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How Bonnie Milligan is breaking body stereotypes in Head Over Heels
From the very first reading of the Go-Go's musical Head Over Heels in 2014, Bonnie Milligan knew she was perfect for the part of Pamela, a hilariously narcissistic Elizabethan princess. That's probably because the show's original book writer, Avenue Q Tony winner Jeff Whitty, created the part just for her. "Jeff had seen me in a few Off-Off Broadway shows directed by his friend Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, and he wrote the role with me in mind, which was lovely," Milligan says. "The show was so different back then. It wasn't even in iambic pentameter! A year later we did it at Oregon Shakes and Ed directed that production. And now we're on Broadway. It's been a long and amazing journey, how it's shifted and changed."
It's certainly changed a lot -- Milligan is the only Oregon cast member still with the show. In addition, the Broadway incarnation has a new director, Michael Mayer, and a new writer, James Magruder, who adapted Whitty's original book, which was loosely based on Sir Philip Sidney's 16th-century work The Arcadia. Inserting 1980s hits by the Go-Go's into a five-century-old epic that's written in rhyming verse may sound bizarre. But these strange bedfellows have coalesced into a winning romantic musical comedy that feels incredibly current, with mistaken gender identities, sexual fluidity and LGBTQ couplings.
Like all eight main characters, Milligan's Pamela finds love once she embraces her true nature. However, her journey isn't just empowering because she realizes she's (spoiler alert!) a lesbian, but also because she's a voluptuous woman acknowledged as the most gorgeous lady in the land.
While there have been a handful of plus-size romantic leading roles in Broadway musicals -- Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray, Tammy in Escape to Margaritaville, Jenny Steinberg in It Shoulda Been You -- all those characters suffered through jokes about their weight before they found love and won the day. In Head Over Heels, no one says anything derogatory about Pamela. She's always treated as immensely attractive and she absolutely is.
"That was part of the original vision," says Milligan about her part. "In the Renaissance era, being plump meant you were wealthy and desirable. This is a time when I was a picture of beauty. I think it is important to see a big woman singing about how she's beautiful and everyone on stage saying, 'Yeah, she is.' So Pamela is never funny because she's big. She's funny because she's super-conceited."
Pamela's self-centeredness is on sidesplitting display in the number "How Much More," during which she throws a royal temper tantrum, demolishing everything in sight while belting her lungs out. "I've never done something that's so taxing," Milligan says. "I have to limit certain moments physically because I won't be able to healthfully get out the notes. Spencer Liff, the choreographer, worked through it piece by piece with me so that things looked like they were being destroyed in a good order, but so I could still breathe. It's hard to destroy things! I hope there are laughs because I use them to cover the noise of me clearing my throat and swallowing. Rolling over the bedframe is probably the hardest thing I do. At a certain point, Michael and Spencer said, 'Don't do that -- it's too difficult.' But I wanted to figure it out because I needed to commit to the comedy of it."
Head Over Heels marks Milligan's Broadway debut after more than a decade of auditioning in New York. But she already has quite a fan base from years of performing cabaret with her pal Matt Doyle at Feinstein's/54 Below. "I love doing the concert circuit because I love singing and interacting with an audience," says Milligan. "I created that community for myself, which accepted me, and I'm so happy to see so many of those faces at the stage door for Head Over Heels. They've been such a part of my journey."
Of course being on Broadway in a scene-stealing role is winning Milligan new devotees, too. And while they come in all sizes, the larger ones -- like this writer -- are especially excited to see her challenging body stereotypes. "It's been really lovely meeting so many women who are moved and say, 'Thank you! You don't know what it means to have a big girl up there being joyful and pretty and dancing,'" she says. "I understand how important and beautiful it is because I never saw that, so I'm happy to oblige. I don't think we talk enough about size diversity in casting. I very much want to be a template."
Top image: Bonnie Milligan center, with Tanya Haglund, Samantha Pollino, Ari Groover and Amber Ardolino Head Over Heels. Photo by Joan Marcus.