Noah Haidle wasn’t sure his play Birthday Candles would survive the pandemic and make its way back to Broadway. The playwright was just two weeks into rehearsals back in March 2020. A major star was attached to play the lead role. Debra Messing would play Ernestine Ashworth, whom Birthday Candles follows from her 17th birthday to her last, traversing five generations and a cast of characters that come and go along the way.
The play asks a big question: What makes your life meaningful?
“A lot of people will say family. It’s the people who love you and the people you love,” Haidle says. “Beyond that, who gives a shit? It all comes and goes.”
And “go” it did. On the afternoon of March 12, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that Broadway would be temporarily shut down, beginning at 5 p.m. The lights went down for what would end up being over a year. Everything Birthday Candles — the scripts, the sets, the hope of seeing a stage again — was boxed up and stored away while everyone awaited a grand “return to normal.”
“It really didn’t look like it was going to happen,” Haidle says. “It kept getting kicked on down the road.”
Now, Haidle says it’s a surreal feeling to be in rehearsals for his Broadway debut more than four years after the show premiered in Detroit.
Birthday Candles, starring Debra Messing, opened at American Airlines Theatre in New York in March and will run through May 29.
“We’re doing the same play, but the world and all of us are all quite different,” Haidle says.
Going from Detroit to Broadway “is an unprecedented and unrepeatable journey,” he adds. “And then, bookending the beginning and end of a pandemic is the craziest production history I’ve ever heard of.”
Even in a world where the pandemic has removed all punch from the word “unprecedented,” Haidle’s remark rings true.
It’s a rarity for an original play performed for an audience of about 1,000 people, in a regional theater in Detroit, to find its way to the bright lights of Broadway — with no stops in between.
Back in 2018, the Detroit Public Theatre (DPT) first commissioned and brought to life Birthday Candles, written by Haidle, who originally hails from Grand Rapids and studied at Princeton University and The Juilliard School.
DPT had high hopes for the play — its first-ever commission — but co-founder and producing artistic director Courtney Burkett says she and her colleages never imagined it would put the Detroit Public Theatre on the national map the way it has.
A portion of Haidle’s playwright royalties will go back into the coffers of DPT, which is currently in the midst of a capital campaign, as it prepares to open its own theater space at 3960 Third Ave. (formerly, DPT has staged productions inside the Robert A. & Maggie Allesee Hall at the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center). The new space is scheduled to open to the public this September.
“It’s huge for our organization,” Burkett says. “It’s huge for our city in a lot of ways. It’s also huge for the theater industry and the pipelines that are created to get to Broadway in the first place.”
That Detroit-to-Broadway pipeline seems wider than ever this year, as Detroiters make their mark in the industry and uniquely local stories find their way to the NYC marquee.
This theater season, Detroit’s own Dominique Morisseau became the first Black woman to see two of her compositions run simultaneously on Broadway. Her play Skeleton Crew, set in a Detroit auto plant, ran alongside her Temptations musical Ain’t Too Proud (see the touring version at the Detroit Opera House this August).
The Tony-nominated playwright and MacArthur fellow has another play, Confederates, running off-Broadway through April 10, at the Signature Theatre.
Morisseau currently serves as the executive artistic producer at DPT, which has staged a handful of her plays since its inception.
Making his Broadway debut this month is Michael R. Jackson, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, A Strange Loop, opens at the Lyceum, on April 6, for previews.
When Jackson took home the Pulitzer Prize in 2020, it was a groundbreaking win — the first musical to earn a Pulitzer without reaching Broadway and the first created by a Black playwright to ever receive the honor.
“It’s wild when I think back on where I began with it, and for it to be going to Broadway, … I would not have believed you. It wasn’t on my radar — not even a dream,” says Jackson, who grew the musical from a monologue he wrote almost 20 years ago.
A Strange Loop is a critically acclaimed meta-musical that puts the spotlight on the character Usher — a young, Black, gay theater writer struggling with his job while trying to write a musical about a young, Black gay theater writer struggling with this job while trying to write … and so on, until ultimately, the audience finds itself in a witty and funny strange loop.
“The show is not autobiographical; I always say it’s self-referential,” says Jackson, who drew from personal experiences and his upbringing in a “multiclass, predominately Black” Detroit helped inform his writing, “but it’s a real mix of fact and fiction.”
And while it is a universal narrative, rather than a uniquely Detroit story, Jackson, alongside Haidle, Morisseau, DPT, and others, is helping to bring a diverse new set of voices to Broadway — voices that have been, in some way, shaped by the Motor City experience.
“That’s the power of theater. It can reach across the bow, grab you, and make you see yourself in others,” Jackson says. “It has radicalized me to realize that.”
This story is from the April 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our digital edition.