Live to Tell: A Conversation with Kim Sutton

  • Post author:
  • Reading time:12 mins read

Live to Tell: A Conversation with Kim Sutton

March 24, 2016

After three successful performances, Kim Sutton returns to the Laurie Beechman Theatre with her latest show —Live to Tell, My Life, Madonna’s Songs — on Sunday, April 9th. We thought it was time to discuss the show and how it came to be. Here is our conversation with Kim.

Cabaret Scenes: Is your show — Live to Tell: My Life, Madonna’s Songs — a strict autobiography?

Kim Sutton: Yes, it is. We changed some of the timeline a bit, to help the flow of the show. But everything in the show is real.

CS: Is Madonna a muse? If not, what is the connection?

KS: I have always felt a strong connection to Madonna and her music. I have always admired Madonna for her strength. She has struggled personally, as well as professionally, but it’s never held her back. She is fearless, and I struggle daily to NOT live my life from a place of fear. We both had difficult relationships with our fathers and lost our mothers at a young age. My mom was 46 years old.

CS: When did you get the idea for the show?

KS: During my recovery from the surgeries, I had a lot of time to reflect. I set a goal for myself to be back on stage within a year. The question was: Did I want to take it slow or hit it hard?

CS: Let’s discuss your medical condition, progressive essential tremor.What is it and how it did it manifest itself?

KS: Essential tremor is a nervous system (neurological) disorder that causes involuntary and rhythmic shaking. It can affect any part of the body, but usually begins in the hands. It’s usually not a dangerous condition, but essential tremor typically worsens over time, and can be severe in some people. Other conditions don’t cause essential tremor, although it’s sometimes confused with Parkinson’s disease.

CS: When did you notice the first signs of tremor?

KS: My primary care doctor noticed the tremor about 10 years ago. My father had recently passed away from MS (multiple sclerosis), so we wanted to rule out MS. The truth is, I didn’t realize I had the tremors at all; my family began to ask, “Hey do you feel your head shaking?” I had no idea. My tremors were unusual in that they began with my head, and then moved to my hands and vocal chords. I also began experiencing some involuntary foot and leg movement.

CS: What treatment did you undergo?

KS: We had tried several treatments, including beta blockers, anti-seizure medication, and injecting botox into my neck muscles to try to paralyze them. The injections were painful and didn’t help, and also didn’t address the hand and voice tremors, which were progressing quickly.

CS: Is there a cure?

KS: There is no cure for essential tremor; treatment is focused solely on symptom relief.

Kim & Dr. Rasouli

CS: With the tremors progressing, you had to resort to surgery. What did that involve?

KS: Deep Brain Stimulation surgery involves placing a thin metal electrode — about the diameter of a piece of spaghetti — into one of several possible brain targets and attaching it to a computerized pulse generator, which is implanted under the skin in the chest below the collarbone. All parts of the stimulator system are internal; there are no wires coming out through the skin. My tremors required a series of three surgeries, which I had in January, February, and March of 2016. I still see my neurology team on a regular basis to be calibrated for optimum symptom control, and I will need further surgeries in the future to replace the generators that were implanted in my chest.

CS: We’ve heard there was ritual after each surgery. What was that?

KS: Yes, the tattoos. I took Lennie Watts for his very first tattoo, and I got my Warrior tattoo with him. I like looking down on my arm and being reminded how strong I am. I got a tattoo in Mykonos, Greece that says Fanari. I spent a lot of time at a lighthouse in Mykonos called Fanari; it’s where I went when trying to make the decision to go forward and have the surgeries. Many tears were shed there, but I knew I made the right decision. Since then, two of my gal pals who went to Mykonos with me have gotten Fanari on their wrists too! It’s a sisterhood of strength.

When I was cleared by my neurosurgeon, I got the dates of my surgeries tattooed on my arm. These tattoos give me strength, and there are days when I need it!  This journey hasn’t been easy, but I own every second of it and every drop of ink.

CS: Back to your show. How did you begin your work on it? Did you bring your director, Lennie Watts, a list of songs and an idea? What happened first?

KS: I started by getting my hands on every piece of Madonna music I could find. Steven Ray Watkins  [musical director] and I spent hours together learning her entire catalogue. Then Lennie came in to listen to all of the songs. We then spent many hours looking at which songs were relevant to the story we wanted to tell. Then came the process of cutting and pasting and weaving the songs/lyrics together.  This work took months, but we were amazed how the lyrics were really able to tell my story. We joke that it’s almost like Madonna’s entire career was put together so I could do my Live to Tell show!

Kim with daughters Maddie (L) and Ash

CS: How did you decide to add the singing/dancing chorus?

KS: From the beginning, we wanted to tell the story with backup dancers/singers. After all, what would Madonna do?

CS: When did you begin ensemble rehearsals?

KS: The fellas came on board in December; they are consummate professionals, and learned the music quite quickly.

CS: Did you have to add anything to your personal trick bag in order to pull this off (acting class, dance class, prayer, etc!)?

Kim & bestie Mary Sue Daniels

KS: I had planned on taking some dancing classes, but had a few medical setbacks during the fall of last year. I had taken several falls, and broke my foot twice within a span of six weeks. Staying healthy quickly became the goal and, frankly, dance classes seemed like an opportunity to invite injury!

CS: Part of the show takes place while you were in the Navy. What happened during that period of your life?

KS: The Navy was a great way for me to get an education, as college was not an option without family support. I had taken the ASVAB test, which is required by all entering the military, and aced it. Subsequently, the Navy offered me a spot in their prestigious nuclear program. I was thrilled. The day I left my home and was sworn in, I was told that women are not allowed to participate in the nuclear program. I was stunned. I knew I couldn’t go back home, so I asked for options, and decided on Hospital Corps School. This meant I’d be a medic for the Navy and Marine Corps. And so began my career in what was clearly a man’s world. Incidentally, today women are participating in the nuclear program.

As a medic, I was responsible for drawing the blood of my fellow sailors, in the early 1980s, for a test called HTLV-3. We didn’t know what we were testing for; today it’s called HIV. My best friend John’s test came back positive, and he was quickly moved off our base with no explanation or chance to say goodbye. It was all so secretive and frightening, and there was no way for me to find him. I learned by chance that he had been moved to the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, but, unfortunately, I learned this info too late. John was gone, and the AIDS crisis had begun.

CS: Since your previous shows — Fifty Shades of Kim, Anchors Away! (Broadway World Award winner), and Whenever I Call You Friend, with Kim Grogg (MAC Award Winner) — have been fairly traditional, did you have trepidation starting the process with the show?

KS: I know it sounds odd, but once I decided to REALLY tell my story, I had no nerves. Going through the brain surgeries changed me, and, once we got started, it was full steam ahead! I was more excited to tell the story than fearful or nervous.

CS: Did building and performing this show prove cathartic? And, if so, how?

KS: ABSOLUTELY. Having the surgeries changed me in ways I never thought possible. It gave me the courage to confront certain issues head on, and reflect on my life in a way I had not been able to before. Putting the show together was like therapy on steroids, and performing it is pure joy. There is no more fear. Live to Tell is all about “Hey, I’ve been through some stuff.” You can like the show or not, but this is me. And I’m right where I’m supposed to be. There is a freedom in that statement.

CS: Your press materials state that you came to singing by way of your bucket list. Were you not at one time a little girl singing and dancing around the house and dreaming of being on stage, or did you participate in any musicals at school?

KS: I did not sing at all prior to a few years ago. I had never been in a chorus or choir or a school musical. Singing and dancing around the house —not so much. I like to say that I was more focused on survival during those younger years.

CS: How did you find your way to the NYC cabaret stage?

KS: I was seeing a therapist about five years ago who told me I needed to find a life for myself when my youngest daughter, Maddie, went to college. She is currently a senior at Hobart William Smith. I had done triathlons and several physical challenges, and wanted to change it up. I remembered watching the Today Show many years ago when Katie Couric wanted to become a cabaret singer. So, I did some research on Katie’s teacher and found Helen Baldassare and Cabaret Performance Workshop. I came in and auditioned for Helen, and things just took off from there.

CS: Do you think you’re in showbiz for awhile, or are you moving forward on the bucket list? Alligator wrestling, perhaps?

KS: Looking back now, I can see how music was always such a huge part of my life, and being on stage for me is a safe place. That sounds a bit odd, but for me it’s true. Showbiz for life, baby!

Editor’s Note:
Kim Sutton reprises Live to Tell at NYC’s Laurie Beechman Theatre, 407 West 42nd Street under the West Bank Cafe, on Sunday evenng, April 9 at 6:oo pm.

To learn more about essential tremor, visit