Detroit Public Theatre play headed to Broadway

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News
Daniel Pearce and Claire Karpen starred in the 2018 world premiere of "Birthday Candles" at the Detroit Public Theatre. The play is now headed to Broadway, with Debra Messing in the starring role.

It doesn't get much better than this for a small theater company. 

A play commissioned and first produced by the Detroit Public Theatre in 2018 is headed to Broadway next year with a big Hollywood name as the lead – like as not the first time that a play commissioned and produced by a Detroit theater company has made the jump to the heart of New York’s theater world.

Debra Messing, who plays Grace in "Will and Grace," will star in "Birthday Candles," written by Grand Rapids native Noah Haidle. New York's Roundabout Theatre Company will produce and stage the original work at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, with an opening in April 2020. 

"It’s very exciting, and not the first time things have come from humble beginnings," said Broadway in Detroit Executive Director Alan Lichtenstein, who notes that Tony-winning "Hadestown" began life in a school bus. 

"It’s all about the quality of the work and the talent of the people," he said, "and we have very talented, creative people over at Detroit Public Theatre. So I'm not surprised."  

The play, which parachutes into the central character's birthday celebrations from age 17 to 101, won the 2019 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. Each short scene opens with Ernestine assembling the ingredients for her birthday cake.

Playwright Haidle, who now lives in Los Angeles, told The Detroit News that he borrowed the concept from the late, great Thornton Wilder.

"I stole it from his 'Long Christmas Dinner,'" he said, "which is basically my play, but probably better and shorter. As T.S. Elliot said, minor poets borrow. Major poets steal."

Like any good writer, Haidle did his research for "Birthday Candles" -- in this case, learning how to bake a cake. 

"I did — once," he said. "It was a pile of junk. It was terrible. My wife politely ate a piece."

This is hardly Haidle's first success -- though it will be his Broadway debut. His previous work staged in New York, including at the Roundabout and Lincoln Center, was off-Broadway. 

For its part, DPT, founded in 2015, appears to have hit it out of the ballpark on the first try. "Birthday Candles" was the company's inaugural commission.

"We commissioned 'Birthday Candles' sight unseen," said Sarah Winkler, co-producing artistic director, "and scheduled it into our third season without a word having yet been written." 

Haidle called that "almost unprecedented in the history of American theater. I’ve never heard of that happening. In a way, that amount of faith is part of the reason that the play is successful – because I felt beholden and wanted to do right by them." 

The Detroit production was directed by Vivienne Benesch, who will also direct it for the Roundabout Theatre.

DPT, which has its home in the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center in Detroit, will open its fifth season Sept. 25 with Dominique Morisseau's "Paradise Blue." 

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Detroit Public Theatre

Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward, Detroit