‘Preacher’s Wife’ makes musical debut at Alliance Theatre

Adaptation of holiday movie a long-time dream for actor Tituss Burgess, who wrote the music and lyrics
Actor Tituss Burgess wrote the music and lyrics to "The Preacher's Wife," and Tinashe Kajese-Bolden codirects the Alliance Theatre production. Courtesy of Alliance Theatre

Credit: Alliance Theatre

Credit: Alliance Theatre

Actor Tituss Burgess wrote the music and lyrics to "The Preacher's Wife," and Tinashe Kajese-Bolden codirects the Alliance Theatre production. Courtesy of Alliance Theatre

For 14 years, Tituss Burgess knew what he wanted.

Sure, he may have brought his forceful tenor and outsized presence to Broadway as Sebastian in “The Little Mermaid” and been nominated for five Emmy Awards for his role as flamboyant Titus Andromedon on the Netflix show “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

But what he really wanted was to write a Broadway musical based on the 1996 movie “The Preacher’s Wife” starring Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington.

“This would make such a great musical!” he would tell his mom when he returned home to Athens at Christmas and watched the movie. “And she would pat me on the hand, saying, ‘Let’s not talk about that now, honey, let’s just keep watching.’”

He had never written a musical, but he would wake up sometimes and have a song inside him and rush to write it down, only later realizing these songs were meant to be in his still unrealized show. He met a writer, Azie Dungey, on “Kimmy Schmidt” and cajoled her into writing the book for his musical, and had his agent acquire the rights.

He pitched and wrote and wrote and pitched, all while doing his day jobs.

“I was just tugged toward the magic of the story,” he says. “It had its own soul, its own energy.”

Donald Webber plays the angel Dudley in “The Preacher’s Wife.” (Courtesy Alliance Theatre)

Credit: Christopher Boudewyns

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Credit: Christopher Boudewyns

Finally, 14 years later, the Alliance Theatre, 70 miles from where Burgess once lived, will stage the world premiere of “The Preacher’s Wife.”

Burgess calls the journey “kismet.” Co-director Tinashe Kajese-Bolden calls it “magical” and “an act of faith.” The show, after all, is about an angel and miracles, so maybe their talk is not necessarily hyperbole.

The movie of “The Preacher’s Wife” is the story of Julia, who is married to the Rev. Henry Biggs, a pastor in Harlem whose church is struggling financially at Christmas. When an angel named Dudley tries to help, Henry is too busy for him, so the angel starts spending more and more time with Julia.

Before that version, it was “The Bishop’s Wife,” a 1947 black-and-white Christmas classic that starred David Niven and Loretta Young, with Cary Grant as Dudley. And that movie, in turn, was based on a 1928 novel by Robert Nathan, which makes the intellectual property linage almost a century old.

The new musical stars Amber Riley of “Glee” as Julia, Akron Lanier Wilson as Henry and Donald Webber as Dudley. Broadway legend Loretta Devine, one of the original “Dreamgirls,” was in the movie of “The Preacher’s Wife” but plays a different role in the musical version.

It’s the story of Julia but also of a community in Harlem, which includes a church, a jazz club, a beauty parlor and a middle-class home.

Loretta Devine, one of the original “Dreamgirls,” comes to Atlanta to open in the world premiere of “The Preacher’s Wife.” (Courtesy Alliance Theatre)

Credit: handout

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Credit: handout

Burgess usually talks like a firehose, but he slows down and chooses his words very deliberately when he says: “This is the first musical that I know of about people of color that is not born out of Black trauma.

“We get to see just how varied our experiences are as people of color. We are not monolithic. There are affluent people of color and middle class and poor people of color in the show. It’s a show about us connecting and figuring out how to be a better people. That is what I am passionate about.”

Kajese-Bolden is co-artistic director of the Alliance and was instrumental in bringing the show here; she is co-directing it with Tony Award-winning Broadway director Michael Arden.

“What I personally love is, yes, it’s a Black story set in Harlem, but it is an American story,” she says. “There is a wide invitation to everyone that has struggled with a sense of purpose. When they have lost faith in themselves, they are questioning their relationship, how do we hold on to tradition and move forward?”

By January 2023, the musical was complete enough (musicals at this early stage are hardly ever in final form) to do a workshop for regional theater producers. Whoever stepped up would take the play, partner with a bigger Broadway producer, shape it and premiere it, and then (hopefully) launch it to Broadway. Last season’s Alliance musical remake of the novel “Water for Elephants” took this path and is now on Broadway.

“Afterward Tinashe ran up to me and she just got the piece. She was passionate about it,” Burgess recalls. “It just seemed like a no brainer.”

He and the show’s backers made the decision to premiere at the Alliance with their wallets, but for Burgess, there was a little bit of heart involved.

Born and raised in Athens, Burgess, 45, attended Cedar Shoals High School and then the University of Georgia, where he earned a Bachelor of Art degree in music. “I’ve seen so many musicals at the Alliance,” says Burgess.

As much as he loves the 1996 movie, when it came time for a 2024 version, Burgess realized that some of its framing needed refreshing.

“If we put that movie onstage every woman would be and should be offended,” he says. “Because the 1996 movie essentially is about a woman angry that her husband is not paying attention to her. She had very little agency.

“The Black women I know, the Black women that raised me, are very strong, extremely educated, and don’t need men to do anything for them,” he continues. “Now it’s very much been updated and reflects who we are in 2024.”

“The window in for me was Julia struggling with her call for leadership,” says Kajese-Bolden. “For women, especially for Black women, there’s this sense of how do I fulfill the responsibilities of a wife and a mother and how my community wants to see me, and yet be a leader and step out in front of my husband in a way that is still lifting him up?

“That’s a very nuanced thing in every culture. But I do think it is very particular not just to the Black community but to the Black church community. There are still very traditional guardrails. But within those boundaries, where do we find our individuality, our own humanity?”

For years, the show was just in Burgess’ head, and then his and Dungey’s. Now the cast and creative team have been in rehearsals for several weeks at the Alliance, and lots of people have had a say in shaping it.

“It was hard to loosen my grip to allow other ideas to come in,” says Burgess. “It’s almost like rearing a child from birth to kindergarten and then all of a sudden you have teachers reporting to you about your child’s behavior in school. What? That’s not how my child behaves!

“But I’m better for it and the show is better for it. As Michael Arden says, ‘Everyone is failing so we can learn how to succeed.’”


“The Preacher’s Wife.” World premiere at the Alliance Theater. May 11-June 16. $130-$25. 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4600. alliancetheatre.org