Mitch Albom has sold over 40 million copies of his books in the last 25 years with new classics such as "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" and "Finding Chika." However, the book that began this novelist's fame, "Tuesdays with Morrie," is hitting the stage for the Michigan debut of the 20-year-old play at the Wharton Center from Aug. 18-21.
The play follows Mitch's own story: the conversations he would have with his former college professor Morrie Shwartz, and his friendship with Morrie as he battles ALS. Albom recounts the most inspiring moments they had together on stage as he did 25 years ago in the memoir.
“The reason I wrote the book was to pay his medical expenses," Albom said. "That was it and there was no other motivation. I never wrote a book like that before; I was a sports writer and books I had written were more about sports, but he needed money to pay his medical bills. I was motivated to try to do one nice thing for this man who had done so many nice things for me.”
Most publishers weren't sold on the novel, claiming it was boring and no one would read something contemporary by a sportswriter. Albom explained that he would have given up if he was only writing it for himself, but he had Morrie in mind throughout the process. He sold it just as Morrie passed due to his disease, being able to cover his expenses.
“After that, it became this huge success that nobody could have imagined," Albom said. "Then Oprah Winfrey made a movie out of it and then a year after that, someone approached me about maybe doing a play of it because the play really was kind of the most real depiction of what took place.”
While Albom believed that the 20,000 copies of the book he had sold would forever stay in the back of his car unread, the release of "Tuesdays with Morrie" became the biggest turning point of Albom's personal and professional life.
Now, the play is 20 years old, allowing Albom to reflect on his success in the medium of the theater as well as print.
“The easy part of it is that a play is dialogue," Albom said. "That's exactly what took place between me and Morrie: dialogue. I didn't have to create an airplane crash. I didn't have to create a car scene. I didn't have to create asteroids blowing up or something that you do in a movie. I just had to sort of recall the conversation that we had, and the great moments of it. That was easy to do because I had all the tapes and conversations.”
Ever since this play, Albom has written four comedic plays and a musical, finding love in the writing aspect of theater.
“[Playwriting] focuses on language and dialogue a lot more," Albom said. "There's no point in writing a play where you talk about how the room smells, or anything like that. it all takes place inside and sometimes you have to create the outside even when you're inside. It's a challenge, but I like it a lot.”
Albom explained that his favorite part of the creative process was actually when he got frustrated enough to reach out for help and inspiration while adapting the novel. His friend set up a meeting for Albom with Herb Gardener, a famous playwright. Gardener was ill and on oxygen when he met Albom, making Albom feel like a burden to even ask for help.
“When I walked in, I said, ‘Oh gosh, I'm going to be such a burden to this guy here," Albom said. "'He can barely move and breathe and now [he’s] gonna have to sit and talk to this kid,’ but he was so nice and so gracious and so welcoming to theater, and so encouraging of me to stay with it and get involved in theater, [saying that] we need new voices to write plays. He told me how wonderful his career had been and how much he loved it. I left there feeling totally energized like ‘I want to do this now. I want to be like him.’”
Albom was excited to adapt and then watch some of his favorite moments with Morrie come to life on stage.
“When he talks about giving his living, that's really been a seminal moment for me," Albom said. "He did that in the book, and we were able to put it into the play because I think it's what inspired me to get involved with charity and…be down here in Haiti now running an orphanage. It was really a turning point in my life. To be able to put that in the play and know that there might be some people who go home thinking…giving really is living.”
However, when watching other people play himself, Albom used to be weary of watching someone else act out his life.
“When I went to the movie set, I remember the first day I was there and Jack Lemmon was on the set with Hank Azaria," Albom said. "They were doing a scene and Maury, played by Jack Lemmon, kept saying, ‘So, Mitch,’ and every time he said…Mitch, I turned my head like he was talking to me and I realized he was talking to the character. It was very creepy to be honest and I never ended up going back to the set.”
Now that the play has circulated for years, Albom has gotten used to it, making sure to not get caught up in making sure the words are exactly how he said it, or that each of the 600 productions of the play has a Mitch that looks exactly like him. He even tends to relate to Morrie more in recent years of the tour.
“Now the truth is, I'm a lot closer to Morrie’s age than I was to my age when I wrote the book, and I feel a little bit more like Morrie than I do Mitch, in terms of the character," Albom said. "It's interesting to grow into that, and I hope that I am adopting some of Morrie’s lessons.”
While the play debuted off-Broadway in New York City, the show has toured ever since due to its success, yet never making a stop in Michigan.
"Of course, they wanted to include Detroit or Michigan in the run and the problem was that there were a number of theaters that wanted it, and only one could have it," Albom said. "I knew people in those theaters and so now it puts me in this awkward position of having to sort of choose a favorite of people that I knew in life and I didn't feel comfortable doing that.”
Albom decided to just say no to every theater to now show favoritism, saying they would come back the next round of the tour. Five years of the tour became ten years of the tour, then twenty years of the play touring. Finally, in the 25th-anniversary celebration of the novel's release this month, Albom dedicated this tour to Michigan, lifting the ban of playing the show to do six runs of the play in six theaters in Michigan, including the Wharton.
Albom is delighted that the fans of his book have welcomed him and have been interested in exploring different mediums to tell his story in.
“It's very enjoyable to have different mediums because like anything, if all you do is just write books year after year…and that's your only outlet for your creativity, it can get a little old, just like anything else can," Albom said.
Whether Albom is screenwriting, playwriting, or novel writing, Albom puts the story first, wanting to engage audiences with every piece as much as audiences have the past twenty years with "Tuesdays with Morrie."
“To be honest, I have one skill," Albom said. "I always say this. People think ‘You did this and you did this and you did this…’ To me, I say it's all the same thing. I'm a storyteller. That's all I know how to do. Sometimes they tell the stories in a book and sometimes they tell them in a plane, sometimes I tell them in a newspaper column…but it's all the same, I'm just telling stories.”
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