Get to know Debra Messing and the Broadway cast of 'Birthday Candles'
The cast and creative team share their birthday traditions and how they reconnected after many years for this Broadway production.
Two years ago, the company of Birthday Candles was preparing to debut the play on Broadway when the pandemic ground theatre to a halt. Now, they've picked up right back where they left off as though 2020 was mere seconds ago, and Birthday Candles is going up at the American Airlines Theatre on March 18. Neither the cast nor playwright Noah Haidle initially knew whether Roundabout Theatre Company would reschedule Birthday Candles at all, making those two years feel like forever. But in retrospect, they've seemingly flown by in a snap — not to mention the four years since the play made its world premiere in Detroit.
The play, too, literally breezes through years in minutes. Birthday Candles centers on Ernestine Ashworth, who celebrates 90 years of birthdays during the 90-minute show. In all those years, Ernestine bakes a single birthday cake, representative of a yearly ritual. That cake is one of the only constants in the play, as everything else in Ernestine's life changes: Her friends, family, desires, and ambitions come and go. In each scene, we revisit her at a different birthday between her 17th and her 107th, and her idea of what makes life worth living changes each time as she experiences love and loss.
As you might guess, the show isn't perfectly naturalistic in its handling of time. That single cake blurs the lines between years, and most of the supporting cast plays multiple generations' worth of characters. Even Ernestine, played by Debra Messing, is almost like multiple characters in one — her 17-year-old self is surely not the same as her 107-year-old self, nor is any age in between. For Messing, that's one of the best reasons to see Birthday Candles: "The thing that will be most interesting to people who like my work is to literally watch me age 90 years without the help of a wig or a costume or lighting or anything, just acting."
Birthday Candles marks Messing's first Broadway outing since 2014, giving audiences who know her from TV shows like Will & Grace and Smash a chance to see her in a whole new setting and experience love, loss, comedy, and change together. "They will see me in my favorite place in the world, which is on stage in front of a live theatre telling a story," Messing said of the audiences. "They will see me at ages they've never seen me at before. They will laugh. But I think that there will be some big feelings to be had by all."
The Birthday Candles cast and creative team shared some "big feelings" — joy, fear, and everything in between — among themselves behind the scenes, as the show reconnected them with old friends, past traditions, and new skills.
Birthday Candles is inspired by Thornton Wilder and Shakespeare.
It's fitting that a show about the passage of time calls back to plays from the past. Noah Haidle said he got the idea for Birthday Candles from Wilder's 1931 play The Long Christmas Dinner. Like Birthday Candles, that play follows multiple generations of a family as they change, though Wilder's work traces 90 years' worth of Christmas dinners instead of birthdays.
Haidle said that, although Birthday Candles isn't a direct adaptation of the play, he got the Wilder estate's blessing anyway. "It has the full sanction and blessing of the Wilder family as an extension of what he started and the type of non-naturalistic theater that he was all about," Haidle said. Copies of The Long Christmas Dinner will even be sold at the show.
As it happens, Birthday Candles's Broadway debut coincides with the Broadway revival of a different Wilder play, The Skin of Our Teeth, and Wilder's would-be 125th birthday on April 17.
Haidle also cited Shakespeare as an inspiration for Birthday Candles. His favorite Shakespeare quote is one from King Lear that begins, "So we'll live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies...," talking about different meaningful ways to pass time. He imagined a 17-year-old girl reciting the monologue as an audition for a fictional "Queen Lear, a feminist adaptation," and that's how the idea for Ernestine, who starts out at age 17 and passes through 90 years of life, came to be.
Debra Messing went to grad school with director Vivienne Benesch.
The two were classmates at New York University, where they both attended grad school for acting. They even performed in a 1993 pre-Broadway workshop of Tony Kushner's Angels In America: Perestroika there together; Messing played Harper, and Benesch played Hannah. At the tail end of their time at NYU, they met Yale student Enrico Colantoni when they all performed their senior showcases together in 1993. That was the last time the three all worked on the same project prior to Birthday Candles, nearly 30 years later, though they all followed each other's careers from afar in the meantime.
Benesch and Enrico Colantoni wish each other happy birthday every year.
In fact, birthday phone calls are the only way they've kept in touch in the past 28 years! Like Messing, Benesch met Colantoni in grad school; Colantoni had attended Yale, and NYU and Yale's graduate schools were presenting their senior showcases together. Benesch and Colantoni became instant friends, but Colantoni moved to L.A. to pursue screen acting, while Benesch stayed put in New York. They never worked together again or communicated any other time besides their birthdays — until now.
"It was that sort of hair-raising moment when the Roundabout casting office said to me, 'Do you know Enrico Colantoni?' And I was like, oh my god, this was meant to be because we have for, close to 30 years now, been calling each other only on each other's birthdays," Benesch said. "So I got to call him and say, 'Hey, can I send you this play? You're not going to believe this, but the entire play takes place on a birthday over 100 years. So I just think this was meant to be.'" Colantoni was soon cast as Kenneth, Ernestine's high school boyfriend and lifelong friend.
John Earl Jelks had a similar birthday tradition to Ernestine's in Birthday Candles.
John Earl Jelks is the newest addition to the Broadway cast, but he isn't new to Broadway. His role as Ernestine's husband Matt is his fifth Broadway gig; he received a Tony nomination for performing in Radio Golf and performed in Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat, among others. He took over the role of Matt from Emmy-winning Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Andre Braugher, who was initially set to make his Broadway debut in the role.
When Braugher had to depart Birthday Candles after it was postponed, Jelks got the call from his agent, and he was immediately drawn to the play. Ernestine's central act of baking a birthday cake reminded him of his own family's traditions: "My family always baked cakes for us on birthdays; everybody got their own special cake made their own special way," Jelks recalled. "And I was like, oh, how special is that? It's simple, but ... a lot of life happens in this play."
Messing bakes a real cake during every performance of Birthday Candles.
Messing's character, Ernestine Ashworth, bakes a golden butter cake every year on her birthday, using a recipe her mother passed down. All these years of baking are rolled into one in Birthday Candles, as Ernestine bakes a singular cake over the course of the play. But Messing doesn't just act that out: She has real cake ingredients on stage, and she actually bakes a cake from scratch during the course of each 90-minute performance.
Messing had to perfect the recipe at home before doing it on stage, and it was a learning curve. "It scared the bejesus out of me — I don't even know how to make a salad!" she said. "My first attempt at making the cake was a catastrophe. Took me two days to clean my oven. But then I finally prevailed, and now the cake that is needed for the play, I am able to make. It still has to be done within the course of this play, so everybody wish me luck."
Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel