Unless you're a musical theater aficionado who's spent a lot of time in Broadway theaters, you probably don't know the name Tituss Burgess. That might very well change, and soon.
Burgess is a singing actor who's been in the original casts of the Broadway hits Jersey Boys (Hal Miller), The Little Mermaid (Sebastian the Crab) and Guys and Dolls (in the recent successful revival, he played Nicely Nicely Johnson). He also originated the role of Eddie in the Beach Boys musical Good Vibrations, which wasn't a hit.
Not a bad track record, considering that this Athens native (and UGA music grad) left for New York only seven years ago, armed with a wing and a prayer - and an astonishing four-octave vocal range.
He's recently become a fan favorite on TV's 30 Rock, as D'fwan, sassy-mouthed sidekick to Sherri Shepherd's Angie.
Burgess is in Savannah this week, conducing master classes with the students at the Savannah Summer Theatre Institute. And he'll perform in concert, backed by a jazz trio, on Tuesday, July 26 at Savannah Country Day School (it's called Tituss Burgess: Backdrop).
Here's the Savannah connection (other than the fact that he's got a lot of friends here): Burgess won the silver medal in the American Traditions vocal competition in 2002 and 2003, back when it was still part of the Savannah Music Festival.
His first professional gig was in The Festival of The Lion King at Walt Disney World in Florida - and today, he says he took the job as a stepping stone, as a way to get his Equity card before moving to New York to test the waters of the Big Time.
We spoke with him this week.
"The first time, I was still a senior in college. By the second time, I had quit my job at Disney World and thought ‘If I win some money to move to New York, then it's meant to be.' And I gotta be honest, the second time I did not think I deserved to win - my allergies were so terrible. The climate change from Orlando to Savannah was pretty severe. So I had no upper register, and I thought I'd lost. But I didn't."
"People will hate me when I tell this story, but I never waited a single table. I got an agent right away. It did take a year and a half to get the casting directors used to me - my voice is a tad odd. It has a bizarrely wide upper register that most men don't have. In terms of register, I can out-sing most women. But ignorance on some levels is bliss. I walked into some of these auditions not knowing the first thing about audition etiquette or what was appropriate to sing, or not to sing. But it certainly enabled me to find my own approach to storytelling."
Guys and Dolls
"I had never done what we call a classical musical theater, particularly because my brand of storytelling is so contemporary. I thought it would be a piece of cake. It was not. And I'll say this: While I appreciate being handed roles on Broadway without auditioning, this was one show I should have been mandated to audition for. Because I, even to this day, don't believe I was right for that role. It was re-set in the 1930s in New York City, where the original Damon Runyon stories were set, and there were no other African American principals. So I found it extremely tedious to legitimize my presence among all those white people. That just would not have happened. I wrestled with that the entire time."
"I desire for all people who are desirous of working in theater, in some capacity, to be able to execute the highest form of communication possible. I tell them ‘I need you to be your best, because I certainly don't want to pay for tickets to see something that's terrible onstage.' I hesitate to tell people about my own experiences, unless it's just for conversation's sake. I don't like to tell that story, because people will use that as par for the course. I'm the exception, not the rule. I didn't have to do certain things."
The Savannah concert
"These aren't randomly selected songs, but rather organized chaos. All these songs, in some capacity, have underscored my experience here in New York. So I'll tell the story that was my story at the time that I came to know the song."
"They call it a semi-recurring character. I don't really know what that's supposed to mean. But they talk about me even when I'm not on the show - so I'm hoping that they figure out that they can't do without me! But it was the most magical experience. Tina Fey is an absolutely generous person. Sherri Shepherd is probably the most amazing scene partner I've ever had. And at the conclusion of my stint on there, Alec Baldwin pulled me aside and said ‘Thank you for knowing what they hell you're doing.'"
Tituss Burgess: Backdrop
Where: Savannah Country Day School Auditorium, 824 Stillwood Drive
When: At 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 26