of Kinky Boots.

But I proved so much to myself, that I can do things when I just push myself and challenge myself. And when I was in the situation and had to do it, I did 155 performances of Kinky Boots. I'm just so proud of that, and it has let me know that I can take on other roles. Playing Billy Flynn in Chicago on Broadway is a huge challenge for me because I'm so used to wearing a wig and heels, and makeup and earrings, that to play a man onstage, which is what I strongly identify as, is very foreign to me. But it's a challenge, and it scares me every night, and so that's what I am so happy that I'm doing. And the cast has been so amazingly welcoming, and I'm just having the time of my life, to be honest.

In the documentary you appear not just as a singer, dancer, YouTuber and Broadway performer, but also as a leader to all of the people you employ for your YouTube videos. Does that role come naturally to you? And I would assume a lot of these people are your friends. Is that difficult?
It is difficult, but it's something that came natural to me. I always wanted to put on productions in high school. I used to get into arguments with the drama teachers at my school because they would be mad that people would be like, "I can't audition for your musical because I'm doing Todrick's musical." It was an issue that I had.

And I don't like to accept no for an answer. I remember trying to put on a production of The Wizard of Oz in high school, and one of my teachers called the rights company that owned the rights to the classic MGM 1939 production of The Wizard of Oz and basically told on me and told me that if I were to do that, I could be sued, and I literally had 50 cents to my name at that time.

So to most people that would be a sign to say, well, throw your cans out, throw in the towel and be done with it, but I found out that there was a loophole and that if you wrote a musical based on the book, you could do it all you wanted. And so then I decided to write music based on the book. And that's how I realized I could write songs.

So if someone tells me no, that's the best ammunition for me to blow it out of the water and say yes. All I need is for someone to tell me no, it is not possible, it can't happen, and then I'm going to go make it happen. That's just how I am. That's just how I'm wired.

How did your boyfriend at the time of the documentary feel about you talking so passionately about your first love? Was that awkward at all?

It was a little awkward because that song specifically is my favorite song I've ever written in my entire life. And when I finished singing it, I felt so vain because I played it over and over and over again, not because I just thought my voice was so amazing, but because I was like, Todrick, you have to, I love this song. It was like someone else had written this song for me.

That was the first time I went into something saying, this is how I want this song to make me feel, and it made me feel exactly how I wanted to feel. And it was weird for me to perform that song onstage every night and kiss another guy around him because he was a very, I don't want to say jealous, but very territorial of me. And I love him, and we're still very, very close. We're not dating right now.

But I still love him, and we could get back together. So maybe by the time this article comes out, we might be engaged, you never know with me. But it was just a really, really crazy experience. And I wanted to make sure I captured it accurately. And it was difficult for him, and it still really is difficult for him. But you'll always love that person that you fell in love with first. There's nothing that will ever compare to that.

If someone says the name "Gareth" to me or around me, or I see a picture of him or hear someone say, "I know him." I was at Chick-fil-A the other day, and someone said, "I worked with Gareth on a cruise ship," and my heart immediately melted. And not because I want to be with him again, but I just love him, I always will, and there's no way I won't be able to feel that way, I don't think ever.

Any chance Gareth will show up on Wednesday at Texas Theatre? Does he live around here?
No, I think he's on cruise ship. He's British, so he's not American. And he would never; he's engaged, and his boyfriend would not let him. But I'm hoping that one day we will bury the hatchet and it will eventually happen.

He has an amazing fiancé who's really super talented and really good looking, not as good looking as me, obviously, but he'll do. But I'm hoping that one day we can all have a double date and hang out because I would love to meet his new fiancé and I would love to see him again. That would be crazy; it's been over two years since I've seen him. So it would just be awesome to catch up.

Will you meet fans after the screening?
Yes. Yes, I'm going to be taking pictures with fans, I'm going to be answering questions and doing a Q&A afterwards, and I'm going to probably head to whatever the closest Waffle House is to the Texas Theatre, and that's where I'll be afterwards because that's just my tradition. Every time I'm in Dallas, I go to Waffle House after the show.

7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 13, Texas Theatre, 231 Jefferson Blvd., $15,

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Paige Skinner has written for the Dallas Observer since 2014.
Contact: Paige Skinner