Twenty-five years ago I wrote a book called “Tuesdays with Morrie”. Many of you know this.
Twenty-three years ago, Oprah Winfrey produced a film called “Tuesdays with Morrie”. Many of you know this too.
Twenty years ago I wrote, with famed playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, a play of “Tuesdays with Morrie” which opened on Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre, and has since seen nearly 600 productions around the world , from the United States to Switzerland. in Japan in Australia.
Many of you don’t know that.
Because the play was never performed in Michigan.
There is a reason for this. At the time, in 2002, several local theaters were vying to bring the play here, and I was friends or colleagues with some of them. Having to choose one over the other was awkward and ultimately would have been unfair to someone.
We have therefore decided to suspend all Michigan productions of “Tuesdays with Morrie”. Just for a moment. See how things went.
And before we know it, 20 years have passed.
When we realized that this summer marked 25 years since the release of the book, which told the story of my former college professor’s last lecture on life as he died of ALS, we thought it was the right 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 August 10, the show will begin a six-week run across our state, with one week each in Traverse City (City Opera House), East Lansing (Wharton Center for Performing Arts), Kalamazoo (Civic Theater), Grand Rapids (Wealthy Theatre), Bay Harbor (Great Lakes Center for the Arts) and West Bloomfield (Berman Center for the Performing Arts).
Production will move quickly from town to town. It’s possible, in part, because it’s a pretty simple show. Two men. An old. A 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 I was blessed with – 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 sports journalist going 100 miles an hour, newspapers, radio, TV. Then one evening, sitting at home, I turned on the TV to watch “Nightline”. And there on the screen was a thin, sickly version of my beloved former college professor Morrie Schwartz, talking to Ted Koppel about what it was like to die of ALS, the disease of Lou Gehrig.
FLASHBACK OF 2017:20 years later, ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ still teaches
That’s how I found out Morrie was sick. I was ashamed, because in college he and I were more like uncle and nephew. I took all the courses he offered. I majored in sociology just to spend more time with him.
But after graduation, I became ambitious and full of myself. And although Morrie said, “Promise me you’ll keep in touch,” I went 16 years without even a phone call.
And now, suddenly, he was dying.
So I paid a visit. It was meant to be a one-time thing. He was already in a wheelchair, rapidly weakened by illness. But he never spoke of his misfortunes. Instead, he talked about how much he was learning in his final months, how clear life was becoming. He compared himself to a leaf, seeing its brightest colors just before falling from the tree.
“Dying is just one thing to be sad about, Mitch,” he told me. “Living unhappy is another.”
It’s a phrase that resonates.
We put it in the room.
A Glimpse into a Life Masterclass
I learned a lot about theater creating “Morrie” 20 years ago. I had never written for the stage. I made a lot of mistakes in the first drafts. But my good friend Dick Schaap arranged a meeting one night with the brilliant Herb Gardner, who wrote classic pieces like “A Thousand Clowns” and “I’m not Rappaport.”
I went to Gardner’s apartment in Manhattan. He was in poor health, needed extra oxygen to breathe, and when I sat down and saw him with a mask over his face, I felt like a terrible burden.
But he couldn’t have been more welcoming. He spoke for two hours about the wonders of theater, how I had to stick with it, how he needed new voices and how every good play, regardless of the subject, could be summed up as “someone wants something someone else”.
I fell in love with the drama that night. Herb Gardner lit this. And while I’ll never come close to his level of talent, I threw myself into the Morrie project, and with the tremendous help of Jeff Hatcher, we created a piece that was poignant, funny, and true.
The Michigan production features two excellent actors in their roles, Michael Russotto and Cody Nickell. They’ve done the show before and have great chemistry. I always thought the play came closest to what really happened in that little house in West Newton, Massachusetts, in 1995, when every Tuesday Morrie and I broached a subject from the point of view of a dying man thinking back to his days.
Forgive everyone everything. To give is to live. Death ends a life but not a relationship. These are just some of the lessons that reverberated through that little room and found their way into my brain and my heart, and still live there. I’m glad the Michigan public can finally “attend” this final class. It changed my life forever. It taught me that it’s never too late to change direction.
And, hopefully, it’s never too late to bring a show to town, even if it’s 20 years late.
Tickets for “Tuesdays with Morrie” can be purchased at tuesdaystix.com.