‘Will & Grace’ star Debra Messing is Broadway bound, thanks to this UNC connection

Debra Messing is the star of NBC’s “Will & Grace.” She will soon make a return to Broadway in Roundabout Theatre Company’s New York premiere of “Birthday Candles,” directed by Vivienne Benesch.
Debra Messing is the star of NBC’s “Will & Grace.” She will soon make a return to Broadway in Roundabout Theatre Company’s New York premiere of “Birthday Candles,” directed by Vivienne Benesch.

One day this last December, Vivienne Benesch sat across from her old friend Debra Messing at a New York City restaurant.

Messing, the Emmy-winning star of NBC’s “Will & Grace,” and Benesch, the producing artistic director of UNC’s PlayMakers Repertory Company, go way back. They’ve been friends since the early ’90s, when both attended the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts graduate program at New York University.

“I told her, ‘I have a script,’” Benesch recalled about that December meeting. “’I want you to read this. I know you get thousands of scripts. I can’t get you out of my head for it.’”

They finished their lunch and parted ways. Secretly, Benesch hoped her friend would be just the high-profile star to take the play, an original piece called “Birthday Candles,” to Broadway. The play by Noah Haidle, in development since 2016, had received high praise during its world premiere at Detroit Public Theatre and at the New Stages Festival in Chicago.

Messing texted Benesch shortly after their lunch: “If they’ll have me, I’d love to do this.”

2ND Vivienne Benesch
Award-winning director/actor Vivienne Benesch the artistic director at PlayMakers Repertory Company at UNC-Chapel Hill. She will make her Broadway directorial debut in 2020 with the play “Birthday Candles” starring Debra Messing. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Fast-forward to this week, after plenty of behind-the-scenes details and waiting, and the grad-school friends are headed to Broadway.

Messing has been cast as the lead of Ernestine, a character who ages from 17 to 101, over the course of the 90-minute play. She contemplates “what makes a lifetime into a life?” according to a news release, as a revolving cast of characters come in and and out of her life. All the while, a birthday cake — the family recipe for golden butter cake — is being made on stage in real time.

Roundabout Theatre’s announcement notes that it’s Messing’s return to the New York stage, having made her Broadway debut in 2014 in the play, “Outside Mullingar.”

For Benesch, it’s her Broadway debut as a director and Haidle’s debut as a playwright. The Roundabout Theatre is where Benesch made her acting debut on Broadway in 1998 in “The Deep Blue Sea.”

“It’s a labor of love,” Benesch said in a phone interview from her Chapel Hill office, the day after the announcement. “To make my directing debut with a new work ... it’s beautifully appropriate.”

“Birthday Candles” will be previewed April 2, at the American Airlines Theatre. It will open April 21, for a limited engagement, expected to play through June 21.

Messing, for her part, expressed her gratitude on Instagram with a photo of a New York Times story about the casting.

“I don’t know how I came to be the one to help bring this gorgeous, moving, funny, profound new play to life, but I am vibrating with joy,” she wrote. “’Birthday Candles’ by Noah Haidle, produced by the legendary Roundabout Theatre, directed by one of my oldest, dearest friends from NYU Grad, the extraordinarily talented Vivienne Benesch — and you’ve got the greatest gift I can imagine. I CAN’T WAIT for you to see this play!”

Journey to Broadway

Like most Broadway productions, “Birthday Candles” has had a long journey to New York, though Benesch said it’s not as long as many. Before she came to lead Playmakers at UNC in 2016, she was the artistic director of the Chautauqua Theater Company and Conservatory in New York state, known for its summer theater program. There, as she does in Chapel Hill, she championed new plays, emerging writers and diverse voices on stage and behind the scenes.

When the Detroit Public Theatre commissioned a play from Haidle in the fall of 2016, Benesch was asked to workshop the play at Chautauqua. Benesch and Haidle already had a longstanding bond, so it made sense. And she was drawn to the work and the idea of creating this world of characters. She repeated a quote from astronomer Carl Sagan: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

“That to me is the guiding force in this play,” Benesch said. “It’s a beautiful kitchen and dramedy and cosmic universal story.”

In 2016, she was working at UNC, but she had one final summer in New York. She directed “Birthday Candles” the summer of 2017 before it made its debut in Detroit in May 2018.

“That went incredibly well,” Benesch said. “It was a huge success for Detroit Public Theatre. I always had a dream of bringing it here. But it was clear there was interest in it.”

There was interest in bringing “Birthday Candles” to Broadway, Haidle said. In October of 2018, representatives of the Roundabout Theatre caught the play in Chicago and asked for a reading in New York.

As Benesch described the process — how some plays are destined for Broadway while some playwrights choose other avenues — she paused to tick off some numbers, counting something over the phone.

“I think there are nine versions,” she said, describing the stack of revised scripts on her office floor. “I feel more involved with ‘Birthday Candles’ as a creative collaborator than you often do in a process.”

Benesch said the three actresses who have played the starring role have been “remarkable,” but she and Haidle knew their Broadway chances would improve with a big name attached to the project. But they didn’t want just anyone.

“We sort of talked about an incredible central role in this play — a woman who ages from 17 to 101 and who has to be a great dramatic actress as well,” she said.

Will and Grace
Debra Messing as Grace Adler, left, and Sean Hayes as Jack McFarland in a scene from “Will & Grace.” Messing will make a return to Broadway in Roundabout Theatre Company’s New York premiere of “Birthday Candles,” directed by Vivienne Benesch. Chris Haston AP

Benesch thought of Messing, with whom she has remained friends with since NYU. In grad school, they both acted in Tony Kushner’s epic “Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika,” so Benesch knew Messing had dramatic acting chops, in addition to the comedic ones that often draw comparisons to Lucille Ball. That was on display in “Smash,” the now-canceled NBC show about a Broadway show coming together.

And with the lead of Ernestine, the actress has to subtly show the aging process while the play makes numerous time jumps, sometimes one year, sometimes 15 years. Once Messing read the part, Benesch and Haidle knew she was the one to embody Ernestine.

“It was so much more than what we could have imagined,” Benesch said. “I talk about that mixture of comedy and drama that she is so adept at. ... There’s this one scene, we looked at each other and said, ‘This is going to be good.’ From there on in, she took it away.”

Juggling roles

Benesch will need to finish fleshing out the creative team and ensemble cast; the play has six characters. In March, she’ll head to New York for rehearsals. She already is accustomed to traveling to New York during the PlayMakers season.

But this upcoming season at PlayMakers is a big one, celebrating 100 years at UNC. It features new voices and world premieres and includes a play directed by Benesch, too: “Dairyland” this fall.

On Broadway, Benesch hopes she can recreate one aspect of the play as it was performed in Detroit: the smell of the cake baking.

“In Detroit, it was a small room, and you got the smell of the cake baking,” she said. “(In the larger theater), will it waft?”

While it can be easy to get caught up in the lights and magnitude of being on Broadway, she plans to keep her focus on the work.

“It’s a thrilling destination because of the wide audience you can get to,” she said. “Our work is to do the best work in the room with this beautiful play that we have.”

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Features Editor Jessica Banov oversees coverage of entertainment, the arts, food and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun.