Harper Lee's seminal story of love, justice, and equality, To Kill a Mockingbird, has been firmly anchored in the cultural zeitgeist since its publication nearly 60 years ago. After winning the Pulitzer, the book was translated into more than 40 languages and spawned an Oscar-winning film (and, decades later, birthed a controversial sequel). In 2018, viewers of PBS's The Great American Read voted To Kill a Mockingbird the most loved book in America. Now, a new version of the tale is coming to Broadway—a play, written by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, helmed by powerhouse director Bartlett Sher and starring two-time Tony nominee Jeff Daniels as valiant Southern lawyer Atticus Finch.
But even with that stellar pedigree, how do make to a story seared into America's collective consciousness fresh again?
"The challenge is expectations," Sher told 60 Minutes. "The challenge is swimming into the national memory between people who have a deep memory of the book, people who love the film, and people who are going to come into a theater and see it now—how to connect all of those different perspectives."
Daniels faces that same pressure on stage: Gregory Peck, who won the Oscar for playing Atticus in the 1962 film version, certainly casts a long shadow. But Daniels is determined to make the role his own. "All these people who love this book, all these people who loved Gregory Peck—delete, delete, delete, delete, delete, delete," he told 60 Minutes. "I'm originating the role as far as I'm concerned. There is no movie. There's a book that we're basing it on."
And Mockingbird's themes of racial tolerance and the rule of law are as fresh today as they were in 1960, as well. "Great art is timeless," Daniels told the Today show. "What Harper did in the early '60s based on 1934 Alabama, it still resonates today. Racism has been in this country since The Mayflower saw land. It's just been a part of this country. It hasn't gone away by any stretch, and this reminds us of what we are and who we are and maybe who we can become if we work at it."
"What I really appreciate about Aaron's adaptation is how relevant it feels right now," Celia Keenan-Bolger, who plays Scout in this production, told Ndelible. "Harper Lee wrote an incredible novel that continues to resonate today. And Aaron took that foundation and expanded some of the stories (particularly for the characters of color). I also appreciate Aaron's attention to themes of decency and what is means to have a strong moral conscious. Those ideas feel more important than ever."
This isn't the first time Atticus, Scout and Boo Radley have been brought alive on stage: Christopher Sergel's stage adaptation debuted in 1990 in Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. A piece of immersive theater, it's still mounted every May, with Monroe citizens comprising the cast and audience members drafted into the (segregated) jury. But Sorkin promises his To Kill A Mockingbird is a bird of a different feather.
"If you walk into a theater already knowing what's going to happen when the lights go down, you've walked into the wrong theater," he wrote in a New York magazine piece. "To Kill a Mockingbird isn't a revival. It's not an homage or an exercise in nostalgia. It's a new play, directed by a genius and performed by 24 of the best actors in the world. Was it a suicide mission? I'm not the judge of that, and there will be no shortage of strong opinions."