A Salt Lake City community theater company has canceled its production of the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” scheduled for next month, over a legal dispute even Atticus Finch couldn’t argue his way around.
Seth Miller, artistic/executive director of The Grand Theatre at Salt Lake Community College, announced Tuesday that the theater’s cancellation of its production of the Harper Lee classic — set to be performed from March 21 to April 6 — was “due to circumstances beyond our control.”
In a statement posted on the Grand’s website, Miller said the theater company was caught in a legal dispute between Lee’s estate, Rudinplay in New York — the producer of a new adaptation now playing on Broadway — and Dramatic Publishing.
Dramatic Publishing has for years licensed the long-existing stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” written by Christopher Sergel. The Grand had licensed the rights to the Sergel version, and announced last March that the show was part of its 2018-19 season.
The Grand’s production began rehearsals on Feb. 6, after a few days of delays because of the legal wrangling, said Utah actor Anne Cullimore Decker, who was cast to play the narrator, the adult version of Atticus Finch’s daughter, Scout.
After 10 days of rehearsals, costume fittings and other preparations, Decker said, Miller and the play’s director, Mark Fossen, broke the news to the cast that the production would be canceled.
“It was a blow,” Decker said. “Everyone was just in shock.”
On Dec. 13, the new adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” premiered at Broadway’s Schubert Theater, produced by Rudinplay, the company run by mogul Scott Rudin. It was written by Aaron Sorkin, the creator of TV’s “The West Wing” and the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of “The Social Network.” Jeff Daniels, who starred in Sorkin’s HBO series “The Newsroom,” plays Atticus Finch, the Alabama lawyer who defends a black man from a false charge of raping a white woman.
Sorkin’s adaptation has received positive reviews. The New York Times’ critic Jesse Green led the way, calling it “beautiful, elegiac” and noting the expanded role of the Finches’ black housekeeper, Calpurnia (played by LaTanya Richardson).
According to Miller’s statement, Rudinplay claims it now holds all licensing rights to Lee’s novel — and contests Dramatic Publishing’s rights to license the older, Sergel version to regional theater companies.
“We have exhausted every effort to overcome these obstacles and present our production, but under the threat of substantial legal action from Rudinplay we have had to cancel the show,” Miller said, adding that the Grand Theatre Foundation “is not in any kind of position to fight such an exhausting legal battle.”
The Associated Press reported that dozens of productions — including in Braintree, Mass., Buffalo, N.Y., and Dayton, Ohio — received letters from lawyers threatening damages of up to $150,000.
The Kavinoky Theatre in Buffalo planned to proceed with a production of the Sergel version to run March 8-31. “We’re totally legal,” said Loraine O’Donnell, executive artistic director at the Kavinoky, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “The royalty company took our money, cashed our check.” Shortly after that interview, O’Donnell said she received a letter from lawyers representing Rudin’s company.
In January, a production of the Sergel version that was set to tour the United Kingdom and Ireland was canceled, also during rehearsals. The UK producers said in a statement that lawyers representing a Rudin-formed company, Atticus LLC, claimed exclusive worldwide stage rights to Lee’s story.
“We’re becoming such a litigious nation,” Decker said. “When it hits nonprofit arts groups, it just breaks my heart.”
It’s common practice for a Broadway production, even a revival like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” to limit the title’s licensing rights outside of the Great White Way, said Chris Lino, managing director of Pioneer Theatre Company.
Broadway producers will hold “first-class rights” to a title, meaning they have veto over anyone else trying to put on a production, Lino said — and almost always the answer is “no.”
“If the show is running on Broadway, we’re generally not going to ask for it, because we know we’re not going to get it,” Lino said.
It is unusual for rights to be pulled after they have been granted, Lino said, adding that at Pioneer, “we never announce a title, let alone go into rehearsal with it, if we don’t have a fully executed contract.”
The Grand box office will refund all tickets sold for “To Kill a Mockingbird.”