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Mitch Albom's 'Tuesdays With Morrie' play comes to MSU

Mitch Albom. The stage version of 'Tuesdays With Morrie" opens in East Lansing on Thursday.
Courtesy photo
Mitch Albom. The stage version of 'Tuesdays With Morrie" opens in East Lansing on Thursday.

The career of Detroit Free Press sportswriter Mitch Albom took a big turn in 1997 when his book Tuesdays with Morrie was published. It’s the true story of his reunion with Morrie Schwartz, a favorite college professor who was battling Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Tuesdays with Morrie went on to sell millions of copies. Oprah Winfrey made it into a TV movie, and it also became a stage play. That play comes to East Lansing this week.

“It wasn’t supposed to become a big book,” Mitch Albom said. “It wasn’t supposed to become a movie or a play. I was just visiting with an old college professor of mine every Tuesday as he was dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

Albom says his idea of turning his visits with Morrie Schwartz into a book came to him when he learned of Schwartz’s mounting medical bills. He thought the proceeds from sales could help.

At first, book companies balked at publishing Tuesdays with Morrie. Albom was pigeon-holed as a sportswriter; could he really write about life? And if he could, would the book sell?

The initial pressing was 20,000 copies, but that would turn out to be woefully inadequate. The book became a smash, published in dozens of languages in countries all over the world. Now at a reported 20-million copies, Tuesdays With Morrie is said to be the greatest selling memoir of all time.

Albom says there are things Schwartz told him that still resonate to this day. 

“There’s many that stay with me as lessons, like when Morrie said, ‘Giving is living,’ which I have tried to live by ever since because I saw the opposite,” Albom explained. “He said, ‘Taking makes me feel like I’m dying, giving makes me feel like I’m living,’ and that’s a key part of my life.”

Here’s another Morrie Schwartz quote: “Death ends a life, but not a relationship.”

Albom calls his last talk with Schwartz before his death “a gut punch.” Morrie asked Mitch to visit his grave after he died, and talk to him. Albom asked for an explanation: Why talk to a grave, when he won’t hear anything back? In reply, Schwartz said he’d make a deal with Albom. 

“’After I’m dead, you talk; I’ll listen’”, Albom remembers his friend saying. “I laughed when he said it, but I still to this day can see him saying that, and I realize that that’s kind of at the essence of what Tuesdays with Morrie is about."

Albom says he still visits Schwartz’s grave every time he’s in Boston.

The book has been out for a quarter of a century now, and it’s been a play for 20 years. In all those years, though, after hundreds of productions around the world, it’s never been presented at a theatre in Michigan. Theatres in Detroit had clamored to stage the play, but Albom says he knew people at those theatres and didn’t want to choose one and leave the others disappointed. Over time, interest waned.

Now, a new tour is bringing the play to stages across the state. Tuesdays With Morrie opened earlier this month in Traverse City and is in East Lansing this week. It will also be staged in Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Bay Harbor and West Bloomfield. Albom apologizes for the delay, but he’s happy it’s finally here.

Albom says stars Michael Russotto (as Morrie) and Cody Nickell (as Mitch) have acted in the show together on other tours, and have great chemistry.

In some ways, Albom concludes, the stage version comes closer to the reality of his talks with Morrie Schwartz than the movie, or even the book, did.

“The play is what happened,” he said. “The play is two people who visit each other one Tuesday after another, and you get to sit there and listen to them, and that’s exactly what would have happened if you had sat there and listened to me and Morrie when we were going through our Tuesdays, which were always in the same house, always in the same place.”

Tuesdays With Morrie will be in the MSU Wharton Center’s Pasant Theatre for performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. 

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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