“To Kill a Mockingbird” Back on Track on Broadway

Aaron Sorkin Adapts Harper Lee Novel for the Stage

to kill a mockingbirdOn November 1, 2018, a new theatrical adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird will begin performances at the Shubert Theatre, ahead of its opening night on December 13, 2018.  The stage play is written by Aaron Sorkin, whose previous Broadway writing credits include A Few Good Men and The Farnsworth Invention, and who is especially well-known for the television shows The West Wing and The Newsroom, as well as films including A Few Good Men, The Social Network, The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, Molly’s Game, Steve Jobs, and Moneyball.  He has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay on three occasions, winning for The Social Network.  The play is to be directed by Bartlett Sher (My Fair Lady, Oslo, Fiddler on the Roof), and produced by Scott Rudin and Lincoln Center Theater.  The lead role of Atticus Finch will be played by Jeff Daniels (Blackbird, God of Carnage, Redwood Curtain), with the role of Scout played by Celia Keenan-Bolger (The Glass Menagerie, Peter and the Starcatcher).  This carefully calibrated creative team is poised to make the stage debut of To Kill a Mockingbird a highly anticipated event of next year’s theatrical season.  However, until recently, the production was in peril due to a law suit filed by the executor of Harper Lee’s estate, Tonja B. Carter.

Law Suit Against Harper Lee Estate Settledto kill a mockingbird

The issue in the original law suit related to the portrayal of certain characters in the stage script, which Carter felt were not true to the original spirit of the novel.  Prior to her death in 2016, Lee had granted Rudin the rights to produce a stage play of Mockingbird, as long as this “spirit” was maintained.  However, when Carter read a draft of the script, she felt that in particular, the character of Atticus Finch was portrayed as more apologist for the racial status quo of his time, rather than the benevolent, forward-thinking man he has come to be known as from the novel and Gregory Peck’s portrayal in the 1962 film version.  In addition, Sorkin’s script brings more the forefront the characters of Calpurnia, the family housekeeper, as well as Tom Robinson, an African-American man who is unjustly accused of rape.  Rudin stated that while the stage play is true to the spirit of the novel, he refuses to mount a production whose racial politics are the same as when the novel was written, as “the world has changed since then.”  This is further complicated by the decision to release a previously unpublished work by Lee, Go Set a Watchman, which depicts Atticus Finch as an aging racist and segregationist, which is evidence that Lee grappled with Finch’s character herself.

In any case, Carter filed a law suit, accusing Rudin of producing a play that violated their agreement with Lee in terms of fidelity to the novel.  At one point, Rudin event suggested presenting a production of the play inside the courtroom in order to demonstrate the fidelity of the play to the book.  Then, Rudin filed a countersuit against Carter, stating that her original law suit put a “cloud” over the production, thwarting his ability to raise financing.  As such, he sued her for $10 million in damages due to the fact that unless her case was dropped immediately, it would be impossible for the play to move forward as planned.  Fortunately for those excited to see this show, last week, it was announced that the two parties had reached a settlement.  While it is unclear whether Rudin capitulated at all in terms of the script, the public statement merely declared that the case was “amicably settled.”  As such, the show will go on as planned, with performances beginning this fall at the Shubert Theatre, where Hello, Dolly! is currently running.

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Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, Jennifer studied Law and moved to New York City at age 24, where she still practices law and writes for abovethelaw.com. Jennifer's profession may be in the land-of-legal, but her passion is for Broadway where she can write about subjects as diverse as Broadway union contracts to show reviews. With a focus on entertainment law, Ms Chen still keeps her hand in with the latest industry legal developments that can keep playwrights, directors and licensing organizations up at night.
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