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YouTube alive with the sound of musicals

| Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Not many Internet sensations can attribute their career to a No. 6 super-size burger with only mustard and ketchup, large fries and an M&M McFlurry.

But Todrick Hall, 28, can. A handheld video of him and his friends singing that order a capella at a McDonald's drive-through instantly became a viral hit in 2010, garnering more than 7 million views to date and launching a successful career for the Season 9 “American Idol” semifinalist as the face of a burgeoning YouTube trend: musicals.

Gaining a following of more than 600,000 subscribers with flash-mob videos and parody trailers over the past couple of years, Hall is now making elaborate, Broadway-style productions for YouTube, whether it's an eight-minute “Cinderella” story set to the songs of Beyoncé (titled “Cinderoncé,” with more than 1.5 million views) or a six-minute retelling of “The Wizard of Oz,” featuring a mashup of Top 40 singles and starring popular a capella group Pentatonix (“The Wizard of Ahhs,” 4.8 million views).

“I'm an unconventional artist,” says Hall, who is managed by Scooter Braun (the name behind Justin Bieber) and contributed choreography to Beyoncé's “Blow” video. “When I was on “Idol,” people wanted to see me be more R&B, urban or hip-hop, but that's not me. ... What YouTube does is allow artists to express themselves freely. Everybody has an equal opportunity to make careers successful.”

Brother duo AVbyte has garnered more than 50 million combined views with its videos, which include “Hipster Disney Princesses” and musical spins on “Star Wars,” “Grand Theft Auto V” and Facebook. Boy wizard Harry Potter also proves to be ripe for musical material, with “Harry Potter in 99 Seconds” racking up more than 18 million views to date.

Unlike TV, artists aren't limited by running times and commercial breaks, and can let their pop-culture and musical sensibilities work hand in hand.

“You think about how many people grow up doing theater but don't necessarily have an outlet for those skills — we're seeing people take advantage of the open platform (of) YouTube to show off their talent,” says Kevin Allocca, YouTube's head of culture and trends. Although musicals have been thriving on the site for years now, “What we've seen change is the scale, quality and audience that is consistently there for these videos.”

One of the most recent and influential is “Side Effects,” a 40-minute musical that incorporates popular songs from artists such as Taylor Swift, Ke$ha and David Guetta, and follows a 16-year-old girl struggling with high-school bullies and the loss of her parents.

It's a bold new step into serious fare for the musical trend, and one that's paid off in more than 2.5 million views since late October for young production company AwesomenessTV.

“To be able to scale an audience like we have so quickly has been amazing, and that's because the funnel of YouTube is so big,” founder Brian Robbins says. “I'm just really encouraged by what we've been able to build so quickly. The sky's the limit, and YouTube is just the beginning; they're still kind of a baby in diapers.”

The visuals and production quality of Side Effects is “something that hasn't been seen on YouTube,” says Robbins, who attributes the video's unique success to its relatable story and authentic, honest characters.

And relatability is a key ingredient to viral success, says Hall, who fondly remembers an elementary-school teacher who told him, “If you can make people laugh or cry, then you have them.”

“That's true of most videos that go viral,” Hall says. “They're either funny or they're so heartwarming and touching, like a proposal or something that someone does for a kid with cancer. Anything that people can relate to is the recipe for a viral video.”

Patrick Ryan is a staff writer for USA Today.

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