As Milky White in the 2002 Broadway revival of Into the Woods, Chad Kimball made about the biggest splash imaginable for an actor trapped inside a cow suit. Happily, he proved to be just as likable out of that memorable costume, even if he got hooked into a couple of short-lived Broadway songbook flops like Good Vibrations and Lennon. With his first leading role in the new musical Memphis, as a 1950s DJ who dares to introduce black music on the radio, Kimball finally has a meaty Broadway vehicle that shows off all his talents, including a singing voice that soars in the show’s many memorable songs, including the 11 o’clock anthem “Memphis Lives In Me.” Broadway.com sat down with the likeable leading man backstage at the Shubert Theatre during previews to talk about his journey to Memphis.
You’ve been involved in Memphis for many years, starring in numerous regional stagings. How long has it been exactly?
My niece was born during the rehearsal process for the first production at North Shore Music Theatre and she turned six in September.
She’s your yardstick?
Exactly! “You’re six. You’re as old as Memphis!”
What’s it like to live with a character for that long?
Every time I’ve come back to it, I get so nervous because I think, “What if I have forgotten how to play him?” but then it just kind of happens. It’s a garden that keeps on growing. It’s gotten better and bigger and I think it has more heart and soul. “Soul” being the operative word.
And what’s it been like having Montego Glover as your on-and-off leading lady for all these years?
She cares about her character and the show so much. We’ve built up the love story a lot and we’ve both worked incredibly hard to make it really tangible. She’s a joy to watch and a joy to work with…and a joy to kiss. I think I probably kissed her more than I kissed any girlfriend in the past!
Your character, Huey, is a good ole Southern boy. And you’ve got a natural Southern energy onstage. Where’d you learn that?
I was thinking about it the other day and I don’t really know. Maybe it’s The Andy Griffith Show, which I watched when I was a kid. I tend to mimic things, so maybe I got that into my blood when I was little. I love the Southern sensibility and the lilt of the voice and the way they ask questions. There’s just a great hospitable nature about Southerners.
I think you nailed the accent.
It’s been refined over the years. We’ve had to bring it back from being too heavy because people don’t understand it. The greatest test was when we went to Memphis and performed for locals down there. People came up to me after and said, “Where in the South are you from?” And I say, “I’m from Seattle!” That was just fantastic for me.
Did you have a good time down in Memphis?
Yeah. We did research on Beale Street. That was fun!
What did “research” involve?
Drinking. Libations and jamming. David Bryan got up and played the keyboard at a club, Blue City Café.
Did you always have faith that the show would make it to Broadway?
Yes. The great part is that they’ve just been marinating it for years and letting it grow and not rushing it. With a lot of shows, people get an idea and there’s a lack of patience. This show’s had time to percolate and I think that that’s huge in creating a new work.
You’ve been in several new musicals that flopped. Does that make you nervous for a show like Memphis?
No, because I’m seeing the reactions of the audience. They’re coming with us. They’re into it. I’ve never experienced that before in the shows that I’ve done here. I’m kind of glad that I was in a couple of shows that didn’t do so well because I’ve learned from experience.
Do you get sick of talking about the unsuccessful shows on your resume?
Nah, it’s like my red badge of courage. The first show that I was in was The Civil War as a swing. I was rehearsing for two weeks and then in my last week, Jerry Zaks came into the theater and said, “We’re closing the show.” I was like, “What? But I’m looking for a private chef!” It was the first time I was ever making money.
That was your dream? To be on Broadway and to have a private chef?
Yeah. It’s called McDonald’s! So that show just kind of tempered me, I guess.
I saw Good Vibrations, but I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t remember you in it.
What was my role? I can’t even remember… Randy! I played Randy.
Did you get to dance atop the surfboards? That number I remember!
Yes, I did! I had a small role. I don’t even know if you’d call it a role. But I did get to say, “Je m’appelle Randy!” in the second act [laughs]. It was fun. I have a lot of friends from that show.
From what I’ve heard, the cast had a blast backstage.
We had a great time. Remember we used to throw beach balls into the audience? Sometimes people would be sitting there with a scowl on their face and you could tell they were judging it and we had these balls so we’d just… [Imitates punching a ball into the audience.] “Have fun!”
That show got slammed when it opened, but still ran for a few months.
Yeah, it did. For the next year, reviewers would always say, “It’s not as bad as Good Vibrations…”
What was it like to keep running after those reviews?
Well, I left four days after it opened!
You got out.
I started working on Lennon. We had such a great time, the nine of us in that show. During rehearsals, Will Chase and I used to mess around with Terrence Mann. We’d say to [director] Don Scardino, “So when Javert crosses left, do I…” or “OK, wait. So Rum Tum Tugger’s going to say to me…” It was fun.
Do you ever feel like you got unlucky, getting cast in one flop after the next?
No, I never felt unlucky. I always felt really blessed. I’ve just been happy to have a job and happy for the learning experiences. They’re just so magical. Any Broadway show you do is magical.
When you played the cow Milky White in Into the Woods, you got a crazy amount of attention. You were named the “It Cow” in Entertainment Weekly. Was it weird to get so much press for something that didn’t really show off all your talents?
It showed off my puppetry talents!
Your friend Kate Reinders originally had the part…
Yes, I was an offstage cover. The show was playing at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles and she’s just tiny and was having problems with it. She actually said, “Can you talk to James [Lapine, the director] with me? I need moral support.” So I went with her to talk to him and she started crying. I don’t know how well James is with tears, but he just looked right at me and said, “Well, can you do it?” And I said, “I’ll try it, yeah.” I had been sitting on the sidelines as a cover for two months and I had all this pent-up energy so I just got out there and had fun. I think the cow was God’s way of humbling me. I’m proud of my performance and it was fun and people loved it, but at the same time, I was a cow.
You became quite the puppet master.
I actually got to meet Marty Robinson, who was the plant in Little Shop of Horrors and was on Sesame Street for years. One day they called me down to the costume shop after the show. There were all these people standing around Milky White’s head, which was kept on a safety cone. Everyone’s really quiet and there’s this guy in the middle, sitting in a chair, examining at the face. I walk in and he shakes my hand and says, “Good work out there.” I was like, “Thank you.” And he says, “Marty Robinson, Snuffalupagus.” I was like, “Chad Kimball, Milky White!”
Where is Milky White these days?
I think they rent out the costume.
Do you miss her a little?
I do miss her. I wonder where she is and why she’s so aloof.
You’ve been in L.A. for a while now.
For the last three years. I moved right after Lennon.
Because Broadway kept slapping you in the face?
[Laughs.] I was just tired. It does wear on you, after you give so much to a show and don’t see the kind of return you hope for. And my agent wanted me to try out L.A. What was great about being there was working on my fashion line, which started as O-Gear and then morphed into Obvious Clothing while I was there.
Your fashion line! Which you started it with your brother…
Right. He called me one day and said, “We should make T-shirts.” I was like, “Perfect. Let’s do it.” So O-Gear was that. We had no idea what we were doing. I went to The New Mart building in L.A.’s fashion district and saw all of the showrooms and realized our product wasn’t trendy enough. So we changed the model, got a showroom, wound up getting into 75 stores in two months, and it just kept on growing.
And now Fergie is wearing your clothes…
Yes, we’re one of Fergie’s faves, which is crazy. We just started our cashmere division, we have a children’s line coming out next year and we’re also starting a men’s line.
You certainly have a career to fall back on! So now that you’re here and it’s finally happening, what do you want to get out of Memphis?
I just love playing it. It’s so much work, but as an actor it’s such a joy at the end to see the audience give back to you almost as much as you’ve given to them. It’s really heartwarming. And to be in a new original musical that really works? There’s nothing like it.
See Chad Kimball in Memphis at the Shubert Theatre.