‘Kimmy Schmidt’ star Tituss Burgess returns ‘Under the Sea’ as Sebastian the crab
Tituss Burgess arrives at a midtown restaurant in a black and white polka-dot shirt and black velvet blazer. It’s a jaunty look on a rainy spring afternoon, but compared to the floral kimonos and “baby slut” T-shirts worn by Titus Andromedon, the flamboyant character he plays in the Netflix series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the ensemble is downright funereal.
Although he shares a first name and certain biographical details with his onscreen counterpart, Burgess is his temperamental opposite. Where Titus-with-one-“S” is outrageous and uncensored, Burgess is subdued and thoughtful, pausing to consider each question before answering.
“I do not like attention,” says the 37-year-old, who will appear as Sebastian the crab in “Disney’s The Little Mermaid in Concert” this weekend at the Hollywood Bowl, revisiting the role he originated on Broadway. “Oddly enough, I do everything I can to avoid it.”
His breakout moment in Season 1 was a music video called “Peeno Noir” that relied on a slightly puerile pun and nonsense rhymes (“caviar/Myanmar/mid-sized car”). It became a viral hit, inspiring GIFs and hashtags galore and making Burgess Pinot Noir’s most prominent booster since Paul Giamatti’s character in “Sideways.”
No one was more surprised by the bit’s success than Burgess, who says he “didn’t really think it was that funny” until he saw the finished product. “It increased my trust in my bosses. I was like, you guys know exactly what you’re doing at all times.”
Burgess didn’t know that “Peeno Noir” would take off, but he’s been savvy enough to capitalize on the opportunity it created, releasing his own brand of Pinot Noir in March. “It seemed like a no-brainer,” Burgess says, though he admits bashfully that he’s “more of a Malbec kind of guy.”
Streaming shows like “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” have made the cliche of “overnight fame” into a reality, turning previous unknowns into stars in a matter of a weekend. Burgess found the experience jarring.
“I’m a very private person,” he says, methodically picking the croutons out of a Caesar salad. (He’s recently lost 15 pounds by cutting back on his beloved carbs.) “The level of comfort that people feel with me has taken some getting used to.”
Burgess was raised in Athens, Ga., and developed his love of music attending the local Baptist church. He became a choir director in high school. “I felt like a wizard, being able to make people sound good,” he recalls.
After graduating from the University of Georgia with a degree in music, he earned his Equity card in a “Lion King”-themed show at Disney World, then fled to New York. “I could not leave Georgia fast enough,” says Burgess, noting with distaste the wave of anti-LGBT laws recently passed in Southern states including Mississippi, the original home of his alter ego. “Those states exhaust me.”
Still, some old habits remain: He regularly attends church, albeit at a progressive downtown congregation that, he says, “represents the very thing that God stands for, which is love, plain and simple.”
Within a year and half of his arrival in New York, he’d landed his first Broadway role. Unfortunately, it was in the Beach Boys jukebox musical “Good Vibrations,” a critically reviled flop that closed in less than three months in 2005.
Roles in “Jersey Boys,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Guys and Dolls” followed. In between, he worked the usual assortment of thankless jobs, including a stint as a host at Ruby Foo’s in Times Square that lasted a week. -- “and I might have called in sick several of those days,” he adds.
Burgess was close to giving up acting and accepting a teaching position when he was cast as D’Fwan, Sherri Shepherd’s sassy gay sidekick, in “30 Rock” episodes that masterfully parodied the “Real Housewives” franchise.
With little on-camera experience, Burgess says he was “petrified” to film one of his first scenes with Fey. Despite the nerves, he made an impression. “We weren’t sure if he was playing a character or if he was just a wonderful weirdo,” Fey recalled in an email. “Turns out he was acting and is very ‘in control of his instrument,’ as acting teachers like to say.”
When Fey and Carlock began to write “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Titus was inspired by D’Fwan and an old “Saturday Night Live” friend who used to stay home sewing dresses for Barbies; the name was borrowed from Burgess. “He knew very quickly what size to play things and to let the camera come to him,” said Fey of his immersion into the single-camera comedy world. “We learned quickly we could give him a lot, so now we will work him to death.”
Titus has blossomed ever so slightly in Season 2, gaining professional traction and falling in love with a sweet-natured construction worker. The series’ creators leaned heavily on Burgess’ musical abilities, with a standout episode in which he performed “forgotten” show tunes from made-up musicals (i.e. “Alabama,” an all-black version of “Oklahoma!”)
Composer and executive producer Jeff Richmond appreciates that he can communicate with Burgess “in the most geeky, musical theater-y specific ways possible.”
“I could say something like ‘imagine this sounding like Charlie Strouse and Lenny Bernstein had a baby. And that baby grew up to write this song.’”
Burgess hasn’t ruled out a return to theater, joking that “we’re on speaking terms and we might move back in together,” but for now his heart belongs to television.
“It has fed me in the most peculiar way, in the most unique way,” he says, “and I’m forever changed.”
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