UPDATE, with community theater responses After some community theaters were forced to cancel planned productions of a 1991 version of To Kill A Mockingbird following litigation threats by Broadway producer Scott Rudin, those very companies are being offered by Rudin the chance to stage the Aaron Sorkin version currently on Broadway.
In other words – and remarkably – subscribers and ticket-buyers at The Dayton Playhouse or Buffalo’s Kavinoky Theater might get the chance to see Sorkin’s red-hot play before New Yorkers waiting for seats on Broadway, and certainly before the yet-to-be-announced touring production hits the road.
Informed of Rudin’s decision by Deadline, Matt Lindsay, board chair for The Dayton Playhouse, said, “That’s incredible. Amazingly incredible.” Lindsay said he had not seen Sorkin’s version, and doubted there would be time to mount it by March 8 – Dayton’s planned opening night for the Sergel version – but would investigate the offer and speak with the Playhouse’s board of directors.
Earlier, in a statement, Rudin wrote, “As stewards of the performance rights of Aaron Sorkin’s play, it is our responsibility to enforce the agreement we made with the Harper Lee estate and to make sure that we protect the extraordinary collaborators who made this production. We have been hard at work creating what I hope might be a solution for those theater companies that have been affected by this unfortunate set of circumstances, in which rights that were not available to them were licensed to them by a third party who did not have the right to do so.
“In an effort to ameliorate the hurt caused here, we are offering each of these
companies the right to perform our version of To Kill a Mockingbird, Aaron Sorkin’s play currently running on Broadway. For these theaters, this is the version that can be offered to them, in concert with our agreement with Harper Lee. We hope they will choose to avail themselves of the opportunity.”
Christopher Sergel’s 1991 adaptation of the Harper Lee novel has drawn national attention since Deadline, among other publications, reported in January that a U.K. touring production of the play had been canceled under threat of litigation from the Broadway producers.
Since then, community theaters, children’s theaters and schools across the United States found themselves in similar situations. Small theaters planning productions of the Sergel play include companies in Buffalo, N.Y.; Dayton, Ohio; Marblehead, Mass.; Oklahoma City; Braintree, Mass.; Buda, Texas; Azusa Pacific University in Southern California; and Salt Lake City. Each canceled planned productions of the Sergel play, sometimes at considerable cost to the shoestring companies, after receiving cease-and-desist letters from Rudin’s lawyers. (One of the theaters reportedly paid $6,000 for the rights to stage the Sergel version, while another estimated the cost of cancellation at $20,000.)
Now, those theaters – and only those theaters – will have the opportunity to stage the Sorkin version instead, possibly as early as the dates they’d planned to stage the Sergel version.
This morning, the story about the cease-and-desist controversy landed on the front page of The New York Times, raising the dispute’s profile – along with those of small theater companies such as the Oklahoma Children’s Theater, Buffalo’s Kavinoky Theater and The Dayton Playhouse.
Rudin’s offer of the Sorkin version was made public this afternoon, though at least one of the theater companies was contacted by Rudin this morning.
At issue is a dispute between the Harper Lee Estate and the company – Dramatic Publishing – that sells rights to stage Sergel’s play. According to The Times, a 1969 contract between Harper 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.”
Whoever wrote that contract stipulation certainly could never have imagined Aaron Sorkin’s winningly original take on Mockingbird, or a cast of adults playing child characters, or the powerfully forthright characterization of the black housekeeper Calpurnia – nor how all those elements would come together to form a production that received universal critical acclaim and box office success upon its opening last December. But Lee’s lawyers foresaw a Broadway production that would take precedence over Sergel’s journeyman adaptation.
In recent weeks, the Lee Estate has notified Dramatic Publishing that it was in violation of the 1969 contract. As The Times reports, the dispute went unresolved, prompting Rudin’s lawyer to contact the theaters directly with the cease-and-desist notices.
Rudin’s offer to stage the Sorkin version comes too late for at least one of the theaters. The Mugford Street Players in Marblehead, Mass., had already made plans to move its production of the Sergel version to a nearby theater located outside the 25-mile contractual dead zone, and has opted to proceed with that plan: Mugford’s To Kill A Mockingbird, by Christopher Sergel, will open at the Gloucester Stage Company in Gloucester, Mass., on March 29 and run for three weekends.
Greg Mancusi-Ungaro, a spokesman for Mugford Street Players, said he was notified of Rudin’s offer this morning, but declined in large part “out of respect for the incredible investment our actors have already made.”
Mancusi-Ungaro, who described himself as, among other hats, the banker of the small, non-profit theater troupe, praised Sorkin’s version as “brilliant” and “spectacular,” but added, “my cast already knows their lines” from the Sergel script.
“These are not commercial ventures,” Mancusi-Ungaro said. “It’s a labor of love. We just try to break even.” He said the Mockingbird production budget was around $10,000 – “real money to us.” Had Mugford not already made alternative Mockingbird plans, Mancusi-Ungaro said, the 44-year-old company would “have taken a long, hard look” at Rudin’s offer of the Sorkin version.
At least for Mancusi-Ungaro, there seems to be no hard feelings. “The lawyers for Rudin and the Lee estate have been gracious, they’ve been sympathetic, they’ve been responsive and they’ve been accessible. They’ve all tried to make the best of a bad situation.”
Like any good showman, he added that tickets for the Mugford Street Players production of Christopher Sergel’s To Kill A Mockingbird at Gloucester Stage are still available.