In February, “To Kill a Mockingbird” will make history.
It will become the first Broadway play to be presented at Madison Square Garden, the sprawling sports complex best known for hosting Knicks and Rangers games, as well as Billy Joel concerts. Don’t try to get tickets. Like most performances of the smash production, this Feb. 26, one-day-only engagement is already a sell-out. Well, not a sell-out exactly. Tickets are being given out free to some 18,000 public school students from across New York City.
“It’ll be more of an event than a play,” says Ed Harris, the Oscar-nominated “Apollo 13” and “Pollock” actor currently starring as
Atticus Finch. “But it’s going to be memorable, I’m sure.”
The space is so enormous that the production has had to relocate from the Shubert Theatre on Broadway to a Long Island City studio for rehearsals to get a true sense of the size and scope of the venue. It’s a grand experiment, one that producer Scott Rudin was motivated to undertake because he was worried that Harper Lee’s story of prejudice and racism was being seen only by wealthy white audiences.
“He was hoping that the audience would be more diverse,” says Harris. “And it really isn’t, and so he said, ‘Well, we’ll just make it that way and invite, you know, 18,000 kids.’”
The Madison Square Garden event isn’t the only major change for “To Kill a Mockingbird” as it enters its second year. The original cast, which included Jeff Daniels as Atticus, has been ushered out for a company led by Harris, Nick Robinson (“Love, Simon”), LisaGay Hamilton (“The Practice”) and Eliza Scanlen (“Little Women”). They assumed their roles in December, and despite the shift, the play continues to be a box office hit.
Though they had the luxury of seeing “To Kill a Mockingbird” performed in full by another cast, not everyone chose to do so before taking over their roles. “I didn’t want to know what Jeff was doing,” says Harris. “I didn’t want to have it in my head, you know. Just wanted to approach it from a wide open, fresh point of view.”
Others took a different approach. Robinson, Hamilton and Scanlen all went to the theater at various points in rehearsal to get an idea of how their predecessors approached the material.
“I wanted to have enough time to see what they had done, and then kind of forget about it and try and do my own thing,” says Robinson. “It was a thrill to watch the old cast do it, and know that we were going to be able to get to tell that story soon. And I think it’s been most fun watching how it’s different, and how everyone brought their own take to it.”
Since it opened in 2018, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been a commercial phenomenon, becoming the highest-grossing American play in history while launching a national tour and a London production. It shattered records in large part because millions of people studied Lee’s book in middle school or high school, and it has remained an immovable cultural touchstone for so many.
Yet, this isn’t the “To Kill a Mockingbird” that readers remember. Aaron Sorkin, notable for writing “A Few Good Men” and “The Social Network,” took significant liberties in adapting the novel, which was published in 1960, to the stage. He expanded the role of Calpurnia, the Finch family’s black housekeeper, having her serve as an important counterpoint to Atticus’ naive worldview. Atticus believes that people really are good at heart; a lifetime enduring racist abuse and harassment has left Calpurnia with a different perspective.
“I don’t think it would have been as successful if it weren’t for Aaron’s interpretation,” says Hamilton. “If this play were done 10 years ago, I think people would have been offended by it and [would have] not really wanted to see it. It’s the white man saving the — ideally, trying to save the black guy, the poor black guy. And I think what Aaron did is he sifted through that material, to see what specific conversations he really wanted us to have. And then by giving Calpurnia a voice, a real conflict occurs.”
“[Scott rudin] was hoping that the audience would be more diverse. And it really isn’t, and so he said, ‘Well, we’ll just make it that way and invite, you know, 18,000 kids.’”
Scanlen, who is making her Broadway debut as Mayella Ewell, a white woman who falsely accuses a black man of rape, agrees that Lee’s original story needed to be tweaked. “If it was just an out-and-out telling of the book, there would be certain things that would feel dated, and this modernizes it in all the right ways,” she says.
As part of that modernization, Atticus has been given more nuance. In the book and the 1962 film, he’s virtuous and an unyielding example of moral courage. In Sorkin’s telling, he’s a country lawyer with little track record of success, one who is willing to challenge the prevailing prejudices of his hometown, an Alabama community governed by Jim Crow laws. However, he’s also not as progressive as one might hope and struggles to accept that the judicial system may be stacked against Jim Robinson, the man he is tasked with defending against Ewell’s allegations.
“He’s not perfect,” says Harris. “He has flaws. He has a certain belief system that is being challenged incredibly during the course of the play.”
He’s also not Gregory Peck, who portrayed Atticus in the film version as a stentorian voice of righteousness, winning an Oscar in the process. Initially, Harris admits, he worried about taking on a part that Peck had made so iconic. He was able to banish the actor from his mind when he started to explore what Sorkin had written.
“When you read the play and you start working on the play, you realize that this man, that this Atticus Finch, this version is not intended to be as noble a character as Peck is in the film,” says Harris. “And I also was told that during the course of the film, and the writing of the script for the film, Peck kept insisting that they make him even more noble than he was in the original draft.”
This production packs more of a wallop, the cast says, because it is being performed in a presidential election year. Critics of Donald Trump say he has emboldened bigots with his anti-immigrant rhetoric and his refusal in 2017 to fully condemn neo-Nazi rioters in Charlottesville. “To Kill a Mockingbird” may have been written some six decades ago, but it remains stubbornly, frustratingly topical.
“Calpurnia says morning has taken its sweet time getting here, progress is taking its sweet time getting here,” says Hamilton. “That’s inherent in any society, but we have taken many, many strides back — especially with the current regime in place right now. People sit in the audience forced to look at the present day.”
Harris thinks there’s another section of the play that has added resonance in the Trump era. “One of the lines that Atticus has in his summation is basically we can’t go on like this, which I think says a lot,” he says. “So hopefully we won’t go on like this, and hopefully come the fall we will have a new president.”
Sorkin’s alterations ensured that his version of Lee’s coming-of-age story delivers more of a sting and carries the full weight of its moral urgency. That decision could have alienated theatergoers looking for something with more uplift and less ambiguity — in other words, the kind of fable that Lee offered on the printed page. But the play’s performers say they’ve been astonished by how enthusiastically the production has been embraced.
“People really want to see how Aaron Sorkin tweaked it and interpreted it,” says Hamilton. “And people are legitimately moved. I sort of joke with my sister that I have never been in a play where there was a standing ovation every night. I don’t care how much we might suck that night. They’re still standing up.”
The cast of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is excited to be performing for an audience of schoolchildren it believes needs to grapple with the issues that the play raises. However, the venue presents some unusual challenges.
“We’ll all be onstage, all the time,” says Harris. “I know that. Because there’s no entrance and exits.” Talk about an endurance act — even the Knicks get to take a timeout every once in a while.