This Spring, Curtain Call Theatre in Braintree, MA was set to produce To Kill a Mockingbird. However, the theatre was forced to cancel their production due to legal threats they received from lawyers representing Scott Rudin, the lead producer of the currently running Broadway show of the same name.
Normally this would be pretty cut and dry, except for the fact that Curtain Call was set to perform an entirely different script licensed by a different company. That issue is causing problems worldwide and might even end up in a court battle of its own.
Curtain Call was trying to produce the show using the script of Harper Lee’s iconic classic that was adapted by Christopher Sergel over 50 years ago. The new Broadway production was adapted by Aaron Sorkin and it’s much different than Sergel’s version. Harper Lee’s estate first gave worldwide rights to Sergel and Dramatic Publishing.
However, Scott Rudin and his lawyers are claiming that before her death, Harper Lee signed over exclusive worldwide rights to the title of the novel. Meaning that, according to Rudin, Sorkin’s script is the only version allowed to be performed. At this time, the Lee estate has not publicly confirmed or denied Rudin’s claims. It has been reported that Dramatic Publishing is exploring legal options to challenge Rudin’s claims.
While it’s not uncommon for rights to be restricted once a Broadway production is running, it is uncommon for entities like Rudin’s to send cease and desist letters to theatre companies who have already properly paid for the rights for an entirely different production owned by another licensing company.
Unfortunately, Rudin’s actions have resulted in local productions being cancelled not only in Braintree, MA but also Salt Lake City, UT. Even a United Kingdom touring production was forced to cancel their plans. According to a statement by Curtain Call, Rudin’s lawyers threatened damages up to $150,000 if the production continued. Obviously, a small local theatre doesn’t have the means to fight this, let alone pay the damages if they lose, so cancelling is the only option.
But some theatres are forging ahead with their productions. The Kavinoky Theatre in Buffalo, NY will proceed with a production of the Sergel version to run March 8-31. Loraine O’Donnell, executive artistic director, told the Salt Lake City Tribune, “We’re totally legal. The royalty company took our money, cashed our check.”
UPDATE: Sadly, the Kavinoky just announced that they had had to cancel their production as well.
In the past, I’ve written and reported on many theatres and schools performing unauthorized licensed material such as Hamilton, The Book of Mormon and Frozen. But this is a different story all together. You have theatres who have made all the proper and legal steps to obtain licensing however are being forced to shut down even though it’s a different adaptation. While Rudin may have legal right to do so, this just feels wrong and boorish. It feels as if producers of My Fair Lady would try to cancel local productions of Pygmalion.
Given that Rudin is planning on touring Sorkin’s production, it could be a long time before local companies are allowed to perform this piece. Which is a shame as it’s the type of show we need right now.