About the author:
Four years, four Broadway musicals: That’s the enviable resume of Tituss Burgess, who has come a long way since arriving in New York with a B.A. in music from the University of Georgia. Though his first show didn’t last long Good Vibrations, Burgess has moved onward and upward ever since, from small parts in Jersey Boys to Sebastian the Crab in Disney’s The Little Mermaid and now Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Nathan Detroit’s lovable sidekick in Guys and Dolls. Away from the theater, Burgess has released a solo CD with an R&B flavor, Here’s to You. How did a talented young singer from Athens, Georgia, move from playing a Caribbean crustacean to a gambler with a New York accent? Read on for the details.
Everything was going swimmingly—and then I hurt my foot. It was August of 2008, and by that point I had been starring as Sebastian in The Little Mermaid for about a year. Then, after a sharp pain in my foot and a visit to the doctor, I was told I’d have to be out for three months because of a stress fracture. The folks at Disney were very supportive and made it clear they would welcome me back for another contract after I had healed.
Day one of my medical leave, I got a call from my agent saying that director Des McAnuff wanted me to play Nicely-Nicely Johnson in his new Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls. I was flattered, but politely said I wasn’t really interested. Believe it or not, I had never seen the show and had never read the script! I knew that everyone really seemed to love Guys and Dolls, but my plan was to go back to Mermaid when my foot healed. I was perfectly content in that role and got to sing two of the most famous songs in the Disney canon, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.”
Before Mermaid, I had the pleasure of working with Des on a production of The Wiz at La Jolla Playhouse as the Cowardly Lion. Sebastian and the Lion are perhaps the most fun I’ve had to date, but there is something a tad tedious about trying to bring human emotion to animals on stage. All the makeup and costuming can be difficult to work through. My agent very quickly threw this fact in my face. Ugh…the nerve. So, I went back and asked if I could at least read the script of Guys and Dolls. After that, I quickly changed my tune and was thrilled to join the company.
Nicely-Nicely is a fun character to play. He’s a simple guy with two addictions, food and gambling, and I get the feeling he isn’t so great at gambling. He is, however, an expert eater! Finding him was tricky for me. I lost a lot of weight over the summer, only to find myself in a role wearing a fat suit. Ah, the irony!
Working with this cast has been a real treat. During rehearsals I worked very closely with Oliver Platt, who plays Nathan Detroit, and he taught me a great deal about process—mainly how to enjoy it and take full advantage of the evolution of a role. Craig Bierko is a natural fit as Sky, and our leading ladies are dreams to work with. Lauren Graham and Kate Jennings Grant have worked magic with the roles of Adelaide and Sarah, and have come up with something so original.
During the course of the show, Nicely-Nicely sings three of the best written songs in musical theater history, “Fugue for Tinhorns,” “Guys and Dolls” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” The latter comes out of nowhere, and it doesn’t sound anything like the rest of the score. I thought, “How odd, and how GENIUS!”
Our music director, Ted Sperling, his team and I cooked up a really cool arrangement of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” It takes a lot of stamina to do it. We’d been working and working on it in rehearsals, and then the first preview was upon us—and it was finally time for the song. You could feel the audience’s excitement. Me? I wanted to run and hide! I’m serious. I’ve never experienced nerves like that before. All of a sudden the song was over, and sweat was pouring down my face. I didn’t even remember performing it.
I suppose I did OK...I still have my job! And I plan to rock the boat as much as possible during this run!