For two years, Chad Kimball performed the leading role of Huey Calhoun six times a week in MEMPHIS on Broadway, a role that earned him a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a Musical. Like his character—a 1950’s DJ who makes waves for bringing “colored music” to mainstream radio—Chad is tenacious and industrious. He has steadily built a successful acting career while concurrently launching three clothing lines—Obvious Clothing, Lolly, and NOKT—with his brother, Todd. Chad spoke with us about his career and successful side project, the importance of family, and his decision to take time off from the show.
stated: How did you start acting?
CHAD KIMBALL: I was extremely shy as a kid. In fact, I did two years of kindergarten. My teachers thought it best that I actually begin conversing before advancing me to the first grade. Lucky me, however; by the end of my second year of kindergarten I had the inside scoop on finger painting, lincoln logs, and foursquare. My brother attended Seattle Children’s Theatre’s “Summerstage” program when he was 12, and by proxy he was given a heads-up on area auditions. One audition in particular, Adventures on Sinclair Island, was casting its pilot episode and my brother signed up. To my family’s surprise, I wanted to audition as well. My bro didn’t get the gig. But I did. And I was hooked for life. He’s made peace with my winning that part, by the way.
stated: That’s a relief. Was that your first role? Please say it was Captain Hook at age 4…
CHAD KIMBALL: First role: Skip, the nine-year-old all-American boy next door on The Adventures on Sinclair Island. Far from Captain Hook. Pretty much the opposite. I wasn’t very good. If someone had told me I was overacting and turning my head three quarters AWAY from the camera, I might have been able to hunker down and fix it. No dice. It didn’t get picked up, but I remember entering that “space” I think most artists discover and never turn back. A space of creating, entertaining, provoking and cajoling a reaction from someone else—the thrill of these things made it impossible for me to ever consider doing anything else.
My REAL first role was theatrical. I played Joe Crowell, the paperboy in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It was the theatre that seduced me: the shared process, the intense, albeit brief, friendships, and the magic of the spectacular “moment”. That was the first time I actually fell in love.
(Chad with his likeness at Sardi’s)
stated: Is it true you landed your first Broadway gig immediately after moving to NYC, but the show closed before you went on?
CHAD KIMBALL: I was cast in The Civil War on Broadway nine days before I graduated from The Boston Conservatory. I recall Dave Clemmons—the casting director and member of the cast—phoning me on my brand new “cellular phone” as I rode the Greyhound from Manhattan back to school in Boston. Upon answering, I hurried to the bus’ lavatory. Other riders must have thought my diet not too healthy as I screamed for joy in the bathroom after hearing the news. So, I was riding high—for three whole weeks ‘til the show closed. I did not actually perform ON the stage, but I did make my Broadway debut. Closing night, they allowed me to be a pit singer with the other swings. And so, I made my Broadway debut singing as a black slave to the number, “Freedom”. The friends I made in that short time are still very dear to me.
stated: Your role as “Milky-White” the cow in the 2002 revival of Into the Woods brought you some serious attention, but is it true that wasn’t your original role?
CHAD KIMBALL: I was originally cast as the stand-by for Jack and Rapunzel’s Prince. Kate Reinders was cast as Milky-White, but she had a tough time physically. In the first Broadway Production, MW was a wooden piece of scenery. This time around, [writer/director] James Lapine wanted the cow to be a character. After rehearsing in New York for five weeks, the Into The Woods company jetted to LA to try out at the Ahmanson Theatre and Kate was at the end of her rope. She asked me if I would be her moral support in a meeting with James. After weeks of backbreaking physical exhaustion, Kate’s emotions came unleashed and she couldn’t contain the tears. James turned to me, the “moral support”, and asked, “Chad, can you do it?” Sitting on the sidelines is not my thing, and I jumped at the chance. All my pent-up creativity came pouring out.
I’ll never forget the uncontrollable laughter bellowing from our lighting designer Brian MacDevitt as I entered and “acted” my first scene during tech rehearsals…as a cow. It was comical because I wanted MW to live and breathe in the play just like any of the other characters, but I was…a cow—full puppet gear, hooves and all—inquiring seriously about my motivation. Good times.
(Chad and the cast of Memphis perform “Memphis Lives in Me”)
stated: For sure. You’ve been with Memphis for quite a while now. When did your involvement first start?
CHAD KIMBALL: I was cast as Huey Calhoun in 2003 for North Shore Music Theatre’s world premiere of the piece. I think I attended six callbacks. Needless to say, I wasn’t absolutely sure they wanted ME for the role. That’s quite a few callbacks! In doing the math, which is hard for me, it’s been eight years since Memphis first “lived in me”.
stated: Your relationship with Huey has lasted longer than most marriages. Have you kept track of your Memphis performances so far? Including all the earlier incarnations?
CHAD KIMBALL: My educated guess would be 1000 performances.
stated: Impressive. How did you learn you were nominated for a Best Actor Tony Award for the role?
CHAD KIMBALL: Somehow, I gave my publicist the wrong sequence of numbers for my home phone, and my mobile phone was out of juice. So about two minutes after the nominations were announced, my manager of 12 years (whose name happens to be Tony!) called the CORRECT number. “Hello and congratulations” was the conversation. Then joyous laughter.
stated: If you don’t mind getting a little personal, your mother was having serious health problems around that time. It must have been a strange time in your life, balancing attention and success with family crisis.
CHAD KIMBALL: My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, stage 3B, which was not good. Her diagnosis was Inflammatory Breast Cancer, which is invasive by nature. This kind of cancer grows in “sheets” in the tissue. She also had the cancer in a cyst and it had also spread to the Lymph Nodes. We were devastated. Her chances of survival were not good. She underwent two rounds of chemotherapy, a mastectomy, and weeks of radiation. She told me: “you do your job, and I’ll do mine”. September 23, 2009 she had her mastectomy. That day was our first preview for Memphis on Broadway. On May 4, the day the Tony nominations were announced, she was declared cancer-free and I was nominated for a Tony. We both did our jobs. The idea of being nominated for a Tony paled in comparison to the fact that my mom had fought off the cancer that should have taken her life. To this day, she is free of cancer and healthier than she’s been in years. And I was nominated for a Tony Award. Mrs. Kimball being cancer-free trumps a Tony Nomination any day.
stated: You clearly inspire one another tremendously. The live performance film of Memphis recently premiered in movie theaters and is now streaming on Netflix. Theatre and film are very different mediums. Was it strange to watch a live performance, which is very much an ephemeral event, captured and shown on a movie screen?
(Memphis, Photos: Joan Marcus)
(With Francesca Vannucci, Lolly Clothing’s staff blogger)
CHAD KIMBALL: I didn’t want to go. I was nervous as hell. I’d never seen the show and to watch it was startling. First off, our faces were forty feet tall AND in HD. I have to tell you, though; it was really neat to see it for the first time. There were moments that I never realized existed until I saw the movie version. I found it compelling and I was humbled at the same time. My manager and I overheard two older gentlemen while we were exiting the showing say, “that Kimball is good, but he’s got a sweat problem”. We laughed for twenty minutes straight.
stated: Maybe we’ll watch the low-def version… Tell us a bit about your clothing lines, Obvious Clothing and Lolly, which you founded with your brother. How did that start? Was it your “day job” or simply a labor of love?
CHAD KIMBALL: About five years ago, my brother Todd and I had an inkling to start a business together. We had no idea what this business would be. I remember him calling me from Interstate 5 in Seattle whilst stuck in traffic and saying: “t-shirts”. We had no background in fashion whatsoever. This was a blessing because we could do no wrong. We had no education in fashion, and therefore, had a free pass to do things that seasoned designers would never dream. Basically, we did what made sense as a business. I recall many designers commenting, “You seem to throw the rules of the fashion industry aside and still prosper…how do you do that?” The short answer was that we didn’t know there were any rules. So we didn’t play by industry rules.
We have three lines now: Lolly, Obvious Clothing, and our new maternity line, NOKT. Our garments are all made in the USA and we are growing at a rapid pace. We have 8 full-time employees, including our indispensable Head Designer Naomi Hunt, whose creativity outshines many designers in the industry today. It’s been a long haul, but we’ve sold in Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Fred Segal, among others. We’re looking to expand four fold in the next year. Kinda crazy for two brothers who at one time were blind to the current trends and now are creating them.
stated: Where do you see it going?
CHAD KIMBALL: EVERYWHERE!
stated: What’s next? How long do you expect to stay with Memphis?
CHAD KIMBALL: I just announced that after two years on Broadway and eight years developing the show, I’ll be taking a leave of absence as of October 23, 2011. I suffered severe nerve damage about a year and a half ago, and have missed numerous performances because of it. The pain comes and goes. It’s not like a broken leg. Some days I’m fine, and the next, the pain returns with a vengeance. It’s been extremely difficult to navigate these waters. But I’m confident a 3-4 month break will allow me time to heal and I’ll be able to come back to Memphis stronger than ever.
Our producers have been so supportive. We have a close-knit family at Memphis. Everyone really looks out for each other. Memphis was the little train that could, and it seems we’ve turned into the Orient Express of Broadway musicals. I might point out: Memphis has no “names”. It wasn’t based on a book, movie, or any other written material. It is original in all aspects. Audiences respond accordingly—almost immediately they are thrown to the edge of their chairs with a childish curiosity, with a question mark in their eyes as if to ask, “what’s going to happen next?” It is quite an honor to experience their surprise, spontaneity, and ultimate triumph at the Shubert Theatre every night.
stated: Thanks for joining us, Chad. All the best to you.