How Bonnie Milligan ‘fought tooth and nail’ to reach the Tony Awards
The Daily Beast
May 20, 2023
In a candid interview, Bonnie Milligan reveals how grief infused her Tony-nominated role in ‘Kimberly Akimbo,’ and talks body diversity, sexuality, and why Broadway must change.
Bonnie Milligan’s Tony Award nomination was no surprise to her mother Jeanie. When Milligan was a teenager, Jeanie made her promise that when the day came—as only a devoted mother can be sure that it will—she would be Milligan’s date to the Tony Awards. Well, as maternally preordained, that moment has come, with Milligan nominated as the best-featured actress in a musical category for her role as the immensely funny, big-voiced con artist Aunt Debra in the Broadway musical Kimberly Akimbo (Booth Theatre, booking to Oct 8).
Deb’s crackpot schemes are a key backdrop to her niece Kim’s determined bid to joyfully defy the misery of a life-threatening physical condition, and all the familial dysfunction that swirls around her. (Kim is played by Milligan’s good friend Victoria Clark, also Tony-nominated in the lead actress in a musical category.)
“My mother reminded me of her request in November when the show opened,” Milligan told The Daily Beast, laughing. “I was like, OK, Mom, I got you.’” Milligan’s mother will be attending the event with Milligan’s older brother Tim, a National Guard warrant officer. “They’re both very proud. He’s an important guy and has to get approval from generals to take leave. It means so much they’ll both be there.”
A “custom gown situation is happening,” and on the night Milligan is looking forward to hanging out with fellow nominees Audra McDonald (“I’m her biggest fan, she’s beauty and grace personified”), Jessica Chastain (“The most beautiful human, and she’s so nice”), Brian d’Arcy James, who she has been a fan of since she was a teenager, and Jodie Comer.
“Of course, everybody wants to win, let’s not lie, and I am a competitive person if we were playing a board game,” Milligan said of the award itself. “The competition is part of it, but what has been surprising to ‘Bonnie-who-can-be-competitive’ has been, for my mental health, to just show up every night and do the show, and actively shut out all other stuff. At the Tonys junket day for all the nominees I wasn’t thinking who was competition. I love all the women in my category. It feels like I already won getting nominated. Everything else from here is a celebration of the work we’ve done. I am competitive for the show. We gotta win Best Musical! And I feel very competitive for Vicky (Victoria) Clark to win her category.”
“I was elated at the junket,” Milligan laughed. “My feet were hurting, but it was an incredible honor. I got a congratulatory text from Donna Murphy—my hero when I was a kid. There’s been a lot of really cool stuff like that. I’ve never gotten so many text messages in my entire life. I haven’t seen them all, so I’m sorry to anyone I haven’t responded to. It’s impossible to catch up on.”
Milligan and a group of friends gathered at her apartment to hear the nominations. “They’ve really seen all of my ups and downs, so they know what it meant. There was a lot of ‘Finally’ and ‘We knew that this was going to happen.’ It was a beautiful and reaffirming day. It’s everything, and hard to fully describe. To stay with a business that right off the bat didn’t necessarily want you in it, and to fight against biases, was a hard path.”
One of those biases was around her body shape, said Milligan, as well as moving to New York with not much money and no professional connections. “There has been a lot of stuff climbing up that hill, being seen in general, and being able to show people that there was more to me than a one-line joke or quick, belted note—to be able to play fully-formed characters like Debra.
“It’s great to look at all the nominations across all the categories and see a beautiful group of humans of all ages, races, sizes, and gender identities. I don’t want to comment on other people’s bodies, but there are at least three women in my category who are not ‘small’ or ‘little.’ I can see casting directors have opened their eyes to the possibilities of different bodies inhabiting different spaces. I feel very positive for what that signals for the future of Broadway.”
Playing Aunt Deb is also infused with how Milligan has grieved for her father Bill, who died at 69 of pancreatic cancer in March 2020. “Part of what I love about doing Kimberly Akimbo is being able to work through my grief,” she told The Daily Beast. “The message of the show is no one gets a second time around, and really making our time around here count.” The show feels therapeutic, Milligan said, “and also sometimes draining. Sometimes I realize I’m going through a lot emotionally every night.”
Her dad’s spirit feels “very present.” Her grief or feelings of loss can occasionally bubble up in a scene. She recalled the moment when Deb feels she has lost Kim and found she had real tears in her eyes as she played it out. After the scene, she cried a little more in her dressing room. “There are times when Deb gets a little idea of what it may mean to lose someone. I know that feeling very well. It’s very hard. It’s tough, and can sometimes knock you off your feet. But it’s also healing to do the show. And the next moment you’re laughing. It’s like a gift.”
Aunt Deb first appears about 30 minutes into the show, “just when the audience thinks they’ve met everybody,” Milligan said. “It’s super fun to play with audiences every night to see how they react to everyone’s favorite con artist. I walk in with my trash bag, plop down on the beanbag chair, and then start pushing sweet Justin Cooley’s (who plays nerdy Seth) buttons. He and Vicky (Victoria Clark, who plays Kimberly) are so fun and delightful. From that moment I can see how the audience are going to respond.”
“‘Kimberly’ is the little show that could,” said Milligan. “We know we are the oddball character among a lot of bigger, more traditionally ‘Broadway’ shows. I’m a person with very eccentric tastes in movies, musicals, and books. I think there’s space for everything—for the big, glitzy, jukebox musical and for Kimberly Akimbo. So many of us are looking for catharsis right now. All of us feel very grateful to be able to bring this complicated show that leaves audiences crying and laughing their butts off. We all feel we have hit the jackpot—even though we’re little, and don’t have any celebrities attached. It feels awesome.”
David Lindsay-Abaire (who wrote the book and lyrics and on whose play the musical is based) and Jeanine Tesori, who oversaw the music, said Deb is always working an angle. “She’s Harold Hill, a ‘Music Man’ of sorts, pickpocket-y, a Pied Piper very good at reading people to get what she wants from them—although I think she genuinely loves Kimberly. We see her coming in hot, then what happens when she doesn’t like the jokes anymore. She’s big and fun, and I’m big and fun, but the world is Deb’s audience, so she is also writing her own laugh track and figuring out whether her immediate audience wants her in their lives.”
The rave reviews the show and Milligan herself have received have been “overwhelming for sure,” although Milligan says, as she has gotten older, she has elected not to read them. “The night the reviews for Kimberly came out, I was having dinner with my family. A friend texted me to say, ‘I’m crying right now. I know you’re not reading these reviews. But if you can or wanted to you should.’ That was a beautiful text to receive.
“Reviews are a mix. People will love you and hate you. It’s subjective. I could love something you hate, and we’re both correct in our feelings. I always take them with a grain of salt. But it is lovely to know that it was across the board. It feels like it’s a special show. It’s a special group of people, and it’s special to be embraced. You don’t always drink the Kool-Aid when you’re in a show. With this one, I asked myself, ‘Is it as good as I think it is?’ And it really is. Honestly, I would love it if everyone in our show could get a Tony. We have such a genius cast.”
“I fought tooth and nail to get to where I am”
“They don’t come from much means,” Milligan said of the fictional Levaco family she is part of in Kimberly Akimbo. “I didn’t come from much means either. I grew up in a double-wide trailer in the Midwest, and fought tooth and nail to get to where I am today.”
Milligan grew up in central Illinois. Her father was a pastor, her mother a secretary. “We sang a lot as a family in church; I grew up doing singing as soon as I could talk.” Her parents divorced when she was 13. Milligan moved to Ohio with her mother and stepdad, attending Ohio State University before coming to New York.
Milligan discovered acting at 10, performing in school productions, and “falling in love” with musicals. “I could sing and act together. I thought, ‘This is ideal!’” In a journal entry, she recalled writing: “I’ve finally decided what to do with my life. I want to be an actress!” At Barnes & Noble, she pored over cast albums and learned “every word” of songs. “In my imagination I was diving into that world. When I was little, I wanted to be a vet because I loved animals so much, but didn’t want to see them hurt. I wanted to be a newscaster, then a lawyer. By the time I was 10 I only wanted to be an actor.”
Milligan began performing in summer stock productions. “I got to be Maria in The Sound of Music and played M’Lynn in Steel Magnolias (Sally Field’s role in the movie), crying about my daughter (Shelby, Julia Roberts’ role) at her funeral: “I can jog all the way to Texas and back, but my daughter can’t! She never could!” Milligan laughed. “I was 14, and thought, ‘Well this is fun!’”
Milligan’s family supported her from the get-go. “I think, as people of faith, my parents thought, ‘There’s a calling for her life,’ that I was meant to do.’” She was an “extremely A-student,” and there had been some thinking she might go to med school, “but I didn’t choose that route. Sorry.”
Milligan recalled going to a touring production of The King and I with her mother, and later seeing Wonderful Town, and other shows on class trips to St. Louis and Chicago. She watched vintage Hollywood movies. “My first love was Annie (1982) with Carol Burnett. I used to watch that all the time.”
On her first trip to New York she saw Rent, and—a huge fan of Taxi, and Marilu Henner in particular—went to see Henner in a Broadway play. After a performance talkback, Milligan went up on stage to introduce herself to her icon… tripped and face-planted. “That’s how I first entered onto a Broadway stage.” Still, she got a photograph with a “very gracious” Henner, and—confused as to how to actually leave the building—was guided to the stage door by the actor Richard Kind, who was indeed very kind. Once on the street, “I started sobbing and called my mom, and said she’d never guess what had just happened. It was probably one of my most magical experiences.” Milligan paused, and laughed. “Readers, please do not climb onto Broadway stages. We do not like that.”
Milligan moved to New York full-time in 2007, a couple of suitcases and bedding in hand. She started temping, and trying to break into theater. “I went to auditions and was not successful. I was not even getting into the rooms of open calls. I thought, ‘What is this?’ I didn’t have an agent or Equity card. It was just really hard. I lost my confidence, and lost myself, a bit. I got into therapy, which has been so helpful. I realized I had moved here for a reason, and I’m not doing what I came here to do. I had to find out how to love myself again, and find confidence.”
Milligan began to get roles, started networking, acquired an agent, and “started to become part of the theater community.” In 2013, she performed her first concert at the famed cabaret venue 54 Below, which became many, and then took part in the national tour of Kinky Boots (“which is how I got my Equity card”). Milligan’s 54 Below concert videos went so viral fans would talk about them at the stage door of Kinky Boots. Then came her Broadway debut as lesbian princess Pamela in the 2018 Go-Go’s musical Head Over Heels. “That was my breakout. It has been a slow build over the last 10 years of making connections with people,” Milligan said of her rise to fame. “And now here we are.”
Head Over Heels was radical in its variety of queer representations. “So much of the show was about breaking away from the binary of everything,” said Milligan. “I think so much is fluid, including sexuality. Having Pamela and Mopsa’s (Taylor Iman Jones) love story unfold on stage without the trauma we often see in LGBTQ stories was really important to me and (director) Michael Mayer. It was really beautiful to be involved in a story that celebrated Pamela falling in love. She didn’t have internalized homophobia, she just didn’t know she felt the way she did. It was also beautiful to see what it meant to people. The sense of joy, acceptance, and celebration was beyond moving.”
“Playing Princess Pamela was also very moving for me,” Milligan said. “It was exciting to be able to portray that in a way that helped open eyes and possibilities to what love could look like. Her whole life was, ‘You have to find a husband.’ Then Mopsa came out of nowhere, and it was like, ‘Oh I didn’t know this was an option.’”
Asked about her own personal life, Milligan said, “Who knows if I will marry one day? I like to say I’m open to possibilities. I am also someone who frankly hasn’t dated a whole lot. So far, I’ve only dated men. I hesitate to grasp to any identity without having fully explored it, and sometimes I feel people grasp at those identities. I would say I am open, and I might end up with a woman one day. I don’t know, and I find joy in that openness.” Single right now, in her down-time she relaxes with her friends and watches a lot of “dumb TV.”
Both Pamela and Deb have “required a lot of me,” said Milligan. “I get to make complex characters work with fun belting, and use all parts of my voice.” She is known by the handles Belting Bonnie on Twitter and BeltingBons on Instagram, and taught herself to belt in college, while training her voice. “It felt good. It’s always been instinctive. I grew up listening to divas of the ‘90s: Celine, Whitney, Mariah, and Reba. I would try and mimic these big voices. I grew up listening to the mixed-belt of Doris Day. To be able to belt feels nice but if I also sing in other styles—what is right for that song in the moment. It was a really special show to be part of. I will always cherish the beauty of it.”
After the discrimination Milligan endured around her body shape, it has also been “really important” to play both Pamela and Debra on stage as characters whose size is not mentioned. “In the past, we never got that. There was usually a ‘fat’ joke. Pamela was seen as the most beautiful girl on stage by the other characters. Many people with a larger body size are told they are not desirable. To have them celebrated brought tears to my eyes. This Broadway season there was even more body inclusivity across the board in multiple productions. I hope we continue to move in that direction.”
Milligan recalled being in auditions where “they won’t want to hear you open your mouth. They haven’t let me audition for certain roles. It’s gotten better. While performing in Head Over Heels, I was still getting messages for TV and film roles which all stipulated ‘fat’ or ‘big’ in their character description. You’d think we were making strides, but that was still happening. There’s still so much more room to evolve. I hope it’s a good sign that we’ve come back post-pandemic, and considered how we talk about things. It’s nice to see the dial sort of begin to turn.”
Of her own body image, Milligan said, “Self-love, I always say, is a choice. And my feelings definitely fluctuate, I still have ‘days.’ For the most part, I choose to celebrate myself, so I definitely walk into the room with the choice of confidence in who I am in my body. This is not to say, as a human, that I don’t feel insecure or feel the pressure of societal standards that is thrust upon all of us in various ways. Especially being a woman, and a large woman, my body feels like an act of defiance sometimes. That can be really hard to carry, and still choose love at the end of the day—but I think I have gotten better. Doing Head Over Heels helped me feel affirmed in many ways.”
“You never finish with grief. It’s a process”
As for so many, Milligan’s life changed during the pandemic. Her father died in March 2020, just as society shut down. “We had to have a virtual funeral. I filmed my speech singing a song on the bathroom floor.” Milligan lived with her mother in Ohio for a period of time, “which was strange, in my mid-30s, having just lost one parent. I feared so much for her, I was clinging to that one other parent. Then my stepdad got cancer. He’s doing much better now. It felt really hard.”
Milligan’s first major loss—the death of her beloved grandmother, who was “like another parent”—came in 2015, while she was on tour with Kinky Boots. “That was almost 8 years ago, and something can happen today that will remind me of her and I’ll just go. It’s beautiful because it means I loved her very deeply, and it’s hard. But it’s like they’re with us. The beauty of life is loving really deeply, letting people know you love them, and doing what we can with the time we have.”
During the pandemic, living back in Ohio with her mom, Milligan thought of her business shut down, and the decisions she had made around various projects. Had they been wrong, she wondered. Her brother had gotten married and had three kids while still young. Where was she supposed to be, she wondered. Then Kimberly Akimbo materialized, “which felt like divine intervention in some ways. While living together, her mom had helped her make her self-tape auditions—including for Kimberly Akimbo, which made getting the role of Debra all the sweeter.
Coming back to New York before theaters had reopened, and “feeling the loss of our industry and what was happening, was definitely difficult,” she said. At the beginning of rehearsals for “Kimberly,” Milligan wondered if she was making Deb too loving towards Kim—she felt it was written that way—and asked if she should make her darker or more villainous. No, she was reassured; she had gotten the mix right. They said, ‘We think you approached her with more love than anyone has before. It’s not wrong, and it’s exciting,’ they said.
“For me, Deb is not a sociopath, she is not out there to be evil. She’s a flawed person who has done incredibly selfish things. In her mind, she is just getting by. I love Victoria Clark (who plays Kimberly) so much. I think Kim is her favorite person in the world. For a long time, she has been the only person who liked to have me around. What Deb is going through with Kim in the musical is that thing of an older person losing the adoration of little ones who idolized you.”
Before Milligan appears on stage for the first time, she warms up offstage as the previous scene plays out by saying her entire upcoming scene out loud. It helps gee up Deb’s bonkers entry into the action, and also echoes Deb’s ever-planning mind; she has been preparing her “elevator pitch” for Kim for some days previously. There are a host of hilarious other scenes Deb steals, including one get-real scene about teen sexuality which is gasp-out-loud brilliant.
The musical has retained its intimate, quirky feel on Broadway, though the writers have deepened a few aspects and given Kim a little more agency. “That’s fun for me because we’re more partners this time around, and what that means for Debra who usually operates alone,” said Milligan.
Kimberly Akimbo’s mix of comedy, drama, and tragedy is “life, what we go through. The absurdity of life and the tragedy of life are inevitable, and the way David and Jeanine have woven that together is so stunning, you walk away thinking, ‘How did that work? I just came away from that feeling every emotion.’ They’re just really good.”
Her mom and brother saw her perform “Kimberly” at the Atlantic Theater Company off-Broadway, and for the Broadway opening, her mom, stepdad, brother, his wife, and their three children came. “There were so many people there to share in and support the moment. They’ve been amazing. My mom was bursting with pride. She’s 5 foot one, and hugs really hard.”
It’s “bittersweet” that Milligan’s father isn’t here to see her Broadway success. “My dad is pulling strings on the other side. I can just see him wheeling and dealing up there,” she said, smiling. Part of her grieving has been to “remember the joy, the complicated final days of someone, where you feel every emotion, every memory, every feeling,” which has informed how she responds to Kimberly Akimbo’s central storyline of someone determined to live out their dreams, however much time they have left. “Just like Deb, my dad was charismatic and funny, and when he entered a room he commanded it.” She paused and laughed. “But, unlike Deb, he wasn’t a messy con artist.”
In the past, in quieter moments, Milligan said her mind would slide to the feeling that she was alone. But to be “surrounded by the friends who have supported her and cheered her on means Milligan has been “confronted with how much love there is in your life. I have felt the embrace of the theater community in every way possible.”
This close group of friends includes Tony-winning actor Matt Doyle and singer Natalie Walker. Before Kimberly Akimbo opened last November, Milligan texted her buddies to say she was thinking about her dad, saying, she recalled, “I’m just really sad today and just want to be under a blanket crying, watching a bad movie.”
“It’s great to have people who know you, who know the relationship I had with my dad and who were with me during the period of him dying that I can speak to about it,” Milligan told The Daily Beast. In response, she said, they told her, “This is a safe space, and your performance is because of all of that. He helped you create this complex human, who is a testament to it all.”
She is also “great friends” with her castmates. “I once said to Alli Mauzey (who plays Deb’s sister Pattie) that I was feeling sad, and she said she had been feeling melancholy too. It’s been so nice to say, ‘Can you hold this space with me?’ and everyone has. That’s helped me immensely. If I needed to excuse myself during rehearsals, when dad stuff came up, no one said, ‘Snap out of it.’ They were so gracious with me. There was this recognition that everyone has complex relationships and experiences, and if we all bring that to the table, that’s how great art is made.”
As the months have gone on, her grief has gotten “a little easier and more joyful,” Milligan told The Daily Beast. “You never finish with grief. It’s a process, so there are days where all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s hitting me.’ There are some lines of ‘Great Adventure,’ or saying goodbye to Kim, which can be harder some nights than others.” Milligan has yet to miss a performance, and sees an ear, nose, and throat specialist to ensure her voice remains in condition. “It operates over two octaves in the show,” she said, adding she takes “lots of vitamins,” while suffering and sniffling, like so many, through the airborne terrors of spring allergy season.
Over time, Deb has deepened, especially singing the final song, “Great Adventure,” which Milligan really feels the life-embracing spirit of. People respond with audible gasps to the show’s revelations, while one man’s extreme cackling led to the whole cast cracking up.
At the stage door, one fan thanked Milligan for being in a show that, atypically for a Broadway musical, showed a working-class family of her socio-economic status. Famous audience members have included Kathy Najimy, Martha Plimpton, the “awesome” Camryn Manheim—a longtime hero of Milligan’s ever since Manheim’s “This for all the fat girls” 1998 Emmy-winning speech—and Angela Bassett. “She is the queen. I have loved her work forever. As she was leaving she said, ‘Thank you for today,’ and I said, ‘Thank you for everything you’ve done ever.’ And she said, ‘I’m not going to forget you ever.’”
Milligan is “fully committed” to doing Kimberly Akimbo for however long she is able. Next, she would like to do more TV and make movies, “anything and everything. Eventually, I want to do an album. I just want to be a jack of all trades.”
Milligan would relish taking the show to the West End if the opportunity blooms, and—as yet—has no plans to say goodbye to Deb. “We’re all on year contracts, and I hope this runs years and years. That’s a question to tackle down the line. Right now I hope to be with it for a while.” She hopes the Tony nomination will increase all kinds of career possibilities, emulating the trajectories and career diversity of performers she admires so much like Donna Murphy, Debra Monk, and Laura Benanti, “who operate in all mediums—that’s my dream. I don’t need to be rich and famous. I just want to work.”
Milligan would also like to continue to work with writers crafting original roles as she did with both Head Over Heels and Kimberly Akimbo (mentioning the latter’s David Lindsay-Abaire as someone she would love to work with again on a new production or revival).
“To work on something from the ground floor up is my love and passion,” Milligan said. “I love complicated, fully-rounded characters who I can sink my teeth into beyond being a singer. It would be fun to do Shakespeare. I did a small tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, playing both a fairy and Egeus, Hermia’s father. Down the line, I have to play Mama Rose one day. And then, some kind of movie. I’m very passionate about comedy. One of my biggest inspirations is Melissa McCarthy. I would love to land in one of the productions she and her husband (Ben Falcone) write and produce together.”
But, at the moment, Milligan’s world is Kimberly Akimbo—and the unique experience of providing humor, tears, and catharsis to audiences just as she has found in performing it. “There’s something lovely in our show being many things all at once,” Milligan told The Daily Beast. “All I know is that I am grateful for this show, grateful for the experience of performing it, grateful for the people in it—and grateful to all those who come to see it and experience it with us.”