Bonnie Milligan on Her Character’s Confidence – And How She’s Embraced Her Own
The first song Bonnie Milligan sings in “Head Over Heels” is “Beautiful,” one of The Go-Go’s impossibly catchy hits that populate the score of this modern Elizabethan romp. Milligan plays Princess Pamela, the heir to the kingdom of Arcadia, and as she sings, “Beautiful Is all I see when I look at me,” hoards of suitors vie for her heart as if she’s the Renaissance Bachelorette.
There is no note in the script describing what the princess’s appearance — simply that she is the most beautiful woman in the land. When New York Times critic Ben Brantley called Milligan’s casting “provocative,” Milligan tweeted: “I dream of a world filled with love and respect and inclusion…with correct pronouns and ‘provocatively cast’ women “trampling” stereotypes.”
“In a lot of scripts, it’s like they have to explain your existence — whether it be a fat joke or something else; there has to be something to qualify why you’re there,” Milligan says. “This is actually just a plus-sized woman — and not written that way — but I’m a plus-sized woman. I get to stand there and be called the picture of beauty and just love myself and say, ‘I’m amazing. I’m sorry you’re not.’ It’s so delicious and exciting and something that I didn’t think I would ever get to do.”
Jeff Whitty, who conceived the show and wrote the book, saw Milligan in a show off Broadway at the Flea Theatre and asked her to be a part of the first New York City reading four years ago, and Milligan has been with the show ever since, from its production at the Oregon Shakespeare Company to the out-of-town tryout at Curran in San Francisco to now making her Broadway debut at the Hudson Theatre, where the musical is playing.
We caught up with Milligan to talk about what it’s like to be on Broadway, working with music icons The Go-Go’s, and smashing sterotypes.
What do you admire about Pamela?
I really admire about her is her kind of unabashed self-love, especially as a plus-sized woman in a world that kind of tells you you’re not the picture of beauty. I’ll get a lot of, “Oh, you have great hair” or “You’ve got a great smile.” There’s usually a qualifier to say I’m pretty. There are days I struggle with my confidence, and I love that she doesn’t.
Do you try to take her confidence with you offstage?
I try to. It’s not lost on me that I get to stand on zero on a Broadway stage and belt out about my beauty. That’s unbelievable, and I do try to hold on to that and think that’s something I always tried to hold on to when I was younger and I just kept being told, “You’re going to work when you’re 40.” So many people were trying to save my heart saying, “I love you, but it’s not going to be easy. And maybe you need to lose weight or maybe there’s just not that many roles.” I always just told myself, even on days when it was hard to believe, that what was different about me was what was going to make me special, that someone will want that and someone will want me, and to just try to bring as much of me to it as I could.
Do you think Pamela has big dick energy?
Oh, for sure! Yeah. But Mopsa is definitely in charge. Mopsa definitely is the top. Pamela definitely has the BDE as well as at the end.
What was it like working with The Go-Go’s?
They’re the coolest. They’re rock stars. Sometimes you forget because they’re so kind and so complimentary. They’re so kind and love what we bring to it, and they’re excited about the project.
When we were in San Francisco, especially Jane [Wiedlin], she saw the show so many times, and she has the best laugh. On the days that you don’t know she’s there, I could always hear her laugh. And I would just kind of perk up and be like, “Jane’s here today!”
How do you hope this show changes the landscape for other performers on Broadway?
What especially strikes me is the young, maybe a little chubby girls that I’ve talked to or have messaged me that have said, “You don’t understand what it means. I’m just told I can only be Tracy Turnblatt in ‘Hairspray,’ and I want to do so much more. And the fact that you’re doing this, I’m hoping is changing things.” And I hope it changes things. It means something to so many people who’ve never felt represented in this way. Again, we’re always made a joke, and we don’t have to be. We’re humans. We exist in the world. It’s okay.
What do you hope audience members take away from the show?
It’s crazy that it’s 2018 and it’s so revolutionary, but I’ve seen the people, how revolutionary it feels for them, and I know how it feels for me. I’m excited to have the opportunity to just be a voice for anybody that has never fit into a box to say, “Just try it out. It works here, and it could work elsewhere.” My biggest hope is that, beyond a size thing, that people come see the show and feel just whole and accepted in a way that maybe they don’t feel accepted at home or in other ways. We provide a little bit of fairy tale escapism and say that maybe the world can be better, and we can dream of a better tomorrow.