Bonnie Milligan, an actress known for her vocal range and belting voice, shares a snug rental on the Upper West Side with a college friend who is also a performer. Ms. Milligan’s bedroom is sufficiently small that she has to leave to change her mind. The kitchen and living room are pretty much one and the same space.
But the 30-something Ms. Milligan, a Tony nominee for her performance as the shifty, shiftless Aunt Debra in the musical “Kimberly Akimbo” (the awards ceremony is scheduled for June 11), isn’t much for trafficking in discouraging words. Thus, she quickly points out her building’s admirable location (handy to both Lincoln Center and a subway stop) and eagerly enumerates the desirable features of the apartment complex. A concierge across the street “collects packages for us, which is a huge thing,” she said. There’s a washer and dryer in the basement, and workout equipment in the courtyard.
As for the apartment itself: Ta-da! It’s rent controlled.
“Over the course of the 15 years I’ve been here, it has gone up $550 in total,” Ms. Milligan said.
Bonnie Milligan, 30-something
Two’s company: “My apartment mate and I have both gone out of town on jobs. I’ve been here alone, or she’s been here alone, and we think, ‘I really like the comfort of living with my best friend.’ That’s the long and short of it.”
“We have all these amenities that would mean a skyrocketing price if we went elsewhere,” she added, while declining to reveal her current rent. “Every time we’ve looked somewhere else in the neighborhood, we end up thinking that we might as well stay here.”
And even if the Tony nomination is great and validating — and, perhaps, a sign of lucrative things to come — Ms. Milligan knows that the one certain thing in an actor’s life is uncertainty. She made her Broadway debut in 2018 in “Head Over Heels,” a musical that combined a Renaissance pastoral romance with the music of the Go-Go’s. When it closed (barely five months after it opened), she had a year of readings and workshops, and “maybe a demo here and there, and I think maybe I shot a little TV,” she said. “But I was hustling to get money for my bills.”
Ms. Milligan comes honestly by her modest housing expectations.
She spent her formative years in a double-wide trailer behind her grandparents’ home in central Illinois. “I had friends — not even the mean kids, but friends — who would say, ‘We love coming to your house. Yours is the only one with license plates and taillights.’ Those little jabs were hard,” said Ms. Milligan who, after her parents’ divorce, moved with her mother to a small house in northwestern Ohio.
Next stop, in 2007: Manhattan.
“I’d been there before on some trips as a teenager, and I just knew it was where I wanted to be to do musical theater. I was a small-town girl, but New York was always my heart,” said Ms. Milligan, who initially sublet space in a three-bedroom, fifth-floor walk-up on the Upper East Side. “During my first six months in New York, I lived in every one of the bedrooms as people came and went.”
She found stability when some college pals invited her to take over a recently vacated room in their three-bedroom Upper West Side apartment. “That was February 2008, and I’ve been here ever since,” she said.
When one of the original residents moved out some years ago, a procession of subletters took over the third bedroom. “I got to a point where I said, ‘Let’s not do this anymore,’” Ms. Milligan recalled. Now that spare room is an office.
By necessity, the apartment is light on furniture. A blue love seat in the kitchen/living room is the spot to sit, eat or watch television. A small bookcase near the front door holds Ms. Milligan’s alphabetized DVD collection of 1960s and ’70s television series, most snagged from the $5 bin at Target. Another small bookcase with more DVDs — “Taxi,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show”— sits in her bedroom, along with the bed and bureau from her teenage room in Ohio.
The tidily arrayed magnets on the front and side of the refrigerator clue visitors in to her heroes in the most compact way possible. Her beloved maternal grandmother, Betty Jean Meador, loved cardinals; thus, the cardinal magnet. There are Lucille Ball and Gilda Radner magnets, “because both of them were influences on me,” Ms. Milligan said.
Doris Day also figures prominently. “I’ve been a huge fan since I was a kid,” she said. “I used to take my allowance money and go on eBay and buy magnets from her movies.”
At its most essential level, the apartment is mixture of where Ms. Milligan came from and where she is. The quilt on her bed and the Afghan slung over the sofa once belonged to her grandmother. So did a tin in the living room and the jewelry box atop the bureau. “We were very close, so I like to have a lot of her around,” Ms. Milligan said.
The bureau is also home to a small stuffed teddy bear previously owned by Ms. Milligan’s father, a pastor and talented singer, as well as a photo of Ms. Milligan’s mother and grandmother. Nearby is a hatbox that was a prop in “Head Over Heels,” and a small wooden chest that a friend’s grandfather made for Ms. Milligan as an opening night gift.
The bedroom walls, on the other hand, tell the story of Ms. Milligan’s life in New York — show posters, fan art, awards, caricatures by Justin “Squigs” Robertson, a theatrical illustrator, and a drawing, commissioned by a friend, of a raccoon garbed in the same warehouse-store vest that Ms. Milligan sports in the last moments of “Kimberly Akimbo.”
“My friend and I love raccoons in general, and we’ve always believed that Aunt Debra is an absolute raccoon,” she said.
On the morning the Tony nominations came out, three of Ms. Milligan’s college friends came over to watch the announcement on CBS, bringing along coffee, bagels and champagne (just in case there was reason to pop a cork).
“It was really beautiful being with dear friends that I met at the Ohio State University,” Ms. Milligan said. “They’ve known me for, like, 20 years. So it was my past and present all together in one place. And that’s the whole thing of my apartment.”
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