Absolutely no one expects to hear a rousing, soaring cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.”
“I didn’t expect it either! That was the first time I had ever heard that song,” says Tituss Burgess, who puts his soulful spin on the Southern rock anthem in the new special episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. While the quirky hit Netflix show, created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, officially wrapped last year with its fourth and final season, they decided to give fans one last hilarious hurrah, creating an interactive special as an encore. Kimmy vs. the Reverend allows viewers a number of choose-your-own-adventure options straying from its chief plot, focused on a wedding between Ellie Kemper as Schmidt and Daniel Radcliffe as Prince Frederick.
It’s all the fun, absurdist escape from reality you’d expect from the show, and becomes even more fun the further you stray, with the show’s characters popping up to chide you for making bad choices and hitting another dead end. If you play your cards right — which is to say, wrong — you might even get Burgess in character as Titus Andromedon ribbing you: “Who are you, me at Chipotle? Because you made some bad choices that are going to affect everyone!”
“We filmed that last summer, so I’ve been anxious for the world to see it,” Burgess says, “and also eager to begin my bittersweet departure from that role [and] to embrace new ways to reintroduce myself to the people who already know me, and introduce myself to the people who don’t.”
While Burgess had already established himself on Broadway in the decade leading up to his work in Kimmy Schmidt, the role — which was tailor-made for him by Fey — turned him into a star. From the get-go, Burgess spawned hundreds of GIFs and memes as a result of his exaggerated expressiveness in the role of Kimmy’s over-the-top roommate and best friend. And all the attention Burgess has generated as a result of his breakout success with the show has slowly, surely started to parlay into other ventures.
Those include Central Park, a new animated musical sitcom from the creator of Bob’s Burgers about a four-unit family in which Burgess gives voice to son Cole. The year will end with Burgess playing a key role in Respect, the Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson. In between should come a new Netflix project. “I’ve been told that it will happen this year, that it will premiere this year,” but that’s the extent of what Burgess can say for now.
At the very least, you can be sure to see Burgess through regular posts to his Instagram. He turns to the site whenever he feels the need to burst into song, or to share a funny moment from his quiet life with his two dogs, Hans and Micah, whom he refers to as “my best friends.”
“I use it mainly as an outlet for myself to be silly, and to try and put a smile on people’s faces.”
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt vs. The Reverend
METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with “Dance M.F.,” your sultry new song with a message that should resonate with all who hear it. Was it inspired or motivated by the current pandemic?
TITUSS BURGESS: It’s ironic — it didn’t start off being about the current global crisis, because I started writing this with Dan Edenberg and Imani Coppola back in September. And I didn’t know what my intentions were for the project. And at that moment, I was doing a lot of soul-searching and was trying to make sense of a rapidly changing world, so I wrote something that I could put on that would calm me down. I wasn’t so much thinking about the rest of the world at the time. And by the time we had finished what we were trying to say, we were entering what we now know to be the global pandemic. I also had no intentions of releasing the song, at least not right now. I was going to wait until I had a body of music all together, and then make sense of what should go on what would be a future album.
But it became quickly apparent that we were all in need of a remedy, a vaccine of the soul if you will. And so I thought, if this makes me feel this much better, if this puts a smile on my face, and I know what comes next, maybe it could do the same for listeners. So that’s why I released it.
MW: I like how you directly address the listener in the first verse, and then immediately tease us with “blah, blah, blah.”
BURGESS: I mean, people are inundated with information that is constantly cross-examining itself, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find sources of information and even entertainment that don’t condescend or don’t — how do I articulate it? — create emotional porn out of all of the havoc that has been wreaked on the world right now. So I wanted to make it as poignant but as light-hearted as I possibly could.
Tituss Burgess — Photo: Jeff Mills
MW: Are there any plans to do an edited version, or release a radio mix that doesn’t include the repeated chant of “motherfucker?”
BURGESS: Well, if I’m so lucky as to get radio play, we have already created a radio edit and a little snippet of it was played on the Elvis Duran show [on New York’s Z100] last week. I’m hopeful that it gets that far. But I will say this: I’ve learned to manage my expectations. I think at this point in my life — at this point in my career — the people that follow me, those are the members of my church, and it’s my job to give them the good word as I know it. If it only reaches my half-million followers, or however many people in the world look to me to make them feel better — as a source of inspiration or entertainment or a feel-good pick-me-up, if you will — if those are the only people who hear it, then my job is done. But if it spreads, it spreads, and great!
But I hope that the song takes on a life of its own outside of me so that you put it on and, sure it’s good if you think of Tituss, but if you are your own narrator listening to it, then make it yours. Use it as you see fit. Because I don’t know your personal circumstances and you don’t know mine, but when we both listen to that, hopefully we both want to dance it out and exorcize whatever it is that is plaguing us.
MW: I feel like that could also serve as a pretty good characterization of the six songs released on your EP, Saint Tituss, last summer.
BURGESS: I was unable to give Saint Tituss the attention that I feel it deserves. I quickly went into production for a project that will be coming out on Netflix that I shouldn’t really speak to because I don’t have the date or how much they’ve told the press. Then I went into production and began to film Respect, the Aretha Franklin biopic with Jennifer Hudson.
So, one day, when I rule the world, hopefully I get to revisit all of the music that I’ve made. But again, it gets to the people that seek it out. Not being on a label and being an independent artist, even with my modest amount of celebrity, doesn’t necessarily produce number one hits. The people that know you, know what you’re doing and then they go and consume what you put out.
MW: In regards to what you said about managing expectations, and at the risk of overhyping or overstating things, it’s hard to imagine your level of celebrity not increasing significantly over the course of the next six months, given the mix of projects you’ve got coming up.
BURGESS: Oh, man. It’s interesting, brother. I am very fortunate to have projects that were generated before all of this nightmare began, and to be a part of projects that have not been stalled or affected by our isolation. And even projects that were affected, I can now finish in isolation. So my art was pandemic-proof, if you will. And I say that in the most humble way. But it is true. In many ways, I feel busier during this time than I did when I was actually going all over the place flying here and there. In some ways, this Zoom meeting here, recording remotely there, is a different type of fatigue that I have never experienced. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that. It requires an entirely different type of focus. But to that end, there is a wealth of projects that I have been able to be a part of that are coming down the pipeline.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt vs. The Reverend
MW: The highest profile of those is also a project that will launch you into 2021, the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, set for release over Christmas. Tell us about the film and how you got to be involved?
BURGESS: Well, it is a beautifully written piece and it is directed so brilliantly by Liesl Tommy. I had worked with Liesl about 15 years ago. She was directing a reading at an NYU graduate musical theater writing program, and I participated in one of the readings. And when I walked through the door to audition for Respect, I was like, “God, I recognize this woman but I cannot remember when or how.” At the end of my audition, it came to me. She gave me a note, an adjustment, and all of a sudden all of the memories came flooding back and I was like, “I know how I know this woman!” So I subsequently was afforded the opportunity to play the role and it was kismet, if you will, because my first day of filming was Reverend Dr. James Cleveland’s birthday, December 5th. It was almost like having his blessing.
MW: In fact, you play Dr. Cleveland, the King of Gospel, who was the Queen of Soul’s church choir director growing up. Did it impact your portrayal in any way, the fact that you’re an out gay actor and singer who grew up in the church and with gospel music? Or is there anything our LGBTQ readers should know in particular about your role and the film overall?
BURGESS: They should know that Liesl Tommy thought that I was right for the role. She thought I was a good enough actor to do this legend justice. And I guess time will tell if I did it. But the similarities have nothing to do with my sexuality. He’s a writer, I’m a writer. He was a choir conductor, I conducted a choir when I was 12. He’s a man of faith, I am still very much a man of faith, and I have reconciled my own sexuality with my maker. And he mentored Aretha Franklin, I love Aretha Franklin. Plus, they played his songs in my church. So it was an easy fit in my book. And, once I was in hair and makeup, we look surprisingly similar.
Tituss Burgess — Photo: Jeff Mills
MW: I knew you had grown up with gospel, but I understand you also became an early devotee of Broadway, and the music of Stephen Sondheim in particular.
BURGESS: Oh, yes. That’s exactly what my show at Carnegie Hall was about. It’s kind of a long story. When I was a kid, I would spend my summers with my grandparents while my mom, who was a single parent at the time, worked. Most of my days with my grandparents were filled with doing chores and being on their farm down in Lexington, Georgia. And they raised chickens and hogs and hens and they grew corn, collard greens, watermelon, you name it. And so I would be down there helping my grandparents in the field.
One particular Sunday there came a huge thunderstorm. So we all ran into their house, and their roof was made of tin, so the rain just sounded like it was this gorgeous, dramatic symphony. My grandparents decided to take a nap, and I decided to turn on the TV. They got three channels: ABC, NBC, and PBS. And on PBS, they were airing one of the Great Performances, Sunday in the Park with George starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. I remember watching, not fully understanding the plot, but completely understanding the music, and I was able to follow where it was headed, and also surprised by the places it went when I couldn’t follow where it was headed. It filled me with such joy and peace and was quite spiritual. My experience and response to the music was not entirely unlike what my grandmother and my mom expressed when we were in church. And so I had found my own God, if you will, and now I refer to him as Godheim.
MW: I imagine you’d like to do more Sondheim, and just more theater and live performance in general. At the moment, however, it’s unclear when you might be able to do any of that again.
BURGESS: Well, whenever the spirit moves me, I get on Instagram Live and I sing a song or two. But I do worry for theater, and I worry for my friends and fellow actors who were in shows or who were about to be in shows. Who knows when we will all be able to be together again and enjoy theater the way we want it? But I’m hopeful that the higher-up scientists will be able to protect us and come up with a way for individuals to both enjoy a version of life as we knew it but also keep us all safe while we’re doing it.
I also worry about the pandemic’s big domino effect. All the lovely restaurants — and I’m speaking straight to the fact of theater being down, as it relates to businesses that surround it. They rely on that traffic and the transient nature of the flow of tourists [and] people who are diehards or repeat offenders that see shows over and over again. And that has been compromised, if not completely halted, for those businesses. And unless you’re backed by a big corporation or unless you’re a big ol’ food chain that can afford to pay rent for months and months and months without any business, there’s a grim outlook as it relates to one’s future, because that will impact what you do for a living. So it is sad. And it’s frightening.
I’ve not done a Broadway show in over a decade, but I had planned to begin mining for a property that would be appropriate for my return. Who knows when that will happen? So, for now, we wait. And we raise money for each other, and try and keep each other afloat so that we can all come back together, because no one is an island.
MW: On a lighter note, and on the topic of past live performances, is it true that you turned last year’s Kennedy Center concert into an elaborate surprise birthday party for your mother and her friends and family?
BURGESS: Oh, yeah! That was my solo Kennedy Center debut last July. My mom didn’t know that was happening, and she also didn’t know she was being flown to Washington, D.C. And she didn’t know I was hiding an entire concert planned around her musical tastes, and that it would be one big birthday present to her. So I flew her and her sisters and my cousins up. And when she got there, mid-concert, I surprised her. She was really shocked and overwhelmed. She had such a wonderful time, and she looked beautiful. And so yeah, that was that. I was so pleased that I was able to curate a concert, both specifically to her musical likes, but also broad enough that it would still be satisfying for the audience.
MW: It sounds like quite the feat. Would you say you’re still really close to your mother? Does she watch and know all of your stuff?
BURGESS: She watches some of it. I may be one of the odd ones, but I don’t go around telling my friends and my mom, my family, “I’m going to be on this channel this day, and that channel that day.” When I first started, I did that somewhat. But things come so fast and furious now and they have their own lives. And she keeps her tabs on me. She’ll go, “Oh, I caught your performance in this or that or whatever.” She lets me know what she’s seen and what she hasn’t seen. And some stuff I feel comfortable with her watching, and some things I don’t.
MW: That brings me to another project I wanted to ask you about, which I’m not sure even your mother might know of — your narration of the Apple Books audiobook, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
BURGESS: Oh, are you serious?! No one’s ever asked me about that. I had so much fun narrating that!
MW: You can hear that in your delivery. It’s fun to listen to, and it also turns out to be a great way to rediscover Oz, especially for those who may be intimately familiar with the tale, but only as it has been adapted on film, with The Wizard of Oz, or on stage, with The Wiz. Were you familiar with the book before taking on the project?
BURGESS: No, I wasn’t. And when I read it, I was so shocked that there were so many different [versions] and totally different areas that Dorothy and her friends visit that were not in the wonderful story that was immortalized on the big screen. It was fun to imagine how the people sounded, and what must be going through her head, and what this alternate universe that this poor girl found herself in looked like. And all she wanted to do was go home. But as Dorothy learns lessons, and even as the secondary players learn their own personal lessons, I found it quite cathartic and therapeutic even as I read it.
MW: Do you have a favorite character from the book, one that was your favorite to embody?
BURGESS: Hmmm. I guess the witch. That was probably my favorite, because I wanted to try and create something that was a tad different than the witch that we came to know on screen.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt vs. The Reverend
MW: You’re talking about Glinda the Good Witch, who we meet at the very beginning with the munchkins. It’s also noteworthy just how descriptive the book is, especially in the beginning — sharing little details that, for obvious reasons, the movie simply showed and otherwise glossed over. And you work to bring those written words vividly to life.
BURGESS: I will say this, it’s a lot harder work than just sitting there reading. I mean, Lord have mercy. I could only do a few chapters at a time before I became so fatigued, because you have to read it almost as though it’s going to be animated, but in fact it’s the mind that ultimately is animating it as you read it. But you have to give it as much fervor and excitement and energy as though it were going to be turned into a cartoon.
MW: Which is why I thought you might single out the lion as your favorite character to bring to life, because you do it so masterfully.
BURGESS: Oh! Well listen, if there were ever a reiteration of either The Wiz or The Wizard of Oz, I’d love to be the lion. I played the lion when I was in middle school. So it’s a character that has always been close to my heart. And then I played it again in The Wiz under the direction of Des McAnuff at La Jolla Playhouse in 2006. And so it is never far from my heart.
MW: We’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss the “queer” elephant in the room, which is to say the frequent use in the book of that word as well as the occasional use of “gay” — at least as old-fashioned adjectives.
BURGESS: Right, it’s not in the way that we have mainstreamed the words in what we refer to. “Queer” just meant “strange,” and “gay” just meant “happy.” It is interesting to think about, for kids today to hear those words — I wonder if they might get confused or not know the intention that was behind them when it was originally written.
MW: Have you gotten much feedback about how kids are receiving it?
BURGESS: Oh, no. You’re the first person that’s ever spoken to me about it.
MW: Speaking of voiceover work, you’re in the new Apple TV+ show Central Park. Tell us more about what that is exactly.
BURGESS: Central Park is a wonderful cartoon from Loren Bouchard and Josh Gad, and it’s filled with lovely messages. It’s about a familial unit, the Tillermans, who live in Central Park. And the patriarch takes care of Central Park, and the matriarch is a journalist, and desires to pursue bigger and better stories. And then there’s the kids, played by myself and Kristen Bell, and we get to sing the best songs by a multitude of composers, not excluding the creatives.
MW: When did you start working on that?
BURGESS: We’ve been working on it for about a year now. We’ve completed the first season, but season two has already been ordered. So we are expecting to soon begin work on that.
MW: We’re also coming up on an election. Do you have any thoughts about how to motivate LGBTQ and progressive people to do the right thing and vote?
BURGESS: I’m praying that more people, who aren’t already, get registered to vote, and that they apply for absentee ballots if they are finding the idea of voting and waiting in line with other people uncomfortable. And that hopefully we exercise our right and we vote for the safety of our country and the safety of ourselves. Vote your conscience. I’m not going to try and sway anybody. I know what I believe, and I know that I want to be happy, but everyone has their own individual right, so everyone should act on it.
MW: True, and yet it is — or, at least it should be — pretty clear who and what to vote for, generally speaking, if you’re gay or progressive and concerned about all the setbacks and threats we’ve faced in recent years and the certainty of worse to come if we don’t vote in greater numbers.
BURGESS: We should all just register to vote, and all of us who those issues affect, know that those issues affect us. And I think with my work, I’ve made it very clear where I stand politically. I want to see someone in the White House that reflects the needs of brown people, black people, and minorities everywhere, not just those of mainstream America and not just billionaires.
MW: I do like the way you touch on that with the opening song on Saint Tituss, “45.”
BURGESS: Yeah, it’s a call to action. That’s why I say I don’t need to preach it. I worry that under the current administration, there have been some issues that affect the trans community, that affect queer [people], that affect black men and black women and black transwomen — they’re murdered disproportionately, and nothing is being done. We have to make a big stink, and we have to raise all this money, and we have to do all of these things — wave our hands — to create an SOS to get the higher ups to pay attention and punish those that are hurting us. We need someone in the White House who is going to speak on our behalf and would help bring charges for people who commit those crimes.
MW: Are you hopeful for Joe Biden?
BURGESS: Well, I suppose he’s the presumptive nominee. I know that I won’t be voting for Donald Trump, I know that much.
MW: Any thoughts about who you would like to see as Biden’s running mate?
BURGESS: I’d like to see a woman. I want to see a woman who has worked in government and who understands legislation, because she is seconds away behind the president. She could be leading us. I’m sick of men running the world. I want women to run the world. I just want more women in government everywhere — local level, state level, and federal level.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and its interactive special Kimmy Schmidt vs. the Reverend are available to stream on Netflix. Visit www.netflix.com.
Central Park is available to stream on Apple TV+. “Dance M.F.” and Saint Tituss can be streamed from your favorite music platform. Visit www.tv.apple.com.
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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @ruleonwriting.
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