In Bonnie Milligan's dressing room at the Booth Theatre, the Broadway actress has a photo of her and her father in the hospital. They were making "silly faces," she says.
"For me, it's this reminder to bring the joy," the Kimberly Akimbo actress, 38, tells PEOPLE.
Shortly after taking that picture, Milligan lost her father Bill to stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He was 69. Bill had been diagnosed just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of the world in March 2020.
"My dad was such a fighter," Milligan says. "I remember when he told me about [his diagnosis]. He said, 'I'm not going anywhere. I have so much I wanna do.' "
With her career put on hold at the beginning of the pandemic, Milligan — who made a splash on Broadway with her powerhouse performance in the 2018 Go-Go's musical Head Over Heels — ventured back home to the Midwest, not knowing if it was the last time she'd get to see her dad.
"My brother drove the eight hours [to the Detroit airport], picked me up, and we went to hear the doctor say, 'You have weeks, maybe days.' And it was like: I just found out about this two weeks ago, what's happening?"
Her father was a preacher, meeting her mother Jeanie when he was the lead singer of a southern gospel group for which she played piano. "They always sang," Milligan says.
When her father was in the hospital, she and her brother Tim did what they do best — and found solace in song.
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"We just did like a 30-minute concert, the three of us. And we sang every hymn, everything we used to sing in church, took some videos," she says.
When Bill died at the height of the pandemic, the family was unable to have a proper funeral. Milligan stayed with her mother, who remarried after her parents split when the actress was a teen. "I had to record myself singing to him sitting on the floor of the bathroom at my mom's because there was a skylight in there that had the best lighting," Milligan explains. "And, uhm… it was a lot."
At that point, the Broadway performer — whose star was on the rise after years of holding various hospitality and temp positions since moving to New York City in 2007 — only had a backpack of belongings with her. But she ended up staying home in the Midwest for 11 months; Broadway jobs, for all performers, still hung in the balance.
"A few days after my dad passed," she says, "I got a request to audition [virtually] for Kimberly Akimbo. And I said, I can't make a self-tape. My dad just died. Nope. I want to work with these people so desperately; I can't do it. I can't do it, and I have to believe hopefully they won't find someone else."
A back-and-forth conversation between her agent and casting directors allowed her to postpone her audition. Still, she was having trouble memorizing her lines for the audition.
"The thing with grief — it's an ever-present process, but it made my brain really cloudy," she says, adding that she didn't want to let the casting team down given her extension to submit. Eventually, Milligan made the tape.
"My mom was my reader [in the audition scene], and she also hit the button on the computer to play the track to sing to. And that is how I auditioned for Kimberly Akimbo. And I got [the role] within the next day or within two days, like it was so quick, no callback, it was just like, 'It's hers.' "
The new Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire musical, which played Off-Broadway prior to its Broadway bow at the the Booth, follows a teenage girl named Kimberly who actually looks four-and-a-half times her age due to a rare genetic disease. At 16, her life is coming to a close. Milligan plays Aunt Debra in a troubled family who is grappling with Kimberly's inevitable end.
Ahron R. Foster
"I just remember one day realizing the show we were doing and the message it [has], and I just lost it. I was immediately taken back to all that time in the hospital with my dad," she explains. "They see her time is limited."
Being on Broadway has always been the dream for Milligan. "I come from very humble beginnings. I grew up in a double-wide trailer in the Midwest, and I sang as soon as I could talk. I grew up singing in church and finding musicals and falling in love with cast albums," she says. "It was a great escape, when you don't have a lot of means, to use your imagination and to hope that you get to be a part of something like that."
There have been times, though, when she's struggled to find her place in an industry that focuses heavily on looks and body type.
At one point, "I kind of lost confidence in myself and thought, well, maybe this just isn't gonna happen," she says. "And something that truly helped me with a lot of that was therapy and realizing that the little girl that believed she had something to give, that even [though] it might be hard, she's gonna give it anyway."
Milligan's latest role fits like a glove, bringing audiences to their feet and resonating with a fan base of aspiring actors who see themselves in the comedic actress. She has her father to thank, she says.
"I say my dad is in my voice," the singer shares, holding back tears. "I know he always wanted to do a little bit more [performing] professionally; I think that was always sort of a dream of his. And through me, he gets to be on Broadway."
Kimberly Akimbo officially opens at Broadway's Booth Theatre on Thursday.