Detroit Public Theater play heads to Broadway

It doesn’t get better than that for a small theater troupe.

A play first commissioned and produced by the Detroit Public Theater in 2018 will hit Broadway next year with a big Hollywood name in mind – as it’s not the first time a play commissioned and produced by a Detroit theater company makes the leap to the heart of New York’s theatrical 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 Theater Company will produce and stage the original work at the American Airlines Theater on Broadway, opening April 2020.

“It’s very exciting, and it’s not the first time things have come from humble beginnings,” said Broadway Detroit executive director Alan Lichtenstein, who notes that Tony-winning “Hadestown” , started 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 and creative people at the Detroit Public Theater. So I’m not surprised.”

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

Playwright Haidle, who now lives in Los Angeles, told the Detroit News 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 TS Elliot said, minor poets borrow. major poets steal.”

Like any good writer, Haidle did her research for “Birthday Candles” — in this case, learning how to bake a cake.

“I did – once,” he said. “It was a pile of bric-a-brac. It was terrible. My wife politely ate a piece of it.”

This isn’t Haidle’s first hit – although it will be her Broadway debut. His previous work staged in New York, including The Roundabout and Lincoln Center, was off-Broadway.

For its part, DPT, founded in 2015, seems to have brought it out of the stage of the first try. “Birthday Candles” was the company’s inaugural order.

“We commissioned ‘Birthday Candles’ sight unseen,” said co-producer art director Sarah Winkler, “and scheduled it into our third season without a word yet written.”

Haidle called it “almost unprecedented in the history of American theater. I’ve never heard of it. In a way, that amount of faith is part of the reason the play is successful—because that I felt indebted and wanted to do good through them.”

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

DPT, which has its home at 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 Theater

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


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