Tituss Burgess: The Motion in the Ocean

The seaweed is always greener in Tituss Burgess' lake – that is – while he's having a blast playing the lovable and song-filled crab Sebastian in Disney's new musical The Little Mermaid

The beloved animated film has been magically transformed for the Broadway stage by Director Francesca Zambello, and Tituss has the great honor of performing hit songs like "Under The Sea" and "Kiss The Girl," originally composed by legends Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

Anxious for Opening Night on Thursday, January 10, Tituss spent a few minutes chatting with BroadwayWorld's News Desk Editor, Eugene Lovendusky, to share some of his thrills in playing one of the world's most notable shellfish, the creative processes behind the new musical, and what audiences have to look forward to at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre!

Eugene Lovendusky: Congratulations with Opening Night just around the corner. What are you most excited about?

Tituss Burgess: To be quite honest I'm excited about doing it! It's been a long time coming. I found out about this on December 23, 2006 so it seems to be the show that's never going to start! I'm excited to get it underway. We're having such a good time and it's going to be a lot of fun.

Eugene: You've always brought flavor to your shows. You started with the bursts of color in Good Vibrations and then got the party started with the opening number in Jersey Boys. Now you're the King Crustacean of Soul with The Little Mermaid. How does it feel to be the spice-of-life on stage?

Tituss: [laughs] I pinch myself every night when I hear the overture starting. I'm so overwhelmed by the whole process, and humbled and giddy all at the same time because I can't believe it's me that gets to sing these songs every night. I've been in New York for going on five years now, and I always thought I would make a mark and do something but I never thought it would be this big of a deal. I'm so blessed and I'm truly honored.

Eugene: Lucky for you, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman composed two of the most extraordinary songs in the entire show – "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl" – and you get to perform them! What's that like?

Tituss: I wish Howard Ashman was still alive so I could just meet him and tell him his words are magic. It's so fun to say. He has such great alliteration and paints the most vivid images with his lyrics.  As soon as that little "ba-da-da-dink-dink" at the beginning of "Under the Sea" starts I think to myself: "Here we go! Let's do it!" When I first got the role, I was very intimidated because people have high expectations. But I have nothing to prove – only to share.  I'll do my best interpretation of what these songs should sound like in their current incarnations and it's quite an honor.

Eugene: Disney fans know Sebastian as King Triton's right-hand man, a charming but protective crab. This new musical brings the little guy to life in ways we didn't imagine. What do we learn about Sebastian when you step on stage?

Tituss: There's a bit of a difference in the way he sounds.  Samuel E. Wright lent his voice and personality to the animated film with his booming voice. I have a high-tenor voice. Instead, I have to figure out a way to convince the audience to come along with me and accept this new texture and tambour to the way Sebastian sounds. I have a great dialect coach.  We went to town! Sebastian is a partier. All he wants to do is live the good life and hang-out and conduct these orchestras. Who wouldn't want to live under the sea in the world they have? He's a little selfish. He slowly becomes a care-taker to Ariel (against his will at the beginning), but I think we learn that he has a lot more heart than he initially lets on.

Eugene: That's sweet.  And what's it been like working with Director Francesca Zambello as she accomplishes the seemingly impossible by bringing the underwater world to Broadway?

Tituss: If anyone has the opportunity to work with that woman, jump at it. She is the most generous, most giving director I have ever worked with in my entire life. She is classy. She speaks a dozen difference languages. She has a world-class knowledge of not only theatre but how the world exists at-large, and how to shrink that down and bring to life what should be the case in The Little Mermaid – with different colors and races and shapes and sizes. No one is ignored or left out. She has done a delicious job and I'm very lucky!

Eugene: And about this cast of yours! You've got new comers like Sierra Boggess and Sean Palmer, plus veterans like Norm Lewis and Sherie Rene Scott.  How have all these talented people pieced the spectacle together?

Tituss: When we walked into the room for the first day, my stomach turned.  Not to age him at all – but I've grown up watching and admiring Norm. Sherie actually starred in the first off-Broadway show I ever saw in New York, which was The Last Five Years.  It's amazing how things come full-circle and how the community (once you hang around it long enough) grows smaller and smaller as it grows. Sharing the stage with these people is more than a dream come true – it's so special. They're so warm and giving and offer the best advice.  Sherie is very nice and maternal and nurturing. Norm is the same way. Working with Sierra and Sean – they have some of the most beautiful voices!  Sierra is quite the leading lady and conducts herself as if she's been doing it forever. It's truly a privilege. It's rare to walk into your job and you want to be there every single day and you want to see everyone in the building – but we truly have that.

Eugene: Can you walk me through your daily routine when transforming into Sebastian?

Tituss: Yeah! I get to work about an hour before I have to be there, and put on some music to match my mood.  I sit there in the darkness with some candles and get myself in-tune with what it is I have to do – specifically on days when I need to recount my blessings and snap my tail back in gear. My dresser then comes marching into my room and we put half of the costume on first. Then I run downstairs at about twenty-of to get into make-up. Meanwhile someone is shining my head to get it dry to attach my top-hat to my head with toupee tape.  I get into microphone and get back up into my dressing room for the rest of my costume. I get snapped into all these things and layers and bundled up. I walk downstairs to the pit. Someone hands me my baton (which lights up like a wand) and I watch the first three minutes of the show. Then I come up out of the pit and there I am.

Eugene: Awesome! What are audiences in-store for?

Tituss: It's like a feast for the senses. I think children will feel like their cartoon leaped out of the TV and onto stage.  Old and young alike feel such ownership of these characters and they feel: "That's my Ursula. That's my Ariel. That's my Flounder." They know enough about the story to follow along, but there's still enough newness that we bring to offer some surprises. They'll hear some new yummy songs that Alan and Glenn Slater have penned. I would go and see it by myself (minus some kids) if I weren't in it. It's a nice, wholesome, emotional journey that the family can take.

Eugene: I'm really looking forward to it.  One final question: Do you have a taste for seafood?

Tituss: [laughs] Calamari is my weakness! The first time we all went out to dinner, we went to a seafood restaurant and we all felt guilty! [laughs] But I've stayed away from the crab.

Disney's The Little Mermaid officially opens this Thursday, January 10, 2008 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (205 West 46ths Street).  The playing schedule for The Little Mermaid is as follows: Tuesday – Saturday evenings at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2pm, and Sunday matinees at 3pm.  Tickets for are $51.50 - $121.50, available through Ticketmaster at (212) 307-4747, online at www.DisneyOnBroadway.com, or in-person at the box office.

Photos: Tituss Burgess (headshot); Tituss Burgess as Sebastian in Disney's The Little Mermaid (photo by Joan Marcus)




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From This Author Eugene Lovendusky

Eugene Lovendusky graduated summa cum laude from SFSU with a BA in Writing for Electronic Media and a minor in Drama. Raised in the SF (read more...)