Did Producer Scott Rudin Stymie To Kill a Mockingbird’s Shot at Best Play?

Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel is a Broadway sensation, but something happened on the way to the Tonys
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By any actuarial accounting, April 30 was an exceptionally good one for Scott Rudin. The prolific Hollywood and Broadway producer had skin in seven of the 34 shows that were eligible for Tony Awards, and when the nominations for the 2018-2019 season were announced that morning, the Oscar winner had bragging rights to 31 nominations–20 of them for shows he personally had lassoed, roped, and wrangled into the populist Broadway pit, where 80 percent of the offerings sputter to death in a pool of red ink and Hamilton is the winning Mega Millions ticket every dreamer thinks will be spit out of the machine with the next $1 buy.

Rudin had every reason to believe it would be a good morning. Despite a lukewarm review from the New York Times, all the Broadway pundits and Tony prognosticators had predicted a bagful of nominations for his leading bronco in this rodeo, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, as it’s formally known, topped by the most important of all, a nod for Best Play.

Rudin’s relentless promotional apparatus had been working overtime for more than three years to position the show as the most important cultural event since–well perhaps since Lee’s beloved novel was published in 1960, winning the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Two years later, courtesy of Gregory Peck’s performance and Horton Foote’s screenplay, the screen adaptation landed three Oscars and a permanent place in the firmament of filmdom.

In the weeks leading up to the nominations announcement, those of us covering Broadway got regular updates on Mockingbird’s big box office numbers and, lest we miss it, the show’s impeccable credentials as necessary liberal cultural phenomenon. With Jeff Daniels leading the cast and a sparky adaptation by Aaron Sorkin (who’d scripted Rudin’s films The Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs), Mockingbird found product placement in the Capitol! At the Library of Congress! Hosting a daily parade of stars backstage at the Shubert Theatre!

All the while there were bold-face announcements, breathlessly regurgitated in the press, of the show’s financial success–attractively beribboned in huckster’s lingo: To Kill a Mockingbird Has Recouped Its Entire Investment came the press release on April 26, “a mere 19 weeks after opening to critical acclaim…” coming after several weeks of dispatches hawking the fact that the show had just broken the box office record it had set the week before, and that “the production holds the title of the highest weekly gross of a play in the history of the Shubert Organization.” “It has not played to a single empty seat,” Variety blared, in a four-panel, full-color cardboard tout mailed to potential patrons. As I write this, my inbox dings with yet another:

HARPER LEE’S “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD”A NEW PLAY BY AARON SORKIN HAS BECOME THE HIGHEST-GROSSING AMERICAN PLAY IN BROADWAY HISTORY

None of this is to sneeze at, mind you. Especially given the fact that Mockingbird’s road to opening last December had proven more challenging than Rudin could possibly have anticipated. After securing the rights from the ailing Lee herself, his costly production faltered in the face of a suit by Lee’s executor, claiming that Sorkin’s script violated the terms of his license from the estate by making substantial alterations to the characters, notably defense lawyer Atticus Finch; Calpurnia, the family’s housekeeper; and Atticus’s client Tom Robinson, the saintly black man falsely accused of rape.

The subsequent wrangling included Rudin’s offer to have the cast present the show in a private performance for the judge and let him decide, before cooler heads prevailed. In the end, Sorkin yielded on a few points he considered minor but retained his crucial change from the novel and film: No longer would we see the story through the eyes of Atticus’ daughter Scout; instead, the play presents a more ambivalent Atticus who attains, rather than maintains, his righteous nature.

That was followed by a real P.R. disaster, when Rudin’s legal team tried to shut down local productions of Mockingbird that were using a script that had been in circulation for decades, and threatened to sue them for damages. Rudin’s license precluded any productions in most venues as long as his show was running on Broadway or on tour, but he came out looking like Big Foot stomping on cash-strapped nonprofit theaters in Ohio and Utah that were faced with ruinous consequences if they had to cancel their productions. “[I]t takes a special kind of awfulness to argue that small community theaters who paid for and properly licensed a play are guilty of willful infringement,” one industry blogger wrote.

Rudin relented, eventually offering some groups the Sorkin script gratis, but the damage was done.

And then, in a classic twist worthy of a Broadway thriller, a new show arrived that stuck a 10-cent pin in Rudin’s $7.5 million balloon. What the Constitution Means to Me, actress and I Love Dick writer Heidi Schreck’s autobiographical tour-de-force, opened at off-Broadway’s developmental New York Theatre Workshop and instantly became the most acclaimed show of the season.

Here was a one-act near monologue (there are two other characters in the show) exactly in synch with the times, exploring the seminal document through the lens of several hot-button issues, charmingly performed by Schreck. Suddenly, all the stars were making their way down to the East Village. And then to the West Village, where the show transferred briefly after its sold-out run, and then–holy crap!—to Broadway’s Hayes Theatre, just in time for Tony Nominations. The New York Times called Schreck’s perfect micro-show “the best and most important new play of the season to date.” (The ads helpfully left out the last two words, but that made no difference to the stunned advocates of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.)

Constitution was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. When the Tony nominations were announced on April 30, To Kill a Mockingbird had nine–including ones for Bart Sher’s staging and Jeff Daniels’ performance. But not for the big one, not for Best Play, despite the assurance of every Broadway pundit that it would be the show to beat. Not since the MSNBC amen crew assured us that Donald Trump could not possibly win the nomination, and then that he could not possibly be elected, had such confidence proven to be so off the mark.

No, the Mockingbird slot went to What the Constitution Means to Me. (It should also be noted that another surprise Best Play nominee from far-left field is Rudin’s production of Taylor Mac’s wild farce, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus. The nominating committee proved to be more woke than the pundits.)

This wasn’t the first time the Tony nominators showed a keen aversion to Rudin’s antics. He experienced a similarly spectacular disappointment in 2016, when his wildly over-hyped $12 million production of Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed earned ten Tony nominations, won none, and, when star Audra McDonald withdrew due to pregnancy, shuttered after just 100 performances.

What’s overlooked in all this is the ferocious passion Rudin brings to his projects, and to which attention must be paid. As with his eclectic film C.V., his Broadway shows balance star vehicles with a devotion to developing new work (cf. 2017’s A Doll’s House, Part 2). It’s hard to imagine another Broadway player sinking hard currency into Gary, which features Nathan Lane and Kristine Nielsen cracking wise and crude over a molting mountain of dead bodies in ancient Rome; tickets are going at the fire-sale rate of $55 in order to fill the house amid derision from the peanut gallery. As for Mockingbird, there are worse crimes than “overplaying his hand,” as one Tony nominator said to me, echoing others.

Publicly, Rudin took the Mockingbird dis in stride: “It’s the best season for new plays in anybody’s memory—and certainly in my memory,” his official statement read. “I’m thrilled for everybody who got nominated, especially the playwrights. We’re in a Golden Age and that’s the news of this season. As for Mockingbird, Aaron Sorkin wrote a great play under nearly impossible circumstances, and it’s a big hit. I’m as proud of it —and of him— as I could ever be. The point of doing it was to do it well—everything else is kind of beside the point, nice though it would have been.”

He hasn’t made any further comments since. Nice though it would have been.

The Tony Awards are announced on Sunday, June 9.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that Aaron Sorkin was not nominated for a Tony for the play’s script.


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