Our favorite Debra Messing theatre roles on stage and screen
Messing was an Off-Broadway star before getting her big break on TV.
Whether you see more stage shows than TV shows or vice versa, you know Debra Messing. Since becoming an Off-Broadway fixture in the 1990s, she skyrocketed to screen fame with her Emmy-nominated role as Grace Adler in Will & Grace, and she’s performed in dozens of other TV shows and films. In the 2010s, besides starring in the Will & Grace reboot, she’s returned to her theatre roots with a couple Broadway stints, the latest being as Ernestine Ashworth in the New York premiere of Birthday Candles.
Even when she steals the silver screen, though, Messing always remains theatrical. After Will & Grace, which included a musical episode, she dove headfirst into the world of Broadway by starring as composer Julia Houston on Smash. So whether you know Debra Messing from stage or screen, you know that she’s a bonafide theatre star. And if you don’t know her career too well, read on to learn about all her theatrical gigs before going to see her in Birthday Candles this spring.
Angels in America: Perestroika
Messing was getting critical acclaim for her acting before she was even out of grad school at New York University. She starred as Harper in a 1993 pre-Broadway workshop there of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Perestroika, part two of the play that would become his magnum opus. As it happens, her NYU classmate and Perestroika co-star was Vivienne Benesch, who’s now directing Messing in Birthday Candles on Broadway!
Four Dogs and a Bone
Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Four Dogs and a Bone, John Patrick Shanley’s play about the dealings and manipulations behind the scenes of a Hollywood film, marked Messing’s professional Off-Broadway debut. She was an understudy when the show opened at New York City Center’s Stage II, and then at the Lucille Lortel Theatre when the production moved there two months later. All in all, she was with the production from October 1993 to June 1994. Coincidentally, just over 20 years after a Shanley play marked Messing’s Off-Broadway debut, she’d make her Broadway debut in one, too!
The Naked Truth
Not to be confused with the 2012 Allure article that comes up when you Google “Debra Messing in The Naked Truth,” Paul Rudnick’s comedic play is set in the Manhattan art world of the 1980s, where buttoned-up, art-dealing socialites get tangled up with the unapologetically gay artists whose (rather explicit) work they’ve commissioned. Messing played Lynette Marshall, a Republican politician’s mistress who, deep down, actually has a thing for his wife. The production went up at the now-defunct WPA Theatre in 1994.
Messing’s last Off-Broadway venture was in 1997, as Lisa Morrison in Donald Margulies’s Pulitzer-nominated play. Collected Stories sees Lisa write a successful novel based on her mentor’s affair with a poet, and the show explores the ethics of creating art about other people’s personal lives. Messing performed in Collected Stories shortly after guest starring on two episodes of Seinfeld, and she turned down an offer to star in another sitcom to do it. That’s dedication to the theatre! And good thing, too, because we might not have gotten Will & Grace otherwise, either. Speaking of which…
Will & Grace: “Von Trapped”
Will & Grace is Messing’s best-known project in any medium, one that earned her an Emmy Award and dozens of nominations at various ceremonies. Her role as interior designer Grace Adler is largely not a theatrical one, though — except in season 8, episode 10, which aired in 2006. “Von Trapped” sees her and her friends go to a The Sound of Music singalong, but things go awry along the way. For one, Grace gets mistaken for a childcare worker and is left to take care of seven strange children, basically becoming Maria von Trapp in that moment! She even sings them some songs from the musical, including “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things,” and “So Long, Farewell.”
Before Messing even made it to Broadway in real life, she made it there on TV, starring in the NBC series Smash from 2012-2013. She and Broadway regular Christian Borle starred as Julia Houston and Tom Levitt, a composer/lyricist duo writing Bombshell, a musical about Marilyn Monroe. By leading a cast of formidable theatre talent including Megan Hilty, Katharine McPhee, Leslie Odom Jr., Will Chase, Bernadette Peters, and more, Messing cemented herself a place alongside them in theatre kids’ hearts. She even sings a little; you can hear her duet with Borle, “The Right Regrets,” on the Bombshell soundtrack.
After a long Off-Broadway and onscreen theatrical career, Messing made her Broadway debut in 2014 in Outside Mullingar, her second John Patrick Shanley play. The play about two 40-something misfits sees her character, Rosemary Muldoon, pining for her neighbor Anthony. It’s a Romeo and Juliet-esque tale, in which their love is threatened by their (older) age and a turf war between their families, but it’s luckily a lot more heartwarming. It also coincidentally shares some themes with Birthday Candles: Messing’s character in that, too, watches years go by and wonders how to seize her life and make it full and worthwhile.
If you wished on your birthday candles for Messing’s return to Broadway, it’s finally coming true in 2022. She’s starring in Noah Haidle’s new play Birthday Candles, which sees her character, Ernestine Ashworth, age through 90 years’ worth of birthdays and watch her loved ones, ambitions, and priorities in life come and go and change. All the while, Ernestine bakes a birthday cake — which Messing actually bakes from scratch on stage every night! With comedy and heart, Birthday Candles has it all, and Messing’s presence is the icing on the cake.