Theater-To Kill a Mockingbird

Hollywood and Broadway producer Scott Rudin and the cover of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." Rudin is offering a compromise to community and nonprofit theaters that were forced to abandon productions of the play under legal threat.

Contractually, Hollywood and Broadway producer Scott Rudin has the law on his side.

He is well within his right to prohibit a number of production companies — from a middle school in Oklahoma to an all-volunteer community theater in Massachusetts — from performing a different version of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as his latest endeavor sets Broadway ablaze.

But should he?

Be serious.

This little charade (pun intended) is akin to the New York Yankees threatening to sue the gills off anyone ballsy enough — even that T-ball team down the block — from wearing their iconic pinstripes. 

And besides, the very thought of preventing others from performing a legally acquired and fully-paid-for adaptive script to what very well could be the most influential piece of American literature ever is a contradiction of everything Harper Lee’s 1960 novel speaks to in the first place.

“He’s totally in the right, but it also sounds like Goliath beating up on David,” said Morrie Enders, executive director of Lincoln Community Playhouse, who should be thankful that timing was on his side this time.

It was in April 2016 that the Community Playhouse presented “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

That was before Aaron Sorkin’s revamp of the script, which uses adults in the parts played by children and provides more of a voice to the black characters, most notably Calpurnia, the housekeeper in the Finch household.

Since its Broadway debut in December, the reviews of the production, which stars Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, have been off the chart and the money -- hundreds of bucks per ticket -- has been pouring in.

And that’s where this story gets funky.

In January, a touring company from the United Kingdom was forced to cancel its production of Christopher Sergel’s 1991 adaptation under the threat of litigation from Rudin & Co.

Since then, no fewer than 10 production companies of all ages, sizes and skill levels were forced to cancel productions of the Sergel play — sometimes at losses amounting to thousands of dollars.

At issue is a dispute between author Harper Lee's estate and the company — Dramatic Publishing — that sells rights to stage Sergel’s script.

Apparently, a 1969 contract between Lee and Dramatic Publishing prevents productions of Sergel’s play “within 25 miles of cities that had a population of 150,000 or more in 1960 (the last census year before the agreement was signed) while a ‘first-class dramatic play’ based on the novel is playing in New York or on tour,” according to a report by the Associated Press.

“I don’t remember seeing that clause in the contract,” Enders said.

Then again, while the stipulation was definitely in place, it wasn’t an issue in 2016.

Rudin has faced a backlash of bad publicity since the story blew up late last week. Anger over the move has triggered an online revolt using the rallying cry #BoycottRudinplays. Chris Peterson, founder of the OnStage Blog, wants ticket buyers to steer clear of all current and upcoming Rudin productions on Broadway, including "Hillary and Clinton," ''Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus," ''King Lear," ''The Ferryman" and "The Book of Mormon."

That's caused Rudin, who might be greedy but is no idiot, to retreat by allowing all affected production companies to instead perform the Sorkin version. However, many of them had already canceled their shows because of the fear of initial litigation 

The all-volunteer Curtain Call Theatre in Braintree, Massachusetts, said it received a letter threatening damages of up to $150,000, a staggering amount for a venue where tickets for plays are $20 and $25 for musicals.

Therein lies the problem. Most local theaters provide quality-of-life benefits to the communities they serve — they're an entry point to, say, the banker, dentist or homemaker with dreams of performing on stage, no matter how grand the hall — and are seldom a financial boon to those running them. The cancellation of a show adversely impacts a production company, said Enders, adding that it's not just a financial loss.

“To lose a production for almost every theater company including ours would be a really big hit on the budget,” Enders said. “If it were already in rehearsal, it would be a big hit on the emotions of the people involved who have already invested hours and hours in prepping for the show.

“... Most theaters are able to absorb a hit, but it’s going to hurt. I would not want to be in their position. You have to look at their position, they filled out a contract and they paid their money and they thought they had a done deal.”

Instead, they're left holding the bag.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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