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Inside the Mind of Mastery: Unveiling the Secrets Behind ‘Kimberly Akimbo’ with David Lindsay-Abaire

David Lindsay-Abaire, Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright, comments on his creative process when writing the critically acclaimed ‘Kimberly Akimbo.’
The following exclusive interview with Lindsay-Abaire illuminates the creative process of one of the best playwrights in America today. (Photo Credit: The Tony Awards, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

Kimberly Levaco is not your average teenager from Bergen County. Just like a  “normal” teenager, Kimberly faces struggles in her relationship with her parents, her friends, and herself. However, Kimberly has a unique physical condition that sets her apart from the crowd. 

At a mere sixteen years old, Kimberly looks like a 60 year old woman. This physical appearance is due to an extremely rare condition that has her aging at a rate four to five times faster than the average person. This unique aspect of her identity means that alongside the emotional baggage that comes with being a teenager, she also has to grapple with a looming death. 

‘Kimberly Akimbo’ is a musical based on this premise, with the lyrics and book written by David Lindsay-Abaire and the music by Jeanine Tesori. The musical opens with Kimberly interacting with her dysfunctional family: an alcoholic father, a pregnant mother, and a delinquent aunt. Each family member seems to be self-absorbed, offering Kimberly little to no support in dealing with her condition. 

As the musical begins to focus more on Kimberly’s school life, the audience is introduced to Seth, Kimberly’s first friend. Through this newfound friendship, Kimberly begins to experience the ‘normal aspects’ of being a teenager – her first crush, her first fight with a friend, and even her first act of rebellion. Kimberly’s relationship with Seth is the sense of comfort her life lacked at the start. Seth provides her with the much needed understanding and support that her family failed to give her.

As the plot moves forward, Kimberly’s Aunt Debra pressures Kimberly into committing fraud. The unfolding events force Kimberly to make complex decisions that burden her, further complicating her already challenging life.

Despite navigating loneliness and a complex web of relationships, Kimberly’s optimism becomes the heart and soul of this Tony Award winning musical. Through every difficulty that her accelerated aging and teenage years present, Kimberly radiates a warmth that captivates the audience. 

This masterful work, written by David Lindsay-Abaire, tells the tale of a young girl with unwavering hope and desire to pursue happiness. The following exclusive interview that I conducted with David Lindsay-Abaire illuminates the creative process of one of the best playwrights in America today. 

What inspired you to write Kimberly Akimbo? 

Kimberly Akimbo was a play that I wrote over twenty years ago, long before it became a musical. The seed of the play actually came to me when I asked a friend how his new niece was, and he said, “She’s amazing. She’s two months old going on eighty.” And I immediately pictured this tiny old woman, wise beyond her years, trapped in a baby’s body, which of course, is a very odd image. Then I asked myself if there was maybe a play in that idea. What if the baby was, instead, a teenager. Then I thought, what a great role for an older actress – someone in their sixties or seventies getting to play 16. And then I dug a little deeper and realized that there was an interesting metaphorical idea in there as well – that a child trapped in an older person’s body might be an interesting way to talk about how, in certain families, kids have to grow up and parent their parents. I thought that I could also write about mortality and escaping family and the importance of living in the moment. As writers we try to find ideas that give you a lot to explore, and this one did that for me. 

 As for what inspired the musical, Jeanine Tesori (the composer) and I worked together on Shrek the Musical. That process was rewarding in many ways, but really challenging in other ways. The hardest thing was that Shrek had a bunch of Hollywood producers attached, which meant lots of people with lots of opinions and lots of notes, which is common when writing a movie or T.V. show, but not something I had ever experienced in theater. During that time, I said to Jeanine, ‘I’d love to write another musical with you, but I wish we could write it the way I write my plays – in private without other people breathing down our necks and constantly giving notes.’ Then Jeanine said, “Yes, great, let’s do that! And why not actually adapt one of your plays?” So it was Jeanine who pulled Kimberly Akimbo, that old play of mine, off the shelf and said, ‘I think there’s a musical in this one.’ So then we got to work.” 

 How did you approach balancing the play’s humor with its more dramatic elements? 

 “I trust my gut. I’ve always mixed comedy and drama in my plays. So my funnier plays are often grounded in pain or trauma or serious issues. And my more serious plays (my play Rabbit Hole, for example, is about grief and parents contending with the death of their four year old son) still have lots of humor running through them. Otherwise they might be unbearable to watch. I think that that sensibility was baked into me from an early age. I grew up in a pretty poor working class neighborhood in Boston, and my family and neighbors all had really horrible things happen to them, but we often dealt with those things by being funny. Humor as a coping mechanism. Sometimes things were just so awful, that you had to laugh. So it’s not a surprise to me that comedy and tragedy live right next to each other in most of my plays. It’s just how I experience the world as I walk through it.”

Would you discuss the significance of the play’s title? 

“Obviously, Kimberly is the main character’s name. And the word ‘akimbo’ means bent, usually in an awkward or crooked way. Because I created a world and tone and characters that were also off center and bent, ‘akimbo’ felt like it described the play itself. I tried to write a story rife with duality and contradictions. A teenager looks like an old lady, the grown-ups behave like children, it’s April but it’s snowing. Everything in this world is upside down. The anagrams, too, are another example of the jumbled-up world of the play. The pieces are all there, but they’re mixed up. In order to understand Kimberly, we have to first get past what we see on the surface (the fact that she looks like an old woman) – we have to move the pieces around until they make sense. The main character’s own name (Kimberly Levaco) gets rearranged to spell Cleverly Akimbo. Kim spends most of the play wanting to be seen for who she really is, not as a dying old lady, but as a vibrant teenage girl who wants to experience life. Seth sees her for who she really is, so it makes sense that he’s the one to mix up the letters in her name to spell out something more wonderful and special. The plot is a kind of anagram as well.  I try to give the audience clues throughout the play as to exactly what went down in Lodi, but not until the end are all those pieces put in order and spelled out correctly. Kimberly as a character is like an anagram.  The plot is like an anagram.  The world itself, in this play, is like an anagram.  Everything is mixed up and out of order.  So the title, Kimberly Akimbo, seemed to make a lot of sense to me. The other thing about the word ‘akimbo’ is, it usually refers to arms.  When someone’s hands are on their hips, their arms are akimbo. And that stance (hands on the hips) is usually a stance of defiance or fortitude, and those are both defining characteristics of Kimberly as a character.  So to call the play Kimberly Akimbo hopefully communicates all that: defiance, fortitude, but also bent and askew.  Also it sounds funny, which gives the audience the hint that it’s a comedy.” 

How do you envision Kimberly, and how does her character challenge or conform to societal perceptions of age and maturity? 

“Because the play is so much about outward appearance versus inner essence and how people judge and/or make assumptions about people based on how they might look, it’s important to the story that Kimberly really looks like an older woman, in her 60s or 70s at least. At the same time (and this is the trickier part), it’s equally important that we cast an actress who has a youthful spirit and energy about her, so that the audience truly believes after a couple scenes that Kimberly is sixteen. It’s a big hurdle to clear, but we’re asking audiences to perceive two things at the same time, she’s old and she’s young, she’s mature and she’s a sensitive teen, she’s wise and she might make dumb choices. We’re constantly challenging an audience’s perceptions and assumptions about what it means to be a teenager and what it means to be an older person. 

 We were very lucky to cast Victoria Clark in the musical and earlier Marylouise Burke in the play, because they are both older actresses, but they also have a girlish, almost spritely energy about them. Despite their actual ages, they so believably played sixteen that the audience stopped questioning their age. So much so that in the second act when Kimberly (spoiler!) enters dressed as an old woman, the audience would audibly gasp every single performance. It’s a weird magic trick because in that moment Victoria comes on looking like someone her actual age. But because the audience has so accepted her as a sixteen year old girl, it’s shocking to see her look like an old woman, and they feel more potent just how close to death Kim actually is.”

 What themes did you aim to explore through Kimberly’s relationships with her family members? 

 “As I mentioned, I was interested in writing about a family where the grown-ups behaved like children and where the child was probably the most mature person in the house. This is a common dynamic, especially in dysfunctional families. I just literalized the idea by giving Kim a fictional aging condition. Once I knew I was going to write about this girl with this disease who was wise beyond her years and dealing with these incredibly grown-up issues, it just felt right thematically to make her the most mature person in her family.  And if I were to take that idea to an extreme (which is often what I do as a writer) then I had to make the adults a bunch of immature narcissists stuck in a state of arrested development. Absurdity aside, I’ve seen many childish parents in action, and it’s terrifying.  It’s also very common in alcoholic families in particular for children to have to grow up early and essentially become the care-givers to the parents. Someone has to make sure things are taken care of, and sadly it’s often the kids who have to step up and do it. So, the role reversals are comedic and heightened in this play, but I hope they’re also real and identifiable. 

 In the parents’ defense, I’d say that most of their bad behavior is rooted in the fact that they had a child while teenagers in high school. They didn’t have the maturity or the tools to parent. The fact that Kim has special needs, compounded just how ill-equipped Pattie and Buddy were to deal with that situation. I think that the terror of Kim’s possible death is too much for them to bear, so they cope with it by hiding from it. It’s why Buddy drinks so much, and why Pattie is such a raving narcissist. Not dealing with Kim as a dying teenager is easier than facing the awful reality of losing her. (This is most obviously seen when Pattie sings ‘Father Time’ late at night when no one else is around and we hear her greatest fears sung aloud.) 

Kim spends most of the play trying to fix her family, to make them “normal,” to get them to treat her as a normal teenager and recognize her for who she is and not what she’s going to be — dead. Despite the disease at the center of this play, it’s not a story about someone dying.  It’s a story about someone living.  And Kim is doing everything in her power to make her family recognize that fact.  When the story about Carmelita comes to light (in the song ‘Inevitable Turn’), Kim finally sees her parents for who they are, and the lengths they would go to insure that they not have another child like Kim.  Of course they’re terrified of death and of losing another child, but Kim is a temperamental teenager who takes this very personally. Later, when Kim comes back from the hospital and discovers that her parents have replaced her bed with a crib for Carmelita, she feels like her parents have already moved on from her. She also realizes, more significantly, that her parents are incapable of changing.  They can’t look at her without seeing death or their own failures.  It’s too painful for them, so they block it out entirely. Buddy does this through drinking, and Pattie through her hypochondria and Carmelita. I don’t think Kim’s parents are bad people, they’re just terrified of facing death, especially the death of their daughter. I think they harbor a lot of guilt over this, and, to some extent, blame themselves as parents often do.  In their final scene together, Kim accuses her parents of giving up. But she means that on many levels. Yes, they seem to have given up on her, but also, they’ve given up on their own lives. Pattie is so obsessed with having a perfect family (which of course is impossible) that she’s stuck in a place she’ll never get out of.  Buddy talks and talks about seeing the world, but he never goes anywhere.  Debra goes from scam to scam and never makes it to Hawaii.  This is a family of narcissists incapable of looking past themselves.  And in some ways, that’s what paralyzes them.  They’re so afraid of what might happen, that they choose (consciously or not) to stay exactly where they are instead.  They talk constantly about what they want, but then self-sabotage at every turn. When Kim finally realizes this (that these people are all behaving like they’re already dead) she knows that she has to escape and live for herself.  She can’t change them, she can only take care of herself.  Seth is the one person who sees Kim for who she really is. He sees the life inside of her, and he likes it. That’s all she wants, for someone to recognize that. ‘I know I might be dying, but I’m not dead.’” 

Are there any autobiographical elements within the play, or is it entirely fictional? 

“While most of the play is fictional, there’s a lot in the play that’s taken from my own life. Some of it I was aware of it, and some of it just happened by accident.  

I happen to be from a very blue collar neighborhood in Boston, and I knew that I wanted to write about a neighborhood very much like the one I grew up in, and about the type of people I grew up with.  But I didn’t want to set the play in Boston because I didn’t want people looking at the play as if it were autobiographical, which it isn’t really.  I was especially afraid of my parents showing up and saying “Oh, they’re from Boston! I guess that’s supposed to me?!”  Anyway, there are some neighborhoods in Jersey that are very much like my old neighborhood. So, that’s why I chose it. In this play New Jersey is just Boston in disguise. I will confess that the show choir teenagers are very similar to my close group of friends in high school. Also, the character of Seth is probably the closest I’ve ever come to putting myself in a play. He is essentially who I was at sixteen – the “Good Kid,” the obsession with Lord of the Rings, the awkward jokes, and, most especially the word puzzles. I would do anagrams compulsively. I loved figuring them out and sharing them with my friends. So, yeah, Seth is probably closer to autobiographical than I’d like to admit.”  

 What do you hope audiences take away from watching Kimberly Akimbo? 

 “Obviously I have no control over how anyone in the audience might respond to the show, but I hope people are engaged by the story, and care about Kim, and I hope that they laugh and that they’re moved, and that maybe they reflect on their own lives a little. But I don’t generally try put any kind of “message” forward in my plays.  I’m more interested in characters than I am in thesis statements. I prefer just telling stories and asking questions and exploring themes.  If an audience member gets a message from that, great.  But audience members often get different messages from my plays.  The stories affect people in very different ways.  I like that.  But, if pressed, I’d probably admit that the play encourages people to live for the moment and seize the day, and to make the most out of whatever time we might have left.  But that sounds so trite when I state it like that.  I hope there’s more in the play than that simple message (though I think that’s a swell message to take away).” 

 Did your perspective on or understanding of the characters change during the writing or production process? 

 “For sure! When I first wrote the play, I was a relatively young man, so I of course related mostly to the younger characters in the play. I didn’t know at the time, but rereading the play twenty years later, it’s more obvious to me that I was writing a lot about myself as a teenager. Not just the Seth character (who is actually named Jeff in the play), but also the Kimberly character. And though my parents weren’t exactly like Kim’s, there were enough similarities for me to realize that I was also writing about some of the frustrations and resentments I had about them. When it was time to write the musical, however, I was a parent myself with two teenage sons, and I understood parenting in a way I never could have when I first wrote the play. With new perspective, I could see that Pattie and Buddy, while deeply flawed parents, were also trying their best in a really horrible situation. I understood their fear of losing their child, and why they might be incapable of facing that fear. And even though I would never behave the way Pattie and Buddy do with Kim, I had new empathy for them as characters, empathy that I couldn’t access as fully as a younger man.” 

 Looking back, what do you believe is the lasting impact or legacy of Kimberly Akimbo, and what do you hope its place will be in the broader canon of American theater? 

Gosh, I can’t even begin to predict what the impact or legacy of Kimberly Akimbo might be. That’ll be up to other people to decide. All I can say is that it has been an absolute privilege to work with the genius composer Jeanine Tesori. She is one of the most significant composers in the history of musical theater, so if the show does leave a lasting legacy, it’s because of her.  

 I’ve been so grateful and moved by the reception the show has had, and that it continues to move audiences on Broadway, and I’m thrilled that it’s going to tour and that there will be regional productions around the country, and lots of productions around the world. As a writer, nothing is guaranteed. Very few playwrights ever get their plays produced at all. So I’ve always felt beyond lucky that I’ve managed to somehow, against all odds, sustain a career as a playwright. That was already like winning the lottery. To then be a part of a show that has gotten the response and awards that Kimberly Akimbo has, it’s almost too much for me to even imagine. I grew up loving theater, and watching the Tonys on television every year. I can’t even say that I dreamed of being a part of the theater community as a kid because it seemed so entirely unattainable to me. I was just a poor kid growing up in Southie, so I couldn’t even imagine any kind of path that would get me to Broadway. And yet somehow all the stars aligned, and I got incredibly lucky over and over again.  

 So when you ask about legacy and the show’s place in the broader canon of American theater, I can only shrug and say, who knows? I’m not thinking about the future, I’m just trying to enjoy where I am right now, which is maybe the message of Kimberly Akimbo.


Through all of her highs and lows, Kimberly’s story is an inspiration for all who have the privilege to watch the play. The musical, while exploring themes of mortality, ultimately celebrates life, love, and friendship. Kimberly Akimbo is currently playing at the Booth Theater on Broadway in Manhattan until April 28th, 2024.

I’d probably admit that the play encourages people to live for the moment and seize the day, and to make the most out of whatever time we might have left,” said David Lindsay-Abaire.

About the Contributor
Isabel Goldfarb, Staff Reporter
Isabel Goldfarb is both a Copy Chief and a Social Media Editor for The Science Survey. She tends to focus on A.I., economics, and political science in her reporting, but is now venturing into covering topics related to arts and entertainment. In addition to writing her own articles, Isabel edits her fellow journalists’ articles on subjects ranging from current events to features. She appreciates how the field of journalism allows one to explore what they are most passionate about, as well as express and challenge one's own opinions on a wide range of issues. Aside from journalism, Isabel enjoys debating, reading, and fencing. In college, Isabel would like to study applied mathematics, economics, and international relations, all of which have the potential to intertwine with journalism.