AUSTIN — Todrick Hall gave the traditional path to stardom a shot. He performed in musicals at Disney World. He made it to the semifinals of “American Idol.” He filmed a show for MTV.
But those avenues weren’t getting the Arlington native where he wanted to be. So he turned to the Internet.
Now his YouTube videos have been viewed more than 400 million times. He’s got more than a million followers between Twitter and Instagram. And he’s harnessed the collective power of that audience to support an album, stage an ambitious musical and finally make it to Broadway.
Katherine Fairfax Wright captures Hall’s journey in her excellent documentary “Behind the Curtain: Todrick Hall,” which debuted Saturday night at SXSW. I caught up with Hall on Sunday; here are excerpts from our conversation:
You had a tour booked for an album that wasn’t finished. And that album wouldn’t be quite finished until the videos accompanying each of the songs were finished.
Yes, it makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
And this all came together in a matter of weeks?
Well, I wrote the album in two weeks, then we shot the videos in two weeks. And then we had two weeks of rehearsals. So in the course of six weeks, we filmed 16 videos, wrote the songs for those 16 videos – there are actually closer to 26 songs that are in the actual show, so it’s more like a full-length Broadway musical. So then we had to choreograph those, bring them to life, and then put the show up on stage and tour it across the country.
That just sounds so crazy.
It doesn’t just sound crazy, it was crazy.
So much of your music ties into your experiences as a gay black man, and your album “Straight Out of Oz” ties that into “The Wizard of Oz.” How does all of that connect for you?
Growing up in Texas, I always knew there was something bigger and better. I don’t know how I knew that, because there was no Internet and no pop culture really for me to be involved with. I just knew there was something bigger and greater out there for me, and I felt like Dorothy felt that way in the story “The Wizard of Oz.” I also had these goals and dreams that I was desperately chasing, but I wanted someone to give me permission to accomplish those things. And I realized – much like Dorothy realizes that she never needed the Wizard and the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion already had their courage, and their brains and their heart – I realized that I had the power to make an album that I loved, and if the music was great, by definition, people would gravitate to it.
Like a lot of kids, you were in love with Disney musicals. But even as a child, you realized you didn’t see yourself in those shows.
I realized that all of the shows that I loved had predominantly Caucasian characters – and that there were no gay characters. We were just not represented at all, and it was very difficult for me to find myself attractive or beautiful – or to find people who looked like me attractive or beautiful – because that’s not what I saw. … Those things really bothered me, and that’s one thing that I really try to do is to make sure every race and ethnicity is represented in my show – as many as I can.
And now we have the new live action “Beauty and the Beast,” which has made headlines for having a gay character. That’s got to seem like progress.
It seems like huge progress, and honestly – I’m the biggest Disney fan and would not have thought for a million dollars that that would happen, and I applaud their efforts.
You just finished a run in the lead role in “Kinky Boots” on Broadway. What was it like after the grueling experience with your album and tour to only have to focus on your part and let someone else handle all of the logistics?
I loved every second of it. It was awesome to be a student. I don’t do things often than scare me or sing songs that are difficult for me, because I am able to control the environment in which I perform. And for me to not be able to control that and to have to do that eight times a week was the biggest challenge.
Todrick Hall’s “Straight Outta Oz” tour comes to the Bomb Factory on April 30.