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Why To Kill a Mockingbird Is a Multi Award Winning Hit — But NOT the Season's Best New Play
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and 10-year-old Mary Badham as Scout in the movie.
Harper Lee's 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird is indeed one of America's literary treasures. The movie starring Gregory Peck, and the adaptation by Christopher Sergel into a play for school productions that metamorphosed into a version suitable for adult theatergoers is still frequently produced in regional theaters. All, especially the movie, succeeded.

And when it finally arrived on Broadway last year it suceeded once again.In fact, in a big way. It became the 2018-19 season's blockbuster hit. Curtainup's review.

Unlike the previous stage and screen spinoffs, Aaron Sokin's script is enough drastically different in its structure, interpretation and casting of characters to make one understand why it's been promoted as "a new play" rather than a new adaptation.

Yet, for all the praises heaped upon it (including my own), the Mockingbird now keeping every seat filled at the Shubert Theater is NOT a new play but a new adaptation — granted, a brilliant one.

Unlike other Best Play choices, like The Ferryman and What the Constitution Means to Me, the new Mockingbird didn't make it into that category; but Director Bartlett Sher, Jeff Daniels's Atticus and and Celia Keenan Bolger's Scout did so magnificently. And if there were a category for best new adaptation of a classic, Aaron Sorkin would surely have topped any such a list.

As promised in my review, I recently got around to once again watching the movie. (It's still available as a DVD or for rent on YouTube). Compared to what I saw,the play I saw and reviewed at the Shubert did indeed really seem like a new play. That's at first, when that black and white movie faithfully followed the book's leisurely set-up and the kids were played by kids. But once the the trial that's the story's dramatic and thematic heartbeat started, it became clear to me that Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher have indeed achieved something of a miracle. Their To Kill a Mockingbird is a glorious example of how to give a totally new look and interpretation to a classic's heretofore etched-in-stone structure and character portrayals. All while still being true to the the source material. And that goes for Jeff Daniels who's very much his own Atticus Finch without diminishing our memories of Gregory Peck —and Celia Keenan Bolger, the adult actress now playing Scout, doesn't make ten year old Mary Badham less memorable.

Rather than relegate either the book or the movie to that theatrical attic reserved for classic but hopelessly dated work, the entire Mockingbird oeuvre is now a triple threat time capsule.

As to why it took over half a century of life on page, stage and screen to bring To Kill a Mockingbird to Broadway, it's not that directors of the author approved, straightforward Sergel version haven't imbued it with a more contemporary attitude, or that the idea for a more high profile, new adaptation hasn't been explored. The film's script writer Horton Foote, who's also a much lauded live theater playwright (See our playwrights' album chapter on Foote here), was an obvious first choice. But he turned it down; so did double Pulitzer winner Lynne Nottage.

Perhaps Foote and Nottage realized that Lee's approval would be a stumbling block to any updates. Though Lee is dead her estate's tight and contentious control of any new and drastic interpretations didn't make things easy for producer Scott Rudin or Aaron Sorkin. That's even though Tonja B. Carter, the lawyer Ms. Lee appointed to run her estate, published a first and never published version of the novel in which Atticus wasn't nearly the beloved moral hero everybody loves.

Though the legal problems with the Lee estate were settled in time for the Broadway production to open, the challenge of making this cherished work viable for modern audiences had to contend with the fact that even without a more woke approach to the bigotry issues Mockingbird had done just fine in all its formats. In short, it's a classic that's universal and powerful enough to resonate without drastic updating; and without Gregory Peck to animate Atticus's interaction with his black housekeeper Calpurnia and Tom Robinson, the black man falsely charged with raping a white woman.

No wonder that the familiar maxim of "why fix what ain't broke" has prevailed. That said, however, the problems of racial bigotry more prevalent than ever in this country, Sorkin's drastically different structure, interpretation and casting of characters suddenly seemed overdue. And the result does feel like a new play. Yet, despite the extreme changes, it therefore remains an adaptation even though Sorkin and the actors have managed to remain true enough to the universality of Lee's classic in every way that counts.

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