Tituss Burgess on Kimmy Schmidt, Dreamgirls, and Sebastian the Crab

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Going from Broadway star to getting an Emmy nomination for playing a Broadway wannabe, Tituss Burgess has struck gold as the unemployed actor/roommate Titus Andromedon in Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The Georgia-born performer made his mark wailing in shows like The Little Mermaid and Guys and Dolls before Tina Fey remembered him as the campy hairdresser D’Fwan on 30 Rock and brought him back for some Kimmy action, which has allowed him to satirically mirror the lives of those for whom callbacks are a second coming. Aptly enough, last week Tituss hosted the Casting Society of America’s 31st annual Artios Awards at the Hard Rock Café—a star studded event honoring casting directors in various media—so I cornered him there to talk about the wildly entertaining career trajectories of his character and himself.

Michael Musto: Hello, Tituss! If your Kimmy Schmidt character, Titus, suddenly became a big Broadway star, would that subvert the whole show?

Tituss Burgess: You never want a comedy about someone achieving a goal. You never want to give them their goal prematurely. Part of the comedy comes out of the tragedy of it never happening. Maybe in the last season. But what’s interesting is to see how Titus ends up when he doesn’t achieve his dream. That’s what happens to most actors in New York City.

There was a funny episode where you were rejected from The Lion King because they didn’t think you’d be believable as a straight giraffe. Is that a nod to your having played Sebastian the crab on Broadway in The Little Mermaid?

No, I actually auditioned for The Lion King [in real life]. I thought I was gonna be Simba! I don’t know what I was thinking. I never had a conversation about why I didn’t get it.

So, if you didn’t get Simba, why did you get the part of the crab?

Because I was right for the crab!

You were also right for the witch in Into The Woods in Florida (approved by Sondheim) and you sang a great “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls at a Broadway Backwards event. Do you enjoy subverting gender expectations?

I never want to do that [Dreamgirls] again. Too much work! I have great respect for that score, and that was an isolated event that served its purpose. But I have no intention of doing a full-fledged production. I can do that song, not the role. It’s out of my wheelhouse.

Did you ever get bullied growing up?

Yeah. They did lots of things. But the bullies didn’t know they were bullying. I didn’t either, not until later. It wasn’t outright “There’s something wrong with you.” Just a general demeanor.

Now that you’re basically a rock star, do guys chase you and throw themselves at you?

Not really. People never chase me.

That’s crazy! Anyway, I’m glad Tituss with a double “s” became a star even if Titus with one “s” probably won’t.

Another rising name, Jake Lacy, was also at the Artios awards, where he could personally thank all the casting agents that have helped him get big breaks in the last several years. In Carol, Jake plays Richard, the boyfriend of Therese (Rooney Mara), who comes to learn the unyielding power of the title character. “So you’re the straight character?” I asked him, wryly. “One of them, yeah,” he responded. “Do you think Therese is a late blooming lesbian or is she bisexual?” I wondered. Replied Jake, “I don’t know the take on that. That’s a question for Rooney or [director] Todd Haynes. As for Richard’s concerns, I think he’s baffled that a young woman in the 1950s would want to be with a woman instead of a handsome go-getter like himself. He knows he’s losing her, and he doesn’t understand why. He can’t put it together that she’d be in love with a woman.”

Well, Lacy himself isn’t losing anything, careerwise. He told me he has movies coming out like How To Be Single and Their Finest Hour and a Half, and this season he’ll be Lena Dunham’s “love interest/boyfriend/relationship material” on Girls. Unless she leaves him for girls, lol.

WILL WONDERS NEVER CEASE?

As long as we’re talking about the importance of strong casting, She Loves Me is a porcelain gem of a musical based on the play that resulted in The Shop Around The Corner, In The Good Old Summertime, and (later) You’ve Got Mail. The 1963 confection concerns bickering coworkers in a Budapest notions shop who are blithely unaware that they’re falling in love with each other as anonymous pen pals. Scott Ellis directed a gorgeous revival of it for the Roundabout Theatre Company in 1993, and now he’s helmed a whole other one, also for Roundabout, but with the proviso that it be entirely different, with a whole new cast and fresh approach. With the help of MC Michael McGrath, who’s in the show, they previewed some numbers at Feinstein’s/54 Below the other day, and Laura Benanti, Zach Levi, Jane Krakowski, and Gavin Creel all soared with the material. Lyric writer Sheldon Harnick said the show sunk into relative obscurity after its original Broadway run, but after the ’93 revival, it became a staple all over the place. “My wish,” he added, “is that every 30 years, Scott Ellis will direct She Loves Me and that you will come to see it.” Deal.

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CASINO EVIL

Meanwhile, there’s a new musical that calls upon old tropes for some shits and giggles. “Burn, baby, burn” you’ll be thinking as the world’s first floating casino/disco is hit by an earthquake, tidal waves, piranhas, sharks, and ‘70s disco hits. Fortunately, that’s all in a spoof—one gently mocking the 1970s-driven wave of disaster flicks, where big stars were brought low by aberrations of nature and/or human machinations. The show is Disaster!, cowritten by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick, and coming to Broadway (from previous incarnations) this March. At a sneak peak at Feinstein’s/54 Below last week, Rudetksy (who also costars) introduced us to the cast, like Faith Prince, whom he met years ago back in group therapy. “Who knew sharing your feelings could get you a Broadway show?” said Prince, laughing. She plays the sort of Shelley Winters role, “but thinner” and this time, the lady’s a championship tapper, not a big time swimmer. (When a disaster hits, I’d much rather tap than than swim, wouldn’t you?) Another Tony winner aboard is Roger Bart, last seen in Young Frankenstein. At the event, Bart cracked, “I wanted to come back in something serious, and it was either Fun Home or this.” Castmate Kevin Chamberlin chimed in, “The last thing I did was The Addams Family, and I wanted to come back in something less toxic.” Also checking into this kitschy time tunnel is Baylee Littrell, the 13-year-old son of Backstreet Boys’ Brian Littrell, who’s playing twins, one male, one female. (Baylee performed in an Actors Fund benefit performance of the show last year.) And back from the off-Broadway production is Jennifer Simard, who stole the show as the wily Sister Mary Downy. Add Adam Pascal from Rent, Kerry Butler from Xanadu, and Rachel York from Victor/Victoria, and there hasn’t been this much talent signing up for danger since Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.

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Photo of the Disaster! cast by Andrew Eccles

LAVIN MY HEAD OFF

Always up for a challenge, Linda Lavin can be relied on to embody a character with rich humor and exquisite timing. Starting with her Tony winning turn in Broadway Bound in 1986, she’s been the go-to person to play the edgy relative with a crafty mind and a complicated soul. Not surprisingly, she continues that streak in Richard Greenberg’s new play Our Mother’s Brief Affair, directed by Lynne Meadow. Lavin plays a woman laying on the latest of her many deathbeds and revealing herself to be vain, fanciful, barbed, and funny as she claims to have had a relationship with a very shady historical figure. (I won’t say who it is, since this reveal doesn’t come till towards the end of Act One.) As her gay son (Greg Keller) and lesbian daughter (Kate Arrington) react with raised eyebrows, it’s not clear if Lavin’s character is unleashing a real secret or just straining to giving her life story some heft so she’ll rate an obituary. Other revelations come about in this mix of narration, flashback, and imagination, and Lavin scores, with good support from John Procaccino as her would-be love interest. As for the play itself, Greenberg (Take Me Out) doesn’t pander or write cozy moments, especially since moral ambiguity is at the core of this story, but the end result feels like a witty doodle rather than a substantive affair worth remembering.

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Photo of Kate Arrington, Greg Keller (standing), Linda Lavin, and John Procaccino in Our Mother's Brief Affair by Joan Marcus

I DON’T MEAN RHINESTONES

Here’s an old Hollywood tidbit to end with: The opening night of MoMA’s film tribute to choreographer extraordinaire Jack Cole involved a screening of On the Riviera, with Danny Kaye in dual roles and Gwen Verdon brilliantly hoofing in various numbers. Before the film, Nicole Fosse (daughter of Verdon and the great Bob Fosse) remembered how Jack Cole used Verdon as an assistant/collaborator to tutor the headlining stars in several big movies. According to Nicole, Cole felt Marilyn Monroe was trying too hard to be sexy in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, particularly in the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend Number,” feeling, “When she shoots her arm up, it looks like a dead fish, and when she sits, it’s like the seat is hot.” Verdon’s the one who tweaked Marilyn’s performance so it was subtly steamy rather than over the top desperate. Interestingly, she never had a big screen career of her own—but her tantalizing work in David and Bathsheba, Damn Yankees, and Cocoon lives forever.

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