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Broadway Shockers 2019: To Kill a Mockingbird Producers Go After Community Theaters

Small theaters are caught in the crossfire of a rights war.

As 2019 draws to a close, TheaterMania looks back on some of the most jaw-dropping stories of the year.

Jeff Daniels and Gbenga Akinnagbe appear in To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

This past winter, theater fans were outraged to learn that the Broadway producers of To Kill a Mockingbird were sending cease-and-desist letters to community theaters around the country. These companies thought they had legally licensed the rights to perform Christopher Sergel's 1970 adaptation of Harper Lee's popular novel. However, the Broadway producers own the "first-class" rights to any stage adaptation, barring the production of Sergel's script within 25 miles of a city with more than 150,000 people as of 1960 (lawyers…).

It is entirely likely that no one at these theaters was aware of this stipulation when they purchased the rights from the licensor, Dramatic Publishing Company (DPC), which is run by Sergel's grandson. Unfortunately, these small theaters were caught in the crossfire in a fight between DPC and Mockingbird lead producer Scott Rudin, who has a fiduciary responsibility to his investors to protect the rights.

In the court of public opinion, however, this story quickly became one of a powerful New York producer beating up on small amateur theaters with no hope of fighting back. Rudin's lawyers threatened to seek up to $150,000 in statutory damages if the shows went on, a sum that would break most of these little theaters. The incident made the front page of The New York Times, and the fallout possibly cost Mockingbird a Tony nomination for Best Play.

The day our story about the conflict published, Rudin's production company announced that the rights to the Sorkin script would be made available royalty-free to any of the affected companies, which many saw as a desperate bit of PR jujitsu. Would these small theater troupes really abandon the work they've put into Sergel's version and start fresh with a new script — albeit one that is currently moving millions of dollars in tickets at one of the biggest theaters on Broadway?

Christopher Avery, Robyn Baun, Peter Palmisano, and John Profeta starred in Aaron Sorkin's To Kill a Mockingbird at the Kavinoky Theatre.
(© Gene Witkowski)

It turns out, several companies accepted Rudin's offer: The Dayton Playhouse performed Sorkin's To Kill a Mockingbird from November 1 to 17 and the Kavinoky Theatre of Buffalo, New York, from November 8 to December 8. Buffalo News critic Anthony Chase called the latter production "smart and compelling." Salt Lake City's Grand Theatre is set to perform the Sorkin Mockingbird from March 26 to April 11 next year.

It is perhaps the happiest ending possible to this conflict, which highlighted an important lesson that anyone who has read To Kill a Mockingbird can appreciate: There is a difference between what is lawful, and what is just.