There is no mistaking that voice, that smile, or the way he moves. Five-time Emmy nominee Tituss Burgess has charmed audiences from his childhood days in Athens, Georgia, in front of a church crowd, to the stages of Broadway, to network television. Next summer, he will take part in the film Respect, the Jennifer Hudson led biopic of Aretha Franklin. He is a fierce lion – gentle enough to lure with his purring voice, and capable of lashing out to protect his home. (He took down a moving company for using a gay slur against him with the power of his social media.) He has lent his voice to LGBTQ organizations of all kinds as an activist and to raise awareness for equality, his Stonewall Inn performance of West Side Story’s “Somewhere” in honor of the Pulse Nightclub victims was lauded by Time Magazine. He is confident, can be outspoken, does not care what others think, and above all, is living his passion. At the core of everything he has become, has been music.
His vocal range is close to four octaves and no song seems beyond his reach whether it’s a Disney showstopper, a classic pop song, or a female Stephen Sondheim ballad – his tear-jerking performance as the Witch in Into the Woods was met with a multitude of standing ovations. As an only child, raised by his mother and grandparents, music was his early companion, teaching himself to play the piano and realizing his voice was something unique.
The first piece of music I remember affecting me was something I think my grandmother sang. But I think it is the memory of my grandmother that makes the song special. It was a song called The Storm is Passing Over, sort of like a gospel hymn. I was five or six. When I began singing with my mom, watching the people react, I sort of realized this was something that everyone couldn’t do, that it was special.
At 11 years old, he was directing the choir at his family’s Baptist Church. As a reflection of his early church life, he founded the Art & Soul Chorus at Middle Church, a chorus of professional singers and actors across a variety of genres and backgrounds who gather to sing gospel music, right after his stint in The Little Mermaid. Many gay men who grew up in a church environment in the South have had a tumultuous relationship with religion and their sexuality. Not so with Titus. He always had confidence in his place in God’s vision.
I never really had to reconcile the narrative that often goes on in churches where gay people are condemned. No one sin is bigger than the other. We all come to earth flawed. God has always been in me, around me. God for me takes on many forms, and sexuality is one of them. Sexuality is about exploration, it is about creation, not necessarily procreation. God’s own self has a strong sense of sexuality because he made so many beautiful people. He created a shit storm or, rather, we created a shit storm out of God’s creation. We continue to fight with one another on what is what, or who is right and who is wrong. I think I have always found a God and what God stands for in the many forms that God comes in. I grew up culturally Christian, I identify with Jesus Christ, but I do not believe that our practice is the only way to a peaceful eternity. Maybe when I was younger, I was a little trepidatious about what the difference in me meant, but I never felt the absence of God and I hope I never do.
Mirroring his confident relationship with his faith, was his confidence in his self, though different than those around him growing up.
I have a bunch of cousins, they are all manly men, they drive tractors and play sports. I was with my girl cousins, playing dolls and helping my grandma cook. And I want to be clear – gay people drive tractors and play sports too. But back then, they were attributes that were associated with heterosexuality and machismo, and I was playing with dolls. I knew that something was different and struggled to make peace with it. Then once I got to high school, I had a strong sense of who I was. I mean, I didn’t give a damn what the rest of the world thought, not even my parents.
Tituss found his voice, so to speak, in Church and in performing in his high school theatre program and earning a BA in Music from Georgia University. He knew who he was and what he wanted to be, staying at home just wasn’t it.
When I became a young adult, I very quickly realized that what I wanted to do existed somewhere else. So, I started to feel not quite at home in my home, and that what I wanted was in a completely different city. This made me begin to identify less with where I was.
The biggest takeaway from his youth is simple.
I am my last line of defense, so when everything is crumbling around me, I will make sure that I am fine.
Tituss has become one of the most recognizable members from the LGBTQ community on Broadway, with roles in The Little Mermaid, Jersey Boys, and Guys and Dolls, and numerous musical appearances on televised events and benefits. But the road to Broadway success was not overnight.
Before I moved to New York, I would fly back and forth to audition for shows like The Lion King, Rent, and Hairspray. Things I was completely wrong for, but, you know, I wanted to be on Broadway and learned very quickly about how to master making it your own. Ignorance is bliss and I just went in balls to the wall and did what I do best, which is to be me.
Tituss made his Broadway debut 16 years ago in the Beach Boys jukebox musical, Good Vibrations.
We had a very interesting rehearsal and preview process and while I was ecstatic to be on Broadway, that experience was anything but amazing. It was bumpy at best. But I learned the most about theater doing Good Vibrations.
His best advice for new Broadway actors?
The best advice I can give is to make the commitment, follow through, and show up to work.
His first high profile Broadway role was in the original production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid as the beloved crustacean, Sebastian. How does an actor approach such a beloved character, a role that everyone knew from the films line by line?
Sebastian is a water creature. I’m a water sign. Sebastian does not necessarily like chasing after children, even the ones he loves. I have no desire to babysit or teach kids. My patience is short. His is short. He is a composer. I am a composer. He is a conductor. I am a conductor. So, it was easy to identify with him. And in the end, his deep affection for the young child, who was becoming a woman, won over his heart and he went against his better judgment to assist her in her own exploration. Just when I feel like I don’t want to be someone’s mentor or I don’t want to do a class or, you know, help younger people, I have to think about The Little Mermaid and what it means to sacrifice. And to you put yourself in harm’s way to help assist another – that is what was going through my head when I was performing that role every night. It was one of the greatest joys of my entire life.
Almost ten years later, he would revisit the role of Sebastian for the Hollywood Bowl concert version of The Little Mermaid with Darren Criss, Rebel Wilson, and original castmate, Norm Lewis.
Playing the Hollywood Bowl – oh, dear Lord. That was exhilarating, and I hope to do it again. It was thrilling hearing all those people erupt in applause because of their affection for the score.
And, of course, we know the best part about doing theatre.
Gay people run theater.
The move from Broadway to TV was in his first role, a one-liner that turned into a recurring guest spot on NBC’s 30 Rock. He remembers seeing himself on TV for the first time.
I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I still can’t believe it. I can’t believe where I am today and all the wonderful things I get to do, but I remember being terrified. I knew very little about TV or acting for television. I think my takeaway from that experience is that sometimes the only way to learn, truly learn, is to be thrown deep into the ocean so that you have no other choice but to at least attempt to learn how to swim. And if you don’t make it, you’re bound to pick up a few things along the way that you can add to your next attempt.
The role that would spiral his career into national fame and Emmy recognition was playing Titus Andromedon, the flamboyantly gay, self-absorbed, aspiring actor. The role would make Tituss a mainstream, household personality with commercials, talk shows, and more musical appearances. The role fit like a glove and his real-life friendship with co-star Ellie Kemper (she peed on his leg from laughing during the first day of taping) displayed sincere chemistry. Both Tituss the actor and Titus the character became a fan favorite. Was the role made for him?
I mean, I just sort of showed up to work and read with Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. I did not have a great deal of input at all. The interpretation of the line and his overall characterization I came up with, but that was all influenced by what they wrote. And, by the costume designer, Tina Nigro. Once she put me in those ridiculous outfits, I knew exactly who Titus was. I know a few people in life who behaved the way he behaved, and it was easy to find. Was it made for me? I don’t know, I’ve heard many different answers. I also don’t care. I got to do it, so I am forever grateful.
From small-town boy singing at church to national media attention, was it a bit overwhelming?
Well, I am still handling it honestly, any attention on some level. On a personal level, it makes me very uncomfortable. I’ve never had a strong need to be the center of attention, but I am an only child. And so, I received a lot of attention. Conversely, it did not entirely feel altogether different. It does not get lost on me, the good fortune I have found.
The role of Titus Andromedon earned him five Primetime Emmy nominations. He was an agent’s dream and an out and proud representation of our community. An Emmy nomination, however, does have its pros and cons.
Being nominated is my favorite thing and going is my least favorite thing because you’re hungry and it’s always so hot. [Laughs] Also, I do not like to travel. I live on the East Coast and the Emmys are in Los Angeles; the traveling makes me very uncomfortable. I just live a life a discomfort, I guess. [Laughs] But meeting all those people that you idolized for so long, that is really something.
Although perfect for the role, and with the same first name, Tituss B is not Titus A.
I don’t know what people want from Tituss Burgess versus what they saw in Titus Andromedon, but Tituss Burgess is very grounded, very generous, mischievous, and cheeky. He cares about people, so you do the math and the inductive reasoning as to what the differences are.
Using his vocal skills once again, his latest project has been as a cast member on the animated series Central Park, also starring Leslie Odom Jr., Kristen Bell, Daveed Diggs, Josh Gad, Kathryn Hahn, and Stanley Tucci. He is a busy man, but his voice doesn’t get tired. Does he get tired?
I would love to live on a farm with a bunch of dogs. I have two lovely dogs now, but I do not get to spend a lot of time with them. I am fortunate in the way that I am getting to do all the things that are passions of mine – and I make time for them. Most of them turn into what I have been doing for a living. You know, some people find their passion very early on. My passion also happens to be my hobby.
His message to his fans for the New Year?
Let’s continue to make every attempt at communicating. Thank you for assisting me in achieving my dreams and I hope to continue to give them things, to satiate their appetite for good entertainment.
Follow Tituss on Instagram @instatituss
Last modified: December 3, 2020