It's been a great season for Bonnie Milligan as well as her many friends and fans, who have been waiting years for the multitalented artist to receive the recognition she has long deserved. In fact, for those who have enjoyed Milligan's exuberant cabaret performances or her stand-out work in the short-lived Broadway musical Head Over Heels, the May 2 Tony nominees announcement was a day to celebrate.
Milligan, nominated for her show-stealing performance as formerly incarcerated Debra in the deeply profound new musical Kimberly Akimbo, was joined by a group of friends at her New York apartment when the nominations were revealed. The actor told Playbill that spring morning that her response to the news was an "immediate sob." Kimberly Akimbo is nominated for eight 2023 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
"My friends are cheering, and I was crying," Milligan continued. "I said afterwards, 'I have no idea who else was in my category' because I just heard [my] name, and I just lost it! It's incredible. [I'm] grateful, and I feel the many years it's taken me to get here—you know, it's all the feelings at once. It's really beautiful.… It means the world." Those in her category, it should be noted, include four other stellar artists: Into the Woods' Julia Lester, Sweeney Todd's Ruthie Ann Miles, Some Like It Hot's NaTasha Yvette Williams, and & Juliet's Betsy Wolfe.
The Illinois native said the Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical has also prompted a look back at her career thus far, one that includes performances in Off-Broadway's The Harvest and Gigantic, as well as the national tour of Kinky Boots. It's not lost on her that the many years of trying to get the industry to see her fully has led to this point.
"I think of the years I spent waitressing and temping and trying to fit into [casting] rooms I couldn't get into. And then slowly, feeling like I was becoming a part of the community by doing readings and concerts and anything anybody would let me be creative in," Milligan explained. "It just took longer. And so I think I became a better artist for it. So I am glad for my own personal journey. And I'm really grateful to be in this gorgeous show that I'm in and that it has been a life-changing experience in so many ways. It's just a beautiful gift."
Milligan has been attached to the new musical for several years, including Kimberly Akimbo's acclaimed Off-Broadway engagement that saw the actor receive a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Featured Performer in a Musical. During the journey, there have been many highs, but also substantial lows. In fact, in March 2020, Milligan lost her father, who died less than six weeks after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. The actor said performing in Kimberly has helped her cope with the traumatic loss.
"I'm really grateful to be part of it, and it's honestly helped my own grief," Milligan revealed. "I remember being in and out of the hospitals with my dad and just holding on to the joy and the jokes and the laughter through such intense pain that we were all feeling in the room." The musical deals frankly with death—its main character Kimberly (played by 2023 Tony nominee Victoria Clark) is rapidly facing her own mortality due to a rapid-aging disease. As Debra, Milligan is charged with encouraging Kimberly to make the most out of life (and commit a few felonies in the process). Performing in the musical is still a challenge sometimes, Milligan admits.
"I think losing my dad recently…there are some days where that's very much in the room and very present in my mind, in playing someone who is loving someone and in a space with someone who's towards the end of their life," Milligan said.
As for some of the show's other challenges, Milligan joked, "God bless, Jeanine Tesori! She wrote me over two octaves in both of my big numbers—like I'm in the basement, and I'm in the rafters!" But speaking more seriously, Milligan adds that "the songs, you know, those are challenging. And then the first 20 minutes of the show is such a marathon, between that big giant song into crawling through a window and hauling a mailbox across the stage. It's very physical…But because it's so funny, and it is so cathartic— it's actually sheer joy."
How would her dad have reacted to the news of the Tony nomination? Milligan paused before answering, choking back tears, "Full celebration and saying, 'I knew it, baby.' He's definitely a part of it."
See more of Playbill's portraits of the 2023 Tony nominees.