Jeff Mills

While his character Titus Andromedon on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—a role creator Tina Fey wrote with him in mind—has dreams of being a Broadway star, the real man, Tituss Burgess already is one: He’s played Sebastian the Crab in The Little Mermaid and also appeared in Broadway productions of Guys and Dolls and Jersey Boys. In addition to his show-stealing comedic role on Kimmy Schmidt (for which he was ROBBED of four Emmy Awards), Burgess, who’s self-taught on piano since the age of 9, is also known for his powerhouse tenor vocals.

Contrary to Kimmy Schmidt fans’ wishful thinking, Burgess doesn’t have too much else in common with the personality of his Andromedon character—he’s just insanely good at his job of convincing us his character is 100 percent real. Burgess’ musicianship is often utilized—hilariously—in his acting roles, like in that viral spoof of Beyoncé’s Lemonade when him and onscreen beau Michael are going through it on Kimmy Schmidt, and his character’s perfect-yet-lazy on-the-fly rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” You may have also seen him acting alongside one of his heroes, Eddie Murphy, in the recent Netflix film Dolemite Is My Name. 

In a recent phone interview with the Mercury, Burgess tells me from his home in New York that he just finished wrapping the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect, in which he plays Dr. James Cleveland (who was known as the King of Gospel), alongside Jennifer Hudson, who’s playing Aretha. When asked if he misses being on Kimmy Schmidt, Burgess says “My life has been so full. I have not had a moment to miss it, but when I see my lovely cast members I am reminded of what a wonderful time we had together. I was just with Jane [Krakowski] this past weekend, she joined me at Carnegie Hall for my debut. But also, with this interactive special that we have coming up in May, it’s like we never left, honestly.”

Last year, after wrapping season four, show creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock announced that Kimmy Schmidt would return for an interactive special, similar to Netflix’s Black Mirror film Bandersnatch, which lets the viewer make narrative decisions. 

Born in Athens, Georgia, Burgess’ self-made success story is certainly impressive; he says his creative process is essentially “no process” (the key is just waiting for inspiration). But he says there are many musical influencers he’s learned from and who’ve helped him get to this peak of his career: a slew of chorus teachers, a neighbor who taught piano, and perhaps most notably, renowned soprano opera singer Renée Fleming. 

“I’ve had the opportunity to perform with her twice now... I think? We see each other often and I catch her performances when I can, when she’s in New York performing. She’s such a musician, it’s beyond singing. It truly is a very carefully crafted conversation that occurs. And I just love the way she unfurls the story.”

In 2019 Burgess dropped his very personal new six-track EP Saint Tituss, pulling inspiration from musical theatre, R&B, pop, as well as his own journey through depression, homophobia, heartbreak, and self-acceptance. Perhaps the most affecting track on the project is the epic ballad “I’ll Be Alright,” which sets fire to a past relationship, with self-love emerging triumphantly from the ashes. Lead single “45” (featuring Daniel J. Watts) sees him crooning about the crisis of the Donald Trump presidency, the state of American politics, and our need to come together and do something about it. 

“It was a call to action for everyone. It had less to do with Donald Trump and more to do with everyone waking up to the nonsense that is our current political situation,” Burgess says. “I feel powerless so I just wrote a song as a way to get that energy out of me. But the only way I know how to fix it is to vote and encourage other people to vote and to have a conversation. Honestly, it’s not so much about silencing right wing or the red states or anything like that. We’re not gonna [have a United States Brexit], we’re gonna have to be together. So what are we gonna do? It’s more of an invitation for an ongoing dialogue as best we know how. ’Cause our poor country is so rooted in such systematic institutions that disenfranchise many of us, and prevent us from even getting to the table to have a conversation.”

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Burgess’ concert, presented by the Oregon Symphony, is not part of a larger tour, but rather a one-off show that inexplicably is happening in Portland. (Burgess has performed the program once before, at Carnegie Hall three months ago.) The musical event will mark the artist’s first time visiting the Rose City. 

“It’s gonna be very intimate, it’s a jazz trio,” Burgess says. “We’ll do several different genres: some things I grew up listening to, some theatre pieces, a couple jazz standards, and then some tunes that are lesser known and that lend themselves to things that have come out of the Great American Songbook.... I hope people come hungry with an open heart and open ears. I’m ready for you.”