From Detroit to Broadway: Detroit Public Theatre's 'Birthday Candles'

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

The first time Michigan-born playwright Noah Haidle had one of his plays performed by New York's Roundabout Theatre Company, it went so badly that the company created an entire program afterward for aspiring writers.

"It didn't exist, and wouldn't have existed, without me and my complete failure," said Haidle in a self-deprecating tone.

Fast forward a few years ago and Haidle, now an accomplished playwright and screenwriter who grew up in Grand Rapids and lived in Detroit for several years, is having a much different — and better — New York experience, one that's helping put Detroit on the theater map. His play "Birthday Candles," originally commissioned by Detroit Public Theatre, opens Sunday at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre on Broadway. Starring Emmy Award-winning actress Debra Messing of "Will & Grace" fame, it runs through May 29.

Emmy Award-winning actress Debra Messing, right, stars in "Birthday Candles" with Susannah Flood, left. Written by Michigan-born playwright Noah Haidle, it originally premiered at Detroit Public Theatre in 2018.

"For me to go from creating one of their worst plays of all time, one that was so bad they created an entire program for younger writers, to going to their biggest stage, where they've only done three new plays in their entire history, is a pretty neat-o journey," Haidle says simply, speaking by phone from New York.

"Birthday Candles" marks a big milestone for not just Haidle but Detroit Public Theatre, the plucky theater company that opened in Midtown in 2015. It is their first play to make it to Broadway and the first play they ever commissioned. 

"It's a lot of miracles,' said Courtney Burkett, who cofounded Detroit Public Theatre with Sarah Winkler and Sarah Clare Corporandy. "Noah wrote a really, really beautiful play. The heart of this play is very strong and that's how it made it through."

Getting "Birthday Candles" to Broadway, though, hasn't exactly been easy. It was supposed to premiere two years ago but was two weeks into rehearsals when COVID-19 hit. And even after Broadway reopened last fall in New York, there was no guarantee the Roundabout would pick it back up but they did, said Burkett.

"It's almost like we got to Broadway twice," she said.

But the delay has made the play, which tells the story of a woman baking a cake every year on her birthday from her teens until the age of 101, examining the ingredients of her own life, even sweeter, Burkett said.

"It just got deeper and more touching in this time away from it and what we've all experienced collectively as a society," said Burkett. 

The entire 90-minute play is set in a kitchen and follows Ernestine, portrayed by Messing, baking a cake on her birthday. Messing is "incredible," said Burkett, as she actually bakes a play during the course of the performance in a functioning oven.

"The world happens all around her so fast," said Burkett. "And so to have this star in that space is really something to see... It's a real powerhouse role."

From left to right, Christopher Livingston, Debra Messing, Crystal Finn, John Earl Jelks and Susannah Flood perform in "Birthday Candles" at Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre.

Vivienne Benesch, who directs "Birthday Candles" on Broadway and also directed it in Detroit, actually introduced the play to Messing, a good friend from graduate school. She said the play really is about the ingredients of our lives and what we do with them.

"We can’t stop time from moving and the people who come into our lives," said Benesch. "Life, death, romances, heartbreaks, sickness — all of those ingredients. Then the question is — what do we have control of in our lives and what don’t we? The play asks very fundamental questions about what we are going to make of the time we have."

Burkett said she and her DPT co-founders actually wondered how "Birthday Candles," which first premiered in 2018 in their intimate space inside the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, would translate to a much larger theater but it works.

But instead of the toaster oven they used to bake Ernestine's cake in Detroit, they actually have a real oven this time (the downside: the theater's air circulation system is so good the audience can't smell it baking).

"There's a real faucet. A real oven. The scale — everything is just a little bigger," said Haidle.

Noah Haidle

Haidle said the play's concept was borrowed from Thornton Wilder's "A Long Christmas Dinner." Ironically, at an early reading of "Birthday Candles" in Chicago, a representative of Wilder's trust was there and heard it.

Since then, "I've gotten to be in touch with Tappan Wilder, his nephew who is in charge of the family trust, and they'll be selling 'A Long Christmas Dinner' in the lobby along with some schwag," said Haidle. "My theater aesthetic is very much in line with Thornton Wilder's."

Haidle said the "Birthday Candles" premiere on Broadway comes at a great time for DPT and raises their profile on a "national level." They're gearing up to open in a new permanent space in Midtown in early September.

Burkett agrees that having a show on Broadway at the same time as they prepare to move to their new space is really helpful. When the final preview performance is held Saturday, more than 170 people will be there from Detroit. It's a big deal not just for DPT but Detroit.

"It draws attention and lets people know that world class theater can start and happen in Detroit and that New York wants to be a part of what we're doing," said Burkett. "It's real validation."

'Birthday Candles'

Sunday through May 29 at Roundabout Theatre Company American Airlines Theatre in New York.

Tickets start at $39.

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