The High and The Mighty
In career and in song, it’s a breakout moment for Tituss Burgess.
Gasper Tringale /CPI
When Tituss Burgess bursts into song, he’s just doing what comes naturally.
“I’m not conscious of it, but I suppose singing is as commonplace for me as talking,” he says. “It’s how I express everything — and I always give it my heart and soul.”
Whether he’s belting out tunes or showing off his comedy chops on Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — the third season premiered in May — Burgess is hitting all the high notes. As Titus Andromedon, Kimmy’s gay, frustrated-actor roommate, he has been the series’ breakout star and ultimate scene-stealer, nabbing two supporting-actor Emmy noms in as many seasons.
Burgess may make it look easy, but portraying his namesake is anything but. “People don’t believe it, but I’m much more of an introvert than Titus is,” he says. “I don’t enjoy being the center of attention or thrive on chaos, like he does. Having to summon the energy that playing him requires, and to stay in it all day, is really exhausting.” However, he adds, “we both love music and musicals, and — I’m not bragging here — I think Titus is exceptionally talented.”
A Broadway veteran who has hit the boards in Guys and Dolls, The Little Mermaid and Jersey Boys, Burgess — who, at 11, was directing the choir at the Baptist church his family attended — has helped transform Kimmy from another Tina Fey comedy into TV’s most of-the-moment screwball musical series.
He first endeared himself to Fey and Robert Carlock (both are creator–executive producers of Kimmy) playing the gay hairdresser D‘Fwan on their previous sitcom, 30 Rock. They created a character for the Netflix series with Burgess in mind.
Still, it was his singular vocal gifts — Burgess is a tenor with a range spanning nearly four octaves — that unlocked Kimmy’s musical potential, starting with his naughty viral hit, “Peeno Noir.” “I’d like to say I just pull my shirt apart like Superman and off I go, but putting together the songs is much more complex,” he explains.
The show’s composer, Jeff Richmond (who also collaborated with Fey, his wife, on 30 Rock), “doesn’t let me know too far in advance what’s coming, but once the writers put the idea on paper, I come in and put my spin on it,” Burgess says. “I cowrite a lot of the melodies and offer my opinion on how campy or scaled down the number should be.”
Working with costars Ellie Kemper, Jane Krakowski and Carol Kane is also very much a collaborative process.
“Ellie and I have such a deep bond — we’re almost like twins who are always tuned in to what the other person is thinking and feeling,” he says. “Jane is like the big sis I never knew I wanted. We get into trouble together, but in the best way. And Carol is like my auntie. She requires a certain calm to work, which has taught me a new skill set and a whole different approach to comedy.”
And his feelings about Fey? “She’s funny, fair and has her fingers on the pulse of what’s going on, even before it makes headlines. By the time we hit the air, whatever issues we’re talking about on the show have become topical. She’s aware of everything and everyone on set, and makes it all look seamless running the show. She’s everything I think a woman should strive to be!”
As for what Fey has up her sleeve for Kimmy and friends, Burgess is keeping mum. “What I can tell you is that it’s going to be brassier, sassier, funnier and flashier,” he says. “Hang on!”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5. 2017