Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a book called “Tuesdays with Morrie.” Many of you know that.
Twenty-three years ago, Oprah Winfrey produced a movie of “Tuesdays with Morrie.” Many of you know that as well.
Twenty years ago, I wrote, along with renowned playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, a stage play of “Tuesdays with Morrie” that opened off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theater, and has since seen nearly 600 productions around the world, from the U.S. to Switzerland to Japan to Australia.
Many of you don’t know that.
Because the play has never been performed in Michigan.
There’s a reason for that. At the time, in 2002, several local theaters were vying to bring the stage play here, and I was friends or colleagues with some of them. Having to choose one over the other was awkward and would have been unfair in the end to somebody.
So we decided to put a hold on any Michigan productions of “Tuesdays with Morrie.” Just for a while. See how things went.
And before we knew it, 20 years had passed.
When we realized this summer marked 25 years since the book was released, which told the story of my old college professor’s final class on life as he was dying from ALS, we felt it was a good time to correct the imbalance. In a big way.
So, curtains up. “Tuesdays with Morrie,” the play, is finally coming to Michigan.
A traveling show
Starting Aug. 10, the show will begin a six-week run through our state, with a week each in Traverse City (City Opera House), East Lansing (Wharton Center for Performing Arts), Kalamazoo (Civic Theatre), Grand Rapids (Wealthy Theater), Bay Harbor (Great Lakes Center for the Arts) and West Bloomfield (Berman Center for the Performing Arts).
The production will move swiftly from city to city. That’s possible, in part, because it’s a pretty simple show. Two men. One old. One young. Having the most important discussions two people can have: What’s really important in life once you know you’re going to die?
It was an experience that I was blessed to go through — and one that proves, as John Lennon sang, that life is what happens to you while you’re busy making plans.
I was a 37-year-old sportswriter going 100 miles an hour, newspapers, radio, TV. Then one night, sitting at home, I flipped on the TV to see the “Nightline” program. And there, on the screen, was a thin, sickly-looking version of my beloved old college professor Morrie Schwartz, who was talking to Ted Koppel about what it was like to die from ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.
That was how I learned Morrie was sick. I felt ashamed, because in college, he and I were more like an uncle and nephew. I took every class he offered. I majored in sociology just to spend more time with hm.
But after graduation, I grew ambitious and full of myself. And despite Morrie saying, “Promise me you’ll stay in touch” I went 16 years without even a phone call.
And now, suddenly, he was dying.
So I made a visit. It was supposed to be a one time thing. He was already in a wheelchair, debilitating quickly from the disease. But he never spoke of his woes. Instead he spoke about how much he was learning in his final months, how much of life was becoming clear. He likened himself to a leaf, seeing its most brilliant colors just before falling from the tree.
“Dying is only one thing to be sad over, Mitch,” he told me. “Living unhappily is another.”
It is a sentence that resonates.
We put it in the play.
Peeking in on a master class on living
I learned a lot about the theater in crafting “Morrie” 20 years ago. I had never written for the stage. I made a lot of mistakes in early drafts. But my good friend Dick Schaap arranged a meeting one night with the brilliant Herb Gardner, who wrote such classic plays as “A Thousand Clowns” and “I’m not Rappaport.”
I went to Gardner’s apartment in Manhattan. He was in bad health, needed supplemental oxygen to breathe, and as I sat down and saw him with a mask over his face, I felt like I was being an awful burden.
But he could not have been more welcoming. He spoke for two hours about the wonders of theater, how I should stick to it, how it needed new voices, and how every good play, no matter what the subject, could be boiled down to “somebody wants something from somebody else.”
I fell in love with playwrighting that night. Herb Gardner kindled that. And while I will never come close to his talent level, I threw myself into the Morrie project, and with Jeff Hatcher’s tremendous help, we crafted a play that was poignant, funny and true.
The production that will run in Michigan features two actors who are excellent at their roles, Michael Russotto and Cody Nickell. They have done the show before and have a terrific chemistry. I always felt that the play comes closest to what really happened in that small house in West Newton, Massachusetts, in 1995 when, every Tuesday, Morrie and I would tackle one subject from the perspective of a dying man looking back on his days.
Forgive everyone everything. Giving is living. Death ends a life but not a relationship. These were just some of the lessons that reverberated in that small room, and found their way into my brain and my heart, and live there still. I’m glad Michigan audiences will finally be able to “sit in” on that last class. It changed my life forever. It taught me that it’s never too late to change your direction.
And, hopefully, it’s never too late to bring a show to town, even if it’s 20 years past due.
Tickets to “Tuesdays with Morrie” can be purchased at tuesdaystix.com.