Un­break­able Ti­tuss Burgess

Ac­tor with voice from the heav­ens en­dured re­peated Broad­way flops to end up as the over-the-top Ti­tus An­drome­don

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - LA­VANYA RAMANATHAN

Even in a show as whacked-out and packed with funny peo­ple as Net­flix’s dooms­day-cult com­edy “Un­break­able Kimmy Sch­midt,” Ti­tus An­drome­don has a way of steal­ing a scene.

The char­ac­ter, an ac­tor with a voice from the heav­ens and a wardrobe from a cos­tume shop’s clear­ance aisle, once sang in the streets of New York in a frilly yel­low dress like Bey­oncé, and used a house cat in his au­di­tion for “The Lion King.”

Ti­tus An­drome­don is the id of “Kimmy Sch­midt,” its most meme-able char­ac­ter, its walk­ing, talk­ing glit­ter.

Ask Ti­tuss Burgess whether he’s any­thing like the per­sona he has in­hab­ited for three sea­sons, and he sweeps his hand up and down his com­pact frame, as if to say, “What does it look like to you?”

He is dressed in the New Yorker uni­form of all black ev­ery­thing, his but­ton-down shirt flecked only with the tini­est polka dots, though it’s a sunny Pride week­end in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and the rest of the city is awash in rain­bow flags, T-shirts and tu­tus. Even in the bustling lobby of the JW Mar­riott, no one rec­og­nizes this sleek, sub­tle and soft-spo­ken Ti­tuss.

The days of slip­ping around incog­nito like this are prob­a­bly grow­ing short. Burgess, 38, a vet­eran of bom­bas­tic Broad­way mu­si­cals, is now a star of a Tina Fey-pro­duced show, a three-time Emmy nom­i­nee and a dar­ling of the late-night cir­cuit.

“Un­break­able Kimmy Sch­midt” is un­usual TV, and not just be­cause it fol­lows a woman-child who has ar­rived in New York fresh from spend­ing 15 years trapped in an un­der­ground bunker. It is also rare be­cause it is teem­ing with mu­sic. And “Kimmy Sch­midt” wouldn’t be quite as re­mark­able with­out Burgess’s ex­tra­or­di­nary voice.

In one episode, Ti­tus, who is Kimmy’s room­mate, sings about “Peeno Noir,” in a num­ber so pop­u­lar that Burgess is now the face of an ac­tual pinot noir; in an­other, he is dressed as a geisha for an as­tound­ing ren­di­tion of an old Ja­panese folk song. That Bey­oncé-in­spired “Le­monad­ing” episode was just nom­i­nated for an Emmy for mu­sic and lyrics.

Burgess’s in­ter­est in mu­sic kicked in early, a much-needed dis­trac­tion for an only child who spent sum­mers haunt­ing the halls of his grand­par­ents’ Athens, Ga., house.

Deep in a back room, his grand­mother, Rosena Burgess, had hid­den away a “di­lap­i­dated up­right pi­ano,” miss­ing sev­eral keys, Burgess says. It sounded aw­ful, but he fid­dled around with it un­til …

Burgess stops him­self. He does this of­ten, mind­ful not only of the facts of his sto­ries but also that he sounds hum­ble. Does it sound silly, that he taught him­self ? “I don’t even know how I did that,” he con­cludes. But he did.

As a teenager, he be­gan skip­ping par­ties for mu­si­cals that toured through At­lanta’s Fox Theatre: “Dream­girls,” “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God.”

“I wasn’t the cool kid, but I found my peo­ple,” he says. A young gay man in mu­si­cal theatre, “I found more peo­ple who looked like me, who acted like me. And I felt nor­mal.”

He stayed in Athens to ma­jor in clas­si­cal voice at the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia, though he says, “I was bored. I knew I wasn’t sup­posed to stay down there.” (The only thing Burgess still says with a Ge­or­gia ac­cent is the word “Ge­or­gia.”)

He even­tu­ally moved to New York and in fairly short or­der be­gan bur­nish­ing his re­sumé with role af­ter role in big Broad­way mu­si­cals.

But nearly ev­ery one of Burgess’s Broad­way breaks was a de­ba­cle.

He landed the part of Ed­die in the Beach Boys-in­spired mu­si­cal “Good Vi­bra­tions.”

“A wipe­out,” de­clared one head­line.

In the $15-mil­lion pro­duc­tion of “The Lit­tle Mer­maid,” he was Se­bas­tian, the Ja­maican crab. “Loathed the show,” wrote the critic from the New York Times.

Nicely-Nicely John­son in a re­vival of “Guys and Dolls”: “Un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally in­se­cure and weirdly un­funny” was how a Chicago critic de­scribed the pro­duc­tion.

Re­minded of his pro­foundly un­lucky streak, Burgess sim­ply grins. “Af­ter ‘Guys and Dolls’ closed,” he says, “me and the theatre were in cou­ples ther­apy.”

Burgess be­lieves in signs, such as the time he ar­rived for the first day of shoot­ing on “Kimmy Sch­midt,” and he was across the street from his old Hell’s Kitchen apart­ment, back in the place he had started. Maybe all of the fail­ures were signs, too.

“I tell you this: Be­ing in some of those flops was the best thing that could ever hap­pen to me. I learned what not to do.”

He leaned into tele­vi­sion. Of­fered an au­di­tion for a “30 Rock” part that had fewer than five lines, he took it. He ended up on a few episodes as the mem­o­rable D’Fwan, a par­ody of the flam­boy­ant di­vos from “The Real House­wives” franchises.

An agent once told him that he was “too dark” for tele­vi­sion, Burgess re­called to En­ter­tain­ment Weekly. But TV was chang­ing.

“I never thought I’d feel more at home on cam­era than I do in the theatre. It’s a strange en­ergy for me to process,” Burgess says. But on his last day on “30 Rock,” Alec Bald­win of­fered him a few grand words of en­cour­age­ment. Af­ter­ward, “I went home, got on my knees and I prayed to the uni­verse, to God. I wanted to work on a show that was on par” with “30 Rock.” Burgess’s voice quakes as he tells the story.

What he didn’t know was that “30 Rock” star Fey was writ­ing a char­ac­ter for him, an out-of-work ac­tor-type named Ti­tus who was from the South and could sing like no­body’s busi­ness.

When he heard, “I thought, ei­ther I’m go­ing to have a job, or I have to fig­ure out how to sue this woman,” Burgess re­called last year to stu­dents at a col­lege in New York.

“Tina’s my boo,” he says now. “When we’re on set, not work­ing, we gig­gle like lit­tle girls.”

He has used his fame to draw at­ten­tion to what he calls an epi­demic of LGBTQ home­less­ness. And Burgess, who once sang hymns with Rosena in the kitchen of that old Athens house, is still spir­i­tual, at­tend­ing Mid­dle Col­le­giate Church in the thick of the East Vil­lage. He even recorded an al­bum to raise money for the church’s jus­tice ef­forts, says the min­is­ter, the Rev. Jacqui Lewis.

Burgess shuns com­par­isons to Ti­tus An­drome­don, whom he sees as fic­tional as a su­per­hero. The real Ti­tuss, Lewis says, is a brother, a giver, so much more.

“I don’t know how to de­scribe it, but the boy from Ge­or­gia is there, in­side him.”

ERIC LIEBOWITZ, NET­FLIX

Ti­tuss Burgess with El­lie Kem­per in the first sea­son of “Un­break­able Kimmy Sch­midt.”

JOHN MCDON­NELL, WASH­ING­TON POST

“Un­break­able Kimmy Sch­midt” ac­tor Ti­tuss Burgess taught him­self to play pi­ano.

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