Another EXTREMELY EXTREMELY long review, this time with multiple embeds and links! Sorry about that. But this time, I'm going to remember to use an entry cut, so that when things start getting long and detailed, you can run away! run away! (Unless you're doing this via RSS, in which case, again, sorry about that.)


So this is something I've vaguely meant to do since last year, as will become obvious almost immediately. That said, it turns out that doing it now has a certain point, as will also become obvious.


The question starting today's entry isn't entirely rhetorical. It's pretty much the question that's the core of The Wizard of Oz, if you think about it, and the question more explicitly at the core of Straight Outta Oz, the version that Todrick Hall created. Straight Outta Oz is essentially a musical retelling of his early life and his first and possibly his second trip through the Hollyweird meat grinder. (His current career is his third, I think. As far as I can tell, one phase ends before he was really able to gain any traction; the second phase ends when his MTV show was unexpectedly and unceremoniously dropped by the network. Which, when you consider that he's only about 30, is a lot to have done already.)

Unfortunately, he's taken down the original version of Straight Outta Oz, put up back in 2016. Unfortunate, both for comparison's sake and because it hangs together as a coherent whole slightly better than the current version. Mind, that isn't to say that the original structure didn't have problems, which I'll get to -- and which remain, in fact -- but that the integration of the retrofits doesn't feel entirely seamless. How much of that is due to the fact that I know what it looked like before, I'm not sure.



The deluxe version exists largely as the retrofit of a retrofit. The original was a (comparatively) tight 50-minute story. Todrick then took the show on the road, and (this is only a guess) I suspect discovered that the tight 50-minute story absolutely did not work when you had to deal with costume changes and getting people on and off the stage, and all the other business that comes with an actual stage show. Plus, who wants to pay to see just a 50 minute show? So he added transitional bits, snippets of songs, whole numbers, both to extend the run time, and to facilitate the staging. But then people started asking if there were recordings of the version of the musical they'd just seen -- and since I have the original version, I can assure you that what they saw was quite different than what they could have bought at the time -- so he re-recorded the whole thing so that people could have THAT version of the musical, unfortunately apparently retiring the original along the way. (The original album, as of this writing, is still up on emusic.com, but I wouldn't expect that to last.)

All of that is complicated by the fact that I think it was designed to be a concept album as well as a concept video, which must have been ferociously expensive to produce on his own.

In any event, let's work with what we have, shall we? Let's shall. The first video below contains the full concept musical, at 1 hour 11 minutes. (It's worth noting that it grew another 20 minutes or so in the deluxe version. That isn't all, or even mostly, a bad thing.) I'll try to break things out when I can, but a number of the songs will only be available in the full video. Also, there are probably going to be enough video embeds to make this page load very slowly; sorry about that. For some of them, I'm just going to link over to Youtube and let you watch them there to keep this page from being impossible. That said, some of the single songs are from the previous version (confused already?), so they may have changed slightly (or considerably) later on.


Straight Outta Oz (Deluxe Edition)



The first song, "No Place Like Home", is an explicit and very dark statement of the initial theme. That there is no place like home, and that can be a double-edged sword. It can be where you're from, and where you want to get away from, and what you're looking for when you can't find it where you are. And again, an echo of a theme in The Wizard of Oz, which is also stated more plainly in The Wiz.

With narration, we go straight into one of the things young Todrick liked most about home, singing in the church choir, where his talent let him hope to make his family "Proud".

After that, things get difficult for young Todrick almost immediately. One of Todrick's few memories of his father is of his father telling him how he's going to grow up, what a good little man he's going to be, that little boys don't cry, little boys aren't shy, and so on, in "Over the Rainbow." And it's lovely and kind of heartbreaking.

At this point we hit the first of the new interpolations, "Black and White". Frankly, it slots in so well that it probably should have been in the original song stack. It does a very good job of both metaphorically and literally describing the black-and-white situation he found himself in: an imaginative dreamer being told to stop dreaming, and a surprisingly understated description of the racial realities of small-town Texas. It functions very well in tandem with the following song, "Color", a duet with Jay Armstrong Johnson about what happened when Todrick met his first boyfriend, who was the wrong ... everything. They may not have seen color, but everyone else most assuredly did.

There's a very brief uncredited (and not included on either version of the soundtrack album) bridge song, "Cyclone/Twister", that describes everything that happened in a short time to make him decide to leave town, which leads into "Little People", where he says goodbye to all his friends. This is one of the changed sequences from the original video, including Amber Riley as one of his friends. (Stick a pin in that. We'll get back to her.) It's oddly peppy and perky for a "goodbye" song, but it's also a song where his friends are saying, "Please get out of this hick town, just don't forget us when you go."

"Expensive", a hard follow structurally out of "Little People", was the very first single release. (Note that the linked video is the original version of "Expensive"; this is the deluxe version.) The original video sequence featured more of a mix of RuPaul's Drag Race alumnae, whereas this one focuses on more recent seasons -- including the then-upcoming season nine, as it turns out. Also? The original video didn't make a lot of sense in terms of the original narrative; the new version manages the really impressive feat of both making LESS sense in that structure, but also being more fun about making no sense. (And very very red.) Mind, the song itself makes perfect sense at that point in his story. There are any number of young adults discover the hard way, when they first go out on their own, that everything cost more than they expected and that credit cards are the gateway to insolvency. It's just the video itself that has a few conceptual wobbles on its stilettos, trying to fit into the story structure.

This has a hard follow of a very brief answering machine message that appears to be Todrick's actual mother, followed by a new song to the deluxe songstack, "Whoop that ass," sung by Traci Thorns as his mother. And that song is both very good, and does not AT ALL match how his mother is portrayed later. (Stick a pin in that. The same pin as before, in fact.)

This is followed by yet another new interpolation, "Flying Monkey Airlines Lament 1" featuring Raven-Symone as the flight attendant. When you see the staged version (at the very end of this piece, and stick yet another pin in THAT), it becomes very clear that this is one of the pieces of business that was inserted almost purely to give extra time in places. That said, it's a very funny piece of business at a point where the story is beginning to need it.

After this, Todrick leans hard -- but somewhat briefly, initially -- into the original Wizard of Oz characters. He was amazed by the things that happened in Oz Angeles and somehow let himself believe what he knew not to be true, like a brainless scarecrow ("Dumb"), which apparently leads to him losing his heart and getting hurt very badly by the experience ("If I had a heart"). The latter is a very nice, if understandably sad, ballad; "Dumb" is a hip-hop piece that I find a bit ... irritating. Mind, I think it's meant to be somewhat irritating, because the character is apparently doing irritatingly stupid things; I also think that it might just be that the song isn't to my taste.

Todrick then becomes the cowardly lion, "Lying to myself" and trying to make a career by playing the sorts of black men we see most often on television. (Yeah, that's ... not going to be a good look on him ever.) There's also a separate level the song expresses, where playing characters makes him feel safe from having his heart ripped out again. Granting that he sprints through these changes rather quickly, it's still an effective way to work with the character types. That said, we never really see those characters again.

"Lions and Tigers and Bears" was the first appearance of Todrick's mother in the original structure, and is the second appearance here. In some ways, the new song earlier make this second appearance of the character make a touch more sense. In her first appearance in the new structure, his mother ripped him a new one for daring to use foul language to her on an unheard phone call, and he responded by not speaking to her at all for a very long time indeed. In the comments at Youtube under the main video, open warfare has broken out between the adherents of Tamar Braxton, in the new video, and those who prefer the person who originally played his mother in the first concept video and on the first album ... Amber Riley. (Tracie Thoms is coming out both unscathed and oddly without adherents.) Honestly, having seen both portrayals, I think part of the issue that people are having is that Amber was singing the song and playing the character of Todrick's mother; Tamar is singing the song. That said, Amber has both a more powerful and flexible voice.

Well, this one you can judge for yourself.

Tamar's version: Lions and tigers and bears

Below, Amber's version:

Strange that Amber may do a better job of playing the character, when she's not remotely old enough to be his mother, and Tamar ... kind of is. But again, I don't think Tamar was actually trying to play the character.

This is followed by Todrick's first experience with a personal agent played by the former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger. And Todrick the writer/producer leans very hard into her previous persona and her past, and Scherzinger actually runs with it, much to her credit. "Papi" also lets you know that the woman can sing some -- well, she is opera-trained, after all. The number dances along the delicate and dangerous line of both finding humor in and showing how awful it can be to experience sexual harrassment. Relying on Scherzinger's past as much as the video did was to the slight detriment of the song and the story. If you don't know about her and the Pussycat Dolls, the bit where suddenly they're in a pole dancer strip joint makes less than no sense; if you don't know about her winning "Dancing with the Stars", the tango bit still kind of works, but not as well. As a whole, the scene would have been much stronger dramatically had they simply made her a regular old sexually harrassing agent. With a great voice, of course. She could still have unleashed her hair and her breasts at him ("you've never touched a boob in your whole life, and she's got two of them!"), and it would still have worked within what the scene needed to do.

Perez Hilton then welcomes us to the emerald city of the Ozcars --- look, just run with that-- and "Green", where we get the Wanting Song of Oz Angeles. Everyone wants that fame and fortune, lights, camera, action, fashion, too -- what will bring them that "Green" money and those green lies on that green mile. Getting that green also apparently involves public plastic surgery, or something like that. It's an interestingly sharp and pointed commentary, especially since it's clear that he wants that as well ... maybe.

The next new interpolation is the rewritten "Flying Monkey Airlines Lament 2". (No individual link available at the moment, though this may change.) This is a semitransparent gloss on his version of the then-new safety video for Virgin Airlines, which is relocated out of the second stage of his career where it actually occurred. Monkey Airlines actually has a WAY more kickass new song than Virgin got, but then, it's much easier to pack a big punch into 30 seconds than it is in five minutes. (That is a freakin' LONG safety video.) Also, the new logo for Monkey Airlines is terrifying.

We go back to the original songstack, and the original casting, for Amber Riley as his mother, lamenting that she hasn't heard from him or seen him in ages in "See Your Face." It's meant to be a very long answering machine/voicemail message, and it's lovely and incredibly sad.

At this point, both the original and revised musical takes a sharp left turn into current events commentary. The first song itself has been CONSIDERABLY rebuilt for the revision; it's worth checking both versions to see the difference.

The Wrong Bitch (Bob The Drag Queen - first version)
The Wrong Bitch (deluxe version -- starts at the end of the previous song and includes bridging narration for "Wrong Bitch", but I don't know how to stop it with a link, so you'll need to push the stop button yourselves)

I think, though obviously cannot prove, that there's more, and more detailed, narration at the front end of the song now than there was in the original version. It's now made explicit, in a way that simply wasn't present before, that Todrick is being asked to murder the Wicked Witch. Granting that this ties it more closely to the Wizard of Oz narrative structure, and granting that he doesn't actually do anything, the reaction can still only be ... WHAT? He was asked to murder someone? Really? When you combine that with the fact that this is the beginning of the current events commentary section, it simply highlights even more strongly that this song doesn't belong in this show. Which is frustrating, because it's a strong song on its own terms. It actually does what it sets out to do, provide transparent commentary on current events that is built off the musical's structure. That's not easy. I also think, assuming that this show has any sort of after-life, that "Wrong Bitch" will age comparatively well, because its gloss on contemporary events only works as long as the events are remembered. (The song may become oddly impenetrable in a few years.)

The next song, "Water Guns", is even more transparent commentary on Tamir Rice, Christina Grimmie and the Pulse shootings, which had only just happened shortly before the original release date. I do think the song was already in the songstack, as commentary on Tamir Rice; the video itself got a refit to refer to Christina Grimmie and Pulse. And again, while I would love to see the musical that this and "Wrong Bitch" should be a part of, they don't belong here. The musical is supposed to be the story of Todrick's early career through an Oz metaphor, yes? What these songs effectively do is to abstract him out of the story of his own life, and present us with characters we've never seen before in this story and will never see again. (Also, given that she appears in two different fantastical makeups and costumes before even singing her song, never mind singing "Water Guns" without fantastical makeups, I have NO idea who/what Jordin Sparks is supposed to be in this.)

We then get whiplash as we drop abruptly out of current commentary back into the story of Todrick's career as the first stage of said career also abruptly ends. Storywise, the narration leading into "Blah Blah Blah" itself is a bit odd; why would you be ashamed of witnessing something? Ashamed of doing something I could understand -- and what he was asked to do was quite shameful, but (leaving aside that being asked to murder someone didn't make sense either) he didn't actually DO anything, so ... I'm a bit lost, there. Regarding the song itself, all I will say is that (a) again, does what it's meant to do, in showing both how he's betrayed as a normal part of showbiz and how he can do nothing but just allow it to happen, and (b) I really really REALLY want to see the person playing the Wizard in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. As either Jesus or Judas, I'm not picky. I just never knew he had so much voice! (Link goes to the start time of the narration before the song, but again, no idea how to make it stop.) Oddly, from what Todrick's said elsewhere, this seems to be a fictionalized version of how he lost his MTV show, which, again, would seem to be later in his career than this seems to imply.

Following that, Todrick decides to go back to Texas and his mother to lick his wounds. (As apparently he did in real life. Also, ignore the gigantic ruby sneakers -- the story itself does, so why shouldn't we?) While narratively and musically, what happens fits and makes sense, what we see on screen is utterly baffling. That he would come home to discover the old church abandoned and vandalized, sad but not necessarily that unusual. Random soldiers sitting in the sanctuary and ignoring him completely? Yeah, that's kind of ... different. I genuinely don't understand what they're meant to convey.

The final number, Low, is another new addition to the song stack ... although, in fact, it predates the rest of the show. Mostly, it's the lagnippe, none more in Todrick's usual style (understandably enough), and with Very Special Guest Stars and A Much Larger Budget than the original -- and a very different middle bridge. It doesn't fit the rest of the musical, and isn't even trying to. It is weird fun, though.


And finally, if you want to see what the live stage show looked like, here 'tis:



And I have no worries about showing this, because at the end, he explicitly asks people to film and share and upload their videos because he's been trying to get the word out. I'm assuming this hasn't hurt album or ticket sales any.

The stage show is handled more or less as a staged/dramatized concert with the video playing periodically in the background for context. Honestly, I'm not sure what else he could have done. There's simply no way he could mount the sort of production that this would need to be as a regular musical stage show in the smaller venues he's been playing. Treating it as a highly-staged concert is really the only way to make it work. (Still doesn't explain the soldiers, though.) As a concert, the end of the stage show also pulls in other material he's done, including things from his MTV show, as encores of a sort.

The stage show also does a few things I wish had been incorporated into the concept video. For one thing, "Cyclone/Twister" is slightly relocated, and forms part of (of all possible things) a recitatif bridge, which also provides the argument that his mother is so upset about in "Whoop that ass" (although that song doesn't move, so it gets disconnected from the incident that provoked it). There's an additional song in that transitional section that also doesn't survive to the deluxe edition, about social media used for connection. And, like "Wrong Bitch" and "Water Guns", it's very sharp and contemporary and belongs in some entirely different musical than this one. (That said, "Wrong Bitch" works far better in the stage show than in the concept video -- and still doesn't belong in this show. In part, it winds up being problematic because it's conflating Black Lives Matter and gay rights issues and gun proliferation and school shootings and Christina Grimmie and Pulse and and and ... it's a bit much. But, again, to the extent that they work dramatically at all, "Wrong Bitch/Water Guns" work much better in the stage show.)

The Wizard also gets an introduction song this time. It's both a character introduction and a plot song, it's very good, and, again, it was never in the original version and does not survive to the deluxe version. My guess on that one is that he couldn't get the actor from the original video back to re-record the number, and rather than take the multiple actors approach he took with his mother's character, he simply let the number go. Most frustrating.

Oddly enough, "Expensive" suffers badly from the transition to the stage, precisely because it no longer looks expensive. Understandable, because staging that sort of musical number IS expensive, and this show is not a big budget touring affair. Conversely, "Green" works a bit better shorn of the weird plastic surgery bits.

The flight attendants and the soldiers are handled somewhat differently. The Monkey Airlines flight attendants have also become both a literal and Greek chorus whose presence is more integrated throughout, much like Chiffon, Ronette and Crystal in "Little shop of horrors." The soldiers have sorta kinda become police, I think, and are slightly more involved and present than in the concept video -- no less baffling, though. (Seriously, what are they DOING there?)

Overall, definitely an interesting experience, and certainly worth watching on Youtube to see if you'd like it. I think it actually works as a concept album a bit better than as a visual production, if only because that abstracts the music away from its context in a way that allows you to enjoy it AS music, without noticing that parts of the story don't hang together very well. But even with that caveat, I like the visual production as well. It's also interesting because you can see and hear him pushing himself to other places musically, mostly fairly successfully.

One thing to note is that Straight Outta Oz ends well before his current career, allowing for wibbly wobbly timey wimeyness. Judging from what he says in the intros to songs on his other album, "MTV's Todrick: The Music, Vol. 1", Straight Outta Oz technically ends about the time he hits 20, although as noted, it reaches forward for material. (His Wikipedia page, allowing that it may be only as factual as Wikipedia pages ever are, has some possibly informative information on when things happened in his life. (Including a very unpleasant incident regarding the predecessor to this very musical, from his very early American Idol auditions days.)



Very vaguely apropos of today's entry (VERY Vaguely.), you might consider this earlier entry. You don't need to listen to anything in it -- although I will note that as part of cleaning it up and updating links after the entry's transition to Dreamwidth (embeds fared very badly indeed), I found an extra item I hadn't run across before. The new item isn't relevant to today's entry, but it may be amusing.
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