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How ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Beat the Odds to Deliver a Broadway Smash

Jeff Daniels slumps into a chair in the Shubert Theatre, grasping an oversize Starbucks and looking bone-crushingly exhausted. His eyelids are heavy, and he seems like a man in desperate need of rest.

It’s easy to understand why. It’s late March, and Daniels has just given his 100th Broadway performance as Atticus Finch, the small-town attorney immortalized in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and in the 1962 Oscar-winning film of the same name. That’s in addition to the 45 preview performances that Daniels and the cast spent fine-tuning playwright Aaron Sorkin’s radical adaptation of the book that was published nearly 60 years ago. Not to mention the three workshops that took place before the show ever made it to Broadway. But Daniels, who is in the third month of a yearlong commitment, won’t be getting a break anytime soon.

“I don’t want to miss a show,” he tells Variety. “They came to me a few weeks ago to see when I wanted to take a vacation this summer, and I asked if they were selling tickets. They go, ‘Oh yeah, they’re going out the door.’ And I’m thinking people are paying how much for these seats? I’m not going to announce that I’m leaving for two weeks in July.”

Indeed, since opening on Dec. 13, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been selling tickets at a record-eviscerating clip. It has become the highest-grossing American play in history, in 18 weeks racking up cumulative sales to date of more than $70 million, and easily recouping its $8 million initial capitalization as well as its running costs. A national tour has been announced, and producer Scott Rudin is planning a London engagement.

“Plays, even hit plays, don’t usually perform like this,” says Rudin. “I knew the book was still taught everywhere and that it’s embedded in people’s hearts and minds, but even in my most outrageous fantasies I had no idea we would be so successful.”

The ride to the top wasn’t a smooth one. Since Rudin first announced plans to bring “To Kill a Mockingbird” to Broadway, a series of offstage dramas have threatened to derail or overshadow the play. It’s a show that has had to contend with a legal fight with Harper Lee’s estate, a stunning awards-season snub and negative headlines resulting from its standoff with community theaters who were mounting their own productions of an earlier stage adaptation of the novel.

“When we were having all these problems, I just said to myself, ‘You know what? I’m going to trust in God and Scott Rudin,” says LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who plays the Finch family’s housekeeper, Calpurnia. “They’re on the same level.”

The production’s success is all the more surprising because this is not the “To Kill a Mockingbird” you probably remember from middle school. Whereas Lee’s novel read like a magnolia-scented coming-of-age tale that serves up a portrait of good and evil that is easily digestible to teenagers, Sorkin reimagines the story in a way that presents a more ambiguous moral victory. His Atticus isn’t carved out of rectitudinous granite. He’s a flawed man, a lousy criminal defense attorney and a parent who may be guilty of articulating a reductive view of right and wrong to his children, Jem and Scout.

At a time when audiences seem to prefer escapist fare, “To Kill a Mockingbird” packs a wallop with its look at a black man condemned to death by a bigoted criminal justice system. Lee wrote her novel in the midst of the civil rights movement, drawing on her childhood experiences in Depression-era Alabama. Subsequent generations of readers may have been tempted to think that the portrait of Jim Crow racism that she painted existed in some distant, long-ago past. In recent years, this comforting belief has been challenged. Hate crimes are on the rise, synagogues and mosques are the targets of mass shootings, unarmed black men are gunned down by police and the president expresses sympathy with white supremacist rioters. That makes “To Kill a Mockingbird” more timely and urgent than it’s been in decades.

“It’s a stronger punch to the chin,” says Daniels. “With Trump and the America we’re watching happen right before our eyes, people are just awake to it now. White America has a decision to make. They have to make a decision about which side they’re on.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is also a commercial phenomenon that defies the usual makeup of a blockbuster show. Broadway is dominated by upbeat musical versions of hit films like “Beetlejuice” and “Frozen,” and big-budget plays like “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” that deploy elaborate special effects to dazzle audiences. With the possible exception of “Hamilton,” with its revolutionary reinterpretation of the Founding Fathers, most of the shows that top box office charts aren’t terribly interested in grappling with knotty ideas. And yet “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which bravely asks whether, in a racist society, the arc of the moral universe truly bends toward justice, seems to be filling a need.

“We’re providing a space for 1,400 people to come together and process some big questions about the country,” says Gideon Glick, who portrays Scout and Jem’s friend Dill. “There aren’t a lot of places to do that right now. Off Broadway you expect to see this kind of play, but it’s very rare for it to exist on Broadway.”

Will Pullen as Jem Finch with Gideon Glick, who earned a Tony nomination as Dill Harris.
Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes

Given the torrid ticket sales and strong reviews, awards watchers were shocked when “To Kill a Mockingbird” failed to score a Tony Award nomination for best play. It did net nine nominations, tying with “The Ferryman” for the most of any play, and picked up nods for Daniels, director Bartlett Sher and Celia Keenan-Bolger, who plays Scout. Despite the impressive tally, the best play snub hurt.

“You know what was so hard for me about that?” says Keenan-Bolger. “I mean, many things. But I think coming into that building and understanding how hard so many people worked on that play — that when you get a best play nomination, it belongs to everyone. And I feel like instead, [the Tony Awards were] so supportive of all the individuals, but I yearned for everybody who worked so hard to have something that they felt like they could claim themselves.”

It’s only the latest setback for a production that has navigated one hurdle after another over the last two years. Before it could play to packed houses, “To Kill a Mockingbird” first had to make it to opening night, a prospect that seemed dicey at certain junctures. While the show was still being workshopped, Lee’s estate sued and tried to block it, claiming that Sorkin’s script took too many liberties with the novel and departed from its spirit.

“At one point I just threw my script up in the air,” remembers Daniels. “We’re in the middle of the May workshop, and we’re rehearsing it as if we’re going to do it on Broadway six months from now, but we’re also getting ready to do a staged reading in the courthouse for the judge.”

Disaster was averted in May 2018 when the two sides reached a settlement, the details of which were never publicly released. Rudin says the production agreed to make a few “minor changes,” some of which he says would have been undertaken in the course of workshopping the project.

But that wasn’t the only legal battle that “To Kill a Mockingbird” would wage; in the second standoff, the show’s producer was the one threatening a lawsuit. In February, Rudin’s lawyers began sending warning letters to amateur theaters and stock companies around the country that were planning to stage an earlier, Christopher Sergel adaptation of Lee’s novel, informing them that they needed to cancel their productions or risk being sued. The amateur theater troupes in question had paid a licensing fee to the Dramatic Publishing Co., which owns the rights to the Sergel play. However, the Broadway show’s producers said their agreement with the author’s estate barred the Dramatic Publishing Co. from licensing the earlier version of the play to theaters within 25 miles of major cities while the Sorkin version was being performed. When news of the cease-and-desist letters hit the front page of The New York Times, the producers faced a public relations crisis, one that had the potential to make them look like bullies.

“When we were having all these problems, I just said to myself, ‘You know what? I’m going to trust in God and Scott Rudin.”
LaTanya Richardson Jackson

“I hated the idea of stopping people from performing a play,” says Rudin. “They were the innocent victims of a fracas that erupted between the Harper Lee Estate and Dramatic Publishing. When they licensed the play, they had no idea they might be in violation.”

As a stopgap, Rudin hit on a novel idea. He allowed the roughly dozen theaters in violation of the rights agreement to stage Sorkin’s adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” free of charge. So far, nine theaters have opted to move forward, using the Broadway version of the story.

The Harper Lee Estate may have objected to Sorkin’s lack of fealty to the source material, but the screenwriter and the creative team behind the show believed that “To Kill a Mockingbird” had to be updated for modern audiences. In the book and the film, the black characters have little dialogue and exist largely as ciphers. That doesn’t work in 2019.

“He gave Calpurnia a point of view,” says Richardson Jackson. “She has agency. She expresses her views and her ideology.”

The playwright knew that he needed to redress some of the problematic ways that the novel treated its black characters, but he struggled with how rigidly to adhere to Lee’s story. The first workshop in October 2017 didn’t work, Sorkin recalls, because it was too literal an adaptation, one overstuffed with moments and characters from the book.

“The first draft was like a greatest hits album done by cover band,” Sorkin says. “It was only with the second draft that I stopped being worried about the word ‘adaptation’ and started to write a play. I was no longer trying to impersonate Harper Lee. I wasn’t trying to swallow the book in bubble wrap and gently transfer it to a stage.”

As Sorkin went back to the drawing board, he reflected on a press conference President Trump gave following the 2017 riot in Charlottesville, Va., during which he said that the white supremacist protesters had “many fine people.” The president’s remarks served as unlikely inspiration. They made Sorkin reconsider one of the novel’s most famous lines, in which Atticus tells Scout to have compassion for everyone: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” Sorkin took exception to that mentality. In subsequent drafts, he had Calpurnia challenge that belief, with the black housekeeper telling the country lawyer that some people — people like the racist Bob Ewell, who beats his daughter and falsely accuses a black man of rape — don’t deserve empathy.

“I kept tripping on that,” says Sorkin. “That there is goodness in everyone. That’s a reflection of where we all are in a sense. We thought we knew our neighbors. We thought we knew our fellow Americans. And under this president we’ve all been surprised to find out what was lurking underneath the surface.”

Along with casting a more skeptical light on Atticus’ teachings, Sorkin changed the story’s chronology, choosing to start the play with the trial, which doesn’t come until more than halfway through the novel and the film. Sher also made the potentially risky decision to have older actors such as Keenan-Bolger and Will Pullen play the Finch children, framing the story as an adult reflection on childhood. Sorkin says he knew that Rudin was happy with his work when he opened The New York Times and found a two-page advertisement announcing the play would debut in 2018.

On that March afternoon at the Shubert, Daniels says that playing Atticus on Broadway has been the high point of a career that includes films such as “Something Wild” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” as well as an Emmy-winning turn as an arrogant anchorman on Sorkin’s HBO television series “The Newsroom.” Critics seem to agree, praising his performance as revelatory, but things could have turned out very differently. After all, in assuming the role, Daniels wasn’t just contending with the image of Atticus that the book’s 40 million readers had in their heads. He also had to banish the specter of Gregory Peck’s iconic turn. “I didn’t even blink an eye,” says Daniels. “I’m too old to get worried about that crap. It seemed crazy that I would not take it because Gregory Peck won an Oscar. I don’t take the attitude that he gave the definitive performance and no one can imagine anyone else in the role.”

LaTanya Richardson Jackson Variety Broadway Cover Story
CREDIT: Marco Grob for Variety

Sher says Daniels wasn’t interested in replicating Peck’s stentorian take on the role. In Daniels’ hands, Atticus is fiercely intelligent, with a biting wit and an intense desire to turn around his courtroom fortunes after a series of losing cases. He loves his children, but isn’t always sure how to help them navigate the rocky journey through preadolescence. Daniels’ Atticus is virtuous but, unlike Peck’s version, also imperfect.

“Jeff is a Midwestern boy, but somehow he captured the Southern soul of Atticus and the way he’s trapped between the past and the future,” says Sher. “He was the perfect vehicle to explore the humanity of the character.”

For research, Daniels read the novel — something he’d somehow failed to do as a child — and watched the movie one more time before finding his own way into the role. He studied up on life in the Jim Crow South, learned about “Sunset Towns,” the name for all-white municipalities that demanded that black people leave their neighborhoods once night fell, and read biographies on Frank Minis Johnson, a crusading judge who used his position on the bench to pass important civil rights laws. The actor knew that in order to play Atticus, he had to get a better sense of the rural community that had produced his worldview and the prejudice from which he instinctively recoiled.

“I really wanted to know what Atticus saw and felt on his porch in 1934 Monroeville, Alabama,” says Daniels. “I wanted to know what it was like to have somebody like Bob Ewell walk up to you one afternoon and ask, ‘How are you doing? You coming to the lynching tonight?’”

If Lee’s novel provided a palliative uplift, Sorkin’s interpretation is intended to leave a sting. Of course, there’s some irony that his look at systemic racism and class division in America is being performed to an audience of largely white and wealthy ticket buyers. The show has offered $10 tickets for public school students, but there’s no escaping that the theater business appeals primarily to the well-heeled. Seventy-five percent of Broadway audiences are Caucasian and have an average household income of $222,120, putting them in the demographic company of fans of dressage and polo. It’s an audience Gbenga Akinnagbe, who plays Tom Robinson, argues needs to hear the play’s message.

“We go to theater to have an experience and to see things that we don’t normally see,” the actor says. “We want people to leave affected enough that they try to do something. We want them to interrogate their own position, to look at themselves and ask how we got here.”

Lee’s novel may seem antiseptic, particularly in the way it simplistically states that racism is bad without examining the root causes of bigotry. However, there is one dramatic moment in the book that had to be softened for 21st-century audiences. In the play, Robinson, who is crippled on his left side, is shot five times while trying to climb over a prison fence. In the book, he’s shot 17 times.

“Aaron went back and forth, wondering if audiences would buy that,” says Richardson Jackson. “Five still seems like a lot of times. It seems like five times too many.”

Gordon Cox contributed to this report.

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