Tituss Burgess Manifested His Musical Version of “The Preacher’s Wife”: ‘I Was Casting the Spell Myself’ (Exclusive)

The Broadway actor and ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ star wrote the music and lyrics for the 2024 stage adaptation

<p>Nina Duncan</p> Tituss Burgess

Nina Duncan

Tituss Burgess

When Tituss Burgess first watched 1996’s The Preacher's Wife in a movie theater as a teenager with his mom, he “loved” the comedy-drama film so much that a bright idea popped into his head.

Now 45, the Broadway actor and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt star recalls that ’90s moment vividly in an interview with PEOPLE.

“I turned to my mother and I said, ‘Someone should turn this into a musical,’ ” Burgess says, remembering that fateful day watching the movie starring Whitney Houston, Denzel Washington and Courtney B. Vance. “She goes, ‘That's a good idea, baby.’ ”

Flash-forward to 2024 and Burgess turned that idea into a reality by helping create The Preacher's Wife’s musical adaptation of the same name, which debuted in May at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre.

“Never did I ever think I was casting the spell myself and would be the one to subsequently usher it into the world,” Burgess confesses.

<p>Bruce Glikas/WireImage</p> Tituss Burgess in 'Moulin Rouge! The Musical' in October 2023

Bruce Glikas/WireImage

Tituss Burgess in 'Moulin Rouge! The Musical' in October 2023

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The six-time Emmy nominee, who wrote the music and lyrics for this musical adaptation, explains he had worked on the project “for about 15 years.”

“It is a beautiful story about faith and faith tested,” Burgess tells PEOPLE. “It's about the ramifications of gentrification on the familial unit, and it also contests what is church, in our version.”

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This version stars Glee’s Amber Riley as Julia Biggs (previously played by Houston) and Loretta Devine, who played Beverly in the ’90s movie, Akron Watson as Henry Biggs and Donald Webber Jr. as Dudley.

“It’s full of magic and people fly, and it's just a dizzy, glorious good time,” Burgess adds. “I say that with total immodesty — it’s great.”

The new musical rendition is based on Robert Nathan’s 1928 novel The Bishop’s Wife and the movie adaptations that spawned from it: 1947’s The Bishop’s Wife and 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife.

While Burgess says this stage version will have many of the same characters and a few of the same plot points from the film, he admits it has been updated to reflect the changing times and women who inspire him.

“That movie, as much as I love it, is quite flawed. [It's] all about a woman being obsessed that a man is not paying attention to her, and the Black women that I know are not worried about that,” Burgess points out.

“Black women raised me and still take care of me to this day,” he adds. “They’re strong and smart, and this is my salute to them. We would be doing the world a disservice if we did not reflect that in our 2024 version, so our heroine, Julia, has a different look, a different feel, a different voice.”

Bruce Glikas/WireImage Tituss Burgess in New York City in June 2019
Bruce Glikas/WireImage Tituss Burgess in New York City in June 2019

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The Alliance Theatre’s description of The Preacher’s Wife stage show describes the updated plot as such: “In their fast-gentrifying Harlem neighborhood, Preacher Henry and his wife Julia struggle to keep their congregation going in the face of development. When all seems lost, Henry asks God for help, and receives it in the form of an angel.”

“But will this mysterious newcomer really help or make matters worse? Through it all, Julia must find her voice and the strength to lead their congregation through the crisis, reminding them that a church is not a building, but the people who inhabit it and the love they share,” the theater added.

In addition to this project, Burgess is voicing a character in Spellbound, Netflix’s upcoming animated musical fantasy film, featuring a star-studded voice cast of Rachel Zegler, Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, John Lithgow, Jenifer Lewis and Nathan Lane.

“I play opposite Nathan Lane, and we play oracles,” Burgess reveals. “Alan Menken has, once again, written just a magical, whimsical score. It's a beautiful, beautiful story about family and trauma and anger and how to navigate it when the child is the parent.”

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Burgess, who memorably had his breakthrough on the Emmy Award-winning sitcom 30 Rock as hairstylist D'Fwan in a few episodes in 2011 and 2012, is also gearing up for Pride Month.

Vince Bucci/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Tituss Burgess
Vince Bucci/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Tituss Burgess

He acknowledges he exists at a unique intersection within the industry as a gay Black man and a cultural Christian. “And then I have the audacity to be an out gay actor in what's still very White hetero Hollywood,” he adds.

But that vantage has helped Burgess to understand that while LGBTQ+ comedians have so often been made the butt of the joke, there's power in sharing those “lived-in,” authentic experiences with audiences.

“Sometimes it's more about the person making you laugh,” he explains, “than the thing you're laughing at.”

Burgess recalls a laugh that changed his professional trajectory on the set of 30 Rock, when he delivered the line: “I'm not just a gay hairdresser; I'm also a homosexual party planner.”

“I hear this belly laugh off-camera. I'm so nervous that I genuinely thought the laugh was at me for doing it incorrectly,” he remembers. “Then I see this brunette walk from behind the camera, and it's Tina Fey. She goes, ‘I am so sorry. Darn, you'll have to do it again... [But] that was funny.’ ”

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