Unbreakable Tituss Burgess
Actor with voice from the heavens endured repeated Broadway flops to end up as the over-the-top Titus Andromedon
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.”
Tituss Burgess with Ellie Kemper in the first season of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” actor Tituss Burgess taught himself to play piano.