“The Preacher’s Wife” / Publicity photo

Out Artists Tituss Burgess, Michael Arden Bring ‘The Preacher’s Wife’ to Atlanta

Artists and theater veterans Tituss Burgess and Michael Arden have known each other for what Arden estimates to be almost 20 years now. Both have Broadway credits and have even been neighbors, with Arden spending many a night listening to Burgess-penned songs into the wee hours of the New York night. Yet as close as the two have been, the two gay men never realized they shared a secret passion. Arden has always loved the film, “The Preacher’s Wife,” and thought it could become a musical, so when Burgess approached him, mentioned he had written a stage version of it, and wanted to collaborate, Arden needed no prompting.
“It was kismet — a writer/friend who happened to have the same inclination I did, did something about it and wrote a beautiful score,” Arden said.
“The Preacher’s Wife” is currently making its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre. It’s based on the 1996 Denzel Washington-Whitney Houston movie, where Harlem-based preacher Henry Biggs (Akron Lanier Watson) and his wife Julia (Amber Riley) are having a hard time keeping their church going. When Henry asks for help, it appears as angel Dudley (Donald Webber). Iconic “Dreamgirls” star Loretta Devine, who is also featured in the film, stars in the stage production as Marguerite Coleman, Julia’s mother. The new production has music and lyrics by Burgess and a book by Azie Dungey (“Girls5eva”), with Arden co-directing with Alliance co-artistic director Tinashe Kajese-Bolden.
It takes a long time to get an original musical to stage — and Burgess can certainly attest to that. “The Preacher’s Wife” is a project that he has been almost consumed by for the last 15 years. He started the process before he got the rights.
“I do not recommend that,” Burgess said with a laugh. “But I just had this feeling I would acquire the rights, so I started the score.”
His team unsuccessfully tried to land the project, but after the actor’s third Emmy nomination for “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” his reps were finally able to acquire it. Since that time, Burgess has staged numerous readings and tweaked away, with Devine heartily involved.
When the idea to adapt came to him, it was fully formed.
“I saw the whole thing in my head,” Burgess, who grew up in the church, said.
After watching the movie, he turned to his mother and told her it needed to be a musical. He was only in the 12th grade at the time and didn’t realize it would be him taking the reins. It’s a literal dream come true for Burgess to see it on stage, especially in Atlanta. Burgess grew up in Athens, attended the University of Georgia, and saw his first musical at the Alliance Theatre.
“There’s something so full circle about this,” he said.
He’s also very proud of its depiction of a Black family.
“There’s something so lovely about bringing a show to the stage with people of color, in a right now world, with both parents in the home, that is not centered on the traumas [we often see with] Black people on stage and film,” he said. “There is usually something catastrophic we are overcoming. I said, ‘Let’s do a different entryway into our stories.’”
Co-director Kajese-Bolden feels in a time where women, particularly Black women, have been invited to the spotlight but have not been given the stage and space they can take up, “The Preacher’s Wife” celebrates them.
“This is a story for every Black woman who uses her voice, her style, her sense of leadership and love of family to transform her community,” Kajese-Bolden said.
Arden and Burgess have a familiarity and history that makes working together easier, and Arden is an Alliance veteran. The 2020 musical, “Maybe Happy Endings” that he directed was highly praised, but each project is different.
“This is a big musical with a huge cast, with flying elements, magic, and more,” Arden said. “Getting it ready for opening night is no easy task.”
Last year his Broadway remount of “Parade” was a huge commercial and critical success. It was also topical.
“Neo-Nazis were protesting outside the doors of our theater,” Arden recalled.
He went on to win the 2023 Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical and on stage talked about being called “the f-word more times” than he could remember growing up — and stated he was now “a f****t with a Tony.”
On the Monday before the telecast, he realized he needed to come up with something in case he won. Before that night, he had been nominated twice before, including once against “Hamilton,” where Arden knew he wouldn’t be visiting the stage. In case 2023 was the year, he thought about what he wanted to say. A friend who was a trans writer had recently told Arden she wanted to visit family but was fearful because of the new laws, and would be afraid of going to a bathroom.
“In hearing that, I recognized, even though I am gay, how lucky I was as a cis white man and privileged,” he said. “I thought — if I have 30 to 45 seconds, what can I say that can actually speak to the people I love and the people I do not know who are looking at the world and being told they do not belong, which in a way was what ‘Parade’ is about. So, I tried to put into as few words as possible the most I could say — to welcome, assure, validate, and send love to people who might feel marginalized.”
“The Preacher’s Wife” runs through June 16 at the Alliance Theatre