How mutable is a classic? Broadway playgoers will find out later this autumn, when the time-honoured Harper Lee novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, comes to the Broadway stage in an entirely new adaptation by Aaron Sorkin. A sizable name in his own right, Sorkin is the Jewish-American dramatist of A Few Good Men, amongst other stage and screen titles, who may be better known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Social Network and for making possible the popular TV series The West Wing.
There’s hardly a writer out there more alive to the ways of the contemporary world, which makes Sorkin an apt-seeming fit to take on Lee’s celebrated, resonance-heavy 1960 novel about race, courage, and conviction in the Deep South – a Pulitzer Prize-winner that, amazingly, has never until now been brought to the Broadway stage. (Various British adaptations pop up now and again, including an admirable version in summer 2013 at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, adapted by Christopher Sergel.)
This separate Broadway iteration stars Jeff Daniels as the lawyer, Atticus Finch, immortalised on screen by Gregory Peck, who was awarded a 1963 Oscar for his efforts, and the show begins performances 1 Nov. at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre on West 44th Street; opening night is 13 Dec.. That playhouse was until recently home to the smash hit revival of the musical Hello, Dolly! which shares with Mockingbird a mighty producer in the prolific, and protean, Scott Rudin. Sorkin and Rudin’s screen collaborations include The Social Network and the less-heralded if equally compelling Moneyball.
So it was a shock earlier this year when the venture made headlines for unwanted reasons – namely, the charge proffered by Lee’s estate that Sorkin’s adaptation was insufficiently faithful to the novelist’s original story. (The famously reclusive Lee died in 2016, age 89, but not before the publication in 2015 of a Mockingbird sequel entitled Go Set a Watchman that took the literary community by surprise.) Among various issues of contention was the concern voiced by the Estate’s personal representative, Tonja B. Carter, that Atticus Finch was perhaps a shade too morally ambiguous in Sorkin’s reckoning with his source. Meanwhile, some theatre chatterati raised eyebrows at the casting of an adult actress, the three-time Tony nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger, to play the tomboyish Scout, who is not yet an adolescent at the time the events depicted in the novel – which she narrates – are taking place.
Although an offer was made to stage Sorkin’s adaptation for a single performance in a federal courthouse so that a jury could weigh in on its merits, the case never escalated to that level and was settled in sufficient time to allow the director Bartlett Sher’s staging to proceed as per its original timetable; there had been some concern along the way that the show might be delayed or even pulled altogether.
And while one certainly assumes that Sorkin, Rudin et al are acting with the utmost respect for their venerated source, one cannot leave out of the powerhouse equation the directorial presence of Sher, a frequent Broadway and West End figure (his London revival of The King and I continues at the Palladium to 29 September) who is known for burrowing inside many a familiar title to reveal their value afresh. As often as not, his revitalisations have taken place within the world of musicals (not just The King and I, but South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, and New York’s current production of My Fair Lady), but Sher’s New York credits extend equally to Clifford Odets and August Wilson, so there’s no reason why this commingling of Aaron Sorkin and Harper Lee shouldn’t constitute the theatrical event of the autumn.
Elsewhere in New York, two Jewish directors have a pair of starry, high-profile productions on tap. The London-born, New York-based Daniel Aukin is directing the American premiere of Apologia, a 2009 Off West End play by the London writer-turned-playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell that got a commercial upgrade to the West End last year, with Stockard Channing in the leading role. The much-lauded actress of stage and screen, an alumna of The West Wing, will repeat her performance as the expatriate American art historian, Kristin, in Aukin’s Roundabout Theatre Company production, which starts press previews on 27 September at the Laura Pels Theatre in advance of its opening on 16 October. An eclectic supporting cast includes Hugh Dancy (Daniel Deronda, Ella Enchanted) and John Tillinger, best-known as a long-established theatre director.
That Off Broadway opening is followed a day later by that of Mother of the Maid, a new play from Jane Anderson (TV’s Olive Kitteridge), at the Public Theater in lower Manhattan, in which three-time Tony-winner Glenn Close plays Joan of Arc’s mother: the director, Matthew Penn, happens to be the son of the great film and theatre director (Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man) Arthur Penn, whose ancestry was Russian-Jewish. Whether on Broadway or off, New York theatre is bustling.
London, meanwhile, rarely if ever pauses for breath – a function of a cultural landscape that allows for state funding for the arts to a degree unheard of across the Atlantic. And there’s hardly a playwright whose career owes more to the subsidised sector than Sir David Hare, now 71, whose new play, I’m Not Running, returns him to his longtime perch, the National Theatre, where he has birthed such enduring dramas as Racing Demon, Plenty, and Skylight. Among the few writers to have had shows premiere in all three of the National’s spaces, Sir David – whose wife is the French-born Jewish clothes designer Nicole Farhi – remains both as productive and provocative now as when he co-founded the radical Joint Stock Theatre Group in 1974.
Depicting a female doctor (played by Sian Brooke) whose private life collides with party politics, I’m Not Running is directed by Neil Armfield and starts previews in the National’s Lyttelton Theatre on 2 October prior to its 9 October opening. While a critical verdict still awaits, the mere fact of this production bears testament to an English theatrical stalwart who, commendably true to form, refuses to keep still.