Almost six decades after its publication, PBS just anointed Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as America’s Best-Loved Novel. For a cherished 58-year-old literary classic that’s never disappeared from schools or shelves, it’s a nice surprise pop in the zeitgeist — and one that only adds to the happy coincidence that this December, a production of Lee’s coming-of-age tale will arrive on Broadway for the first time ever (yes, really) in a new adaptation penned by Aaron Sorkin.
The prolific screenwriter behind The West Wing and Sports Night began his career in the theater (his 1989 stage play A Few Good Men, later adapted into an Oscar-nominated film, was his big break). Now Sorkin returns almost 30 years later with one of the most daunting projects of his career. “It’s one of the greatest American novels, and it holds a special place in everyone’s hearts, so it’s going to be almost impossible for an audience member to not look at the play through the lens of their own memory,” Sorkin, 57, tells EW. “The thing is, much as I love and revere the book, this play couldn’t be an homage to the book or its author. It had to be a new play based on an American classic. And I couldn’t pretend I was writing it in 1960. A lot’s happened in the last 58 years, so at some point, you have to just put the book to the side of your desk and start writing something new.”
Sorkin has a relationship to Lee’s book that many adults may recognize in themselves: a pivotal first read in sixth or seventh grade, followed by a curious revisiting of it decades later when his own teenager came of age. It was only after saying yes to a call from Tony-winning producer Scott Rudin three years ago that Sorkin truly rolled up his sleeves to study the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. Ask him about his first draft and he laughs. “I would say the first draft was one in which I pretty much just tried to take certain scenes in the book and stand them up, dramatize them,” he recalls. “And I showed that first draft to Scott, and he gave me two notes. One was that we need to get to the trial [of Tom Robinson] sooner. And the other was, ‘Atticus can’t be Atticus from the beginning of the play to the end.’ And just hearing that note, I understood what one fundamental difference was going to be. Atticus is not the protagonist in the book — Scout is — and in this play, Atticus was going to be the main protagonist.”
In Sorkin’s adaptation, directed by Bartlett Sher (My Fair Lady), Atticus Finch — the lawyer who takes on a murder trial that rattles a racist Alabama town, as witnessed by his young daughter and the book’s narrator, Scout — will be played by Jeff Daniels, the Emmy-winning star of Sorkin’s 2012 HBO series, The Newsroom. “There was never a conversation about who would play Atticus,” says the playwright. “The call ended with Scott saying, ‘And by the way, how do you feel about Jeff?’ And right in that moment we cast Jeff Daniels.” The early knowledge only helped Sorkin develop Atticus’ authoritative but deeply feeling voice bespoke to his frequent collaborator. “Jeff has a really large strike zone — you can put it anywhere and Jeff will hit it. So Jeff has been fearless from the beginning. Obviously he’s heard of Gregory Peck, but he’s shrugged that off. He’s making the character his own.”
Less obvious was the casting of a trio of adults to play Atticus’ children, Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and Jem (Will Pullen), and their visiting friend, Dill (Gideon Glick). “It was clear, even from that first draft, that these roles were just too difficult for kids to play,” notes Sorkin. In the first table read, for the sake of ease in a workshop reading, the adults played the roles of the children — and quickly made it clear to Sorkin, Rudin, and Sher that the grown actors unlocked a particular element in the framing device of Sorkin’s memory play. “As it happened, it just felt right, and part of it is that the characters go back and forth between themselves when they were kids and themselves several years later,” he continues. “It just works, and it really wouldn’t have with kids. And it’s not without precedent. You don’t see a 13 or 14-year-old girl playing Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Peter Pan is always played by an adult woman. It’s going to take four seconds for the audience to adjust.”
That first workshop seemed to prove even more informative than expected. “What I also remember from the first table read is that everybody still teared up when Scout said ‘Hey, Boo’ at the end,” he recalls with a laugh. “And I thought, ‘Alright. If I haven’t ruined “Hey, Boo,” then I’m at least facing in the right direction.’”
Turning a beloved piece of American literature into a theatrical experience doesn’t come without its bumps, but Sorkin is confident audiences at the production (which opens Dec. 13) will recall the fundamental power of Lee’s original story. (He has not, he adds, read the controversial posthumous sequel Go Set a Watchman, “specifically so that I could truthfully say to you I have never read Go Set a Watchman“). Despite the heaviest Broadway expectations this side of King Kong, Sorkin hopes the production can spotlight To Kill a Mockingbird in 2018 as a timely but timeless case study of rural racism — utilizing a veteran Broadway ensemble, Lee’s vividly painted cast of bucolic characters, and the opportunity for a playwright to dig into his theater roots and tinker around inside a very different kind of social network.