Q&A with Mitch Albom‘Hockey - The Musical’ hits the road

After a succesful run in Detroit, “Hockey - The Musical” will make its way to Lansing and across the state. We caught up with Mitch Albom, Michigan musician turned sports journalist turned playwright, about his inspiration for the musical and what he sees next in its future.

What is “Hockey - The Musical” about?

It’s a ridiculous premise, it’s all comedy. So even to lay it out if it’s some kind of serious plot is kind of silly, but it starts with a big cartoon much along the lines of Monty Python plays and episodes, which explains in the beginning, God created heaven and Earth and then man, with all this beauty around him, created sports. And then, it shows all the millions of sports that man ended up creating, and God decided that sports were not good, there were too many sports distracting mankind, so he sends an angel down to destroy a sport to teach mankind a lesson about getting distracted.

The angel just arbitrarily picks hockey, and a fan jumps out of the stands and out of the audience and he just begs him, ‘Please don’t destroy hockey, anything but hockey!’ And he basically gets on his knees and he asks if he can find 100 pure hockey souls, will God save his sport?

Is hockey your favorite sport?

I’ve been a sportswriter for 35 years, so I’m as much of a hockey fan as I am a baseball, basketball, any of the sports that I cover. I do really like hockey and know a lot about it, obviously. I’ve worked in it for 35 years, but I thought as a sport for a play or a musical, it was funny. There aren’t any that I’m aware of, musicals or plays ever done about hockey, so it’s nice to do something original, and it’s a funny sport if you really think about it.

They throw octopuses on the ice, and if you do something wrong you have to go and sit in a little box behind glass and they lock you in. There’s Russians and Finns and Swedes all on the same team together, people can’t even speak the same language on their own team. Of course, it gets no respect compared to baseball or basketball, so it’s always trying to garner an audience and fight against being moved or wiped out. I thought all those elements together made for a funny backdrop for a sport and of course, we are Hockeytown, so we’re going to like it and of course Michigan is a hockey-crazy state.

What was your biggest struggle in making this musical?

Getting the rights to certain songs, because I think there are about 16 or 17 songs in there, and I wrote about half of the songs myself. So that wasn’t a problem because I wrote the music as well as the words, but the other half were songs by other people that I just rewrote the words to.

In writing the play, I would write the lyrics to the song, because in order to know how the play’s going to go you have to put the songs in place but then we would find out they would deny us the use of the song, so I’d have to go back and erase that song and write a new song to either a different melody or an original one or whatever. So it’s a bit like if you write a 100-page play but every four pages, they take out two pages and then you have to go over it again.

Besides the subject matter, what do you think makes this play unique?

There’s really almost no props and no set, it’s just this massive screen that’s the backdrop, and the screen just keeps changing like a movie set. Because of that, we were able to go out and film a number of players who agreed to be in the show, including Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Don Cherry Joey Kocur and Darren McCarty. They recorded these bits and the way it works in the show, they actually talk to the actors. So along their journey as they’re trying to save hockey, Yzerman and Shanahan come say, ‘No, you’re doing it wrong, go over here, do it like this, I don’t want to be obliterated I don’t want my records wiped out!’ We make the joke that this is the perfect couples musical, because if the woman is a theater fan and the guy hates musicals, the guy will go for the sports, but the woman will go because of all that singing and dancing. It’s much cheaper than going to a couples therapist.

Are you surprised by the show’s success?

Honestly, I’m always surprised if anyone shows up for anything I do. I’ve never gotten past that. Maybe because I started in music and I wasn’t successful. I was a flop. I tried to sell songs, I tried to perform, I tried to produce things and I did not succeed. When you go through that kind of stuff when you’re young — I was in my early 20s— even if later on you have success in life, there’s always a part of you that fears that rejection and fears that failure because it was your first experience. The light turned red for you at first, not green and so you’re always afraid of the red light again, even though I’ve been very blessed to have some success in other areas.

So anytime I put out a show or a new book or anything, I always cringe and worry and get nervous and say, ‘OK, this is a thing that nobody is going to come out for. There will be zero people, we just won’t sell a ticket.’ That’s how I begin, and then eventually if it works out I start to relax a little bit, but I never expect that anything will be a big success. The fact that we’re coming back for a second season or that we’re going on the road and taking it to Lansing and other places is a huge surprise to me. I didn’t know if this would work for a week, let alone two years.

“Hockey - The Musical”

Thursday, Aug. 24 – Saturday, Aug. 26 7:30 p.m., Thurs., Fri., Sat. 2 p.m. Sat. Tickets start at $15 Wharton Center for Performing Arts 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 432 - 2000

www.whartoncenter.com