National News

Trial Date Set for Dispute Over Broadway ‘Mockingbird’

Posted April 30, 2018 10:37 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — There are few theatrical venues more off-Broadway than a 15th-floor room inside the federal courthouse on Pearl Street in Manhattan. But lawyers discussed with a judge on Monday whether that may be the venue where Aaron Sorkin’s anticipated new production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is first performed.

The executor of the estate of Harper Lee, who wrote the beloved novel, has complained that Sorkin’s adaptation is not faithful to the spirit of the book, as the producers of the upcoming Broadway show had promised it would be. One part of the legal dispute was before Judge Analisa Torres of U.S. District Court in Manhattan who on Monday set a date of June 4 for a trial that could determine whether the producers have broken their pledge.

Afterward, lawyers for both sides discussed with a magistrate judge, Stewart Aaron, whether a performance for a jury might be employed in the proceedings over the dispute, which is being waged simultaneously in New York and Alabama.

The executor of Lee’s estate filed a suit in Alabama in March, seeking a finding that the script has strayed too far from the novel. But the play’s producers asked for that suit to be dismissed, then sued the executor and the estate in New York in April, saying the Alabama suit had threatened the future of the production. The only way to avert a catastrophic loss, they said, and rescue the play would be for a trial in New York to quickly resolve the dispute.

Lawyers for the executor on Monday asked Torres to allow the Alabama court to lead the way in determining the play’s future. “This court should await that decision,” said Matthew H. Lembke for the estate and its executor, Tonja B. Carter.

Torres said that if a judge in Alabama decides to let that suit go forward, then that is where the dispute could be resolved. She added, though, that the production company, Rudinplay, had raised questions about whether Alabama was the proper venue, and the parties should prepare for a trial in New York.

“Plaintiff has a compelling need for speedy resolution,” she said, adding that the case would proceed in New York if the suit in Alabama is dismissed.

The play, which has been scheduled to open in December starring Jeff Daniels in the role of Atticus Finch, has been in the works since 2015, when Lee signed an agreement giving Rudinplay the right to “adapt the novel into a live stage play.” The agreement paid Lee $100,000 for a 24-month option and stated that the play could “not derogate or depart” from the spirit of the book or alter its characters.

The producers offered to put on a courthouse performance of the legal drama in their original filings. That discussion continued Monday with Aaron. One possibility discussed was videotaping a performance, perhaps in advance of a live version to be later put on in court. At one point, Lembke told the judge that he thought someone from his side should be present to watch any performance being recorded.

Aaron indicated that he was not inclined to grant that request.

“In the court’s view you are asking to get backstage,” he said, adding: “You have to stay out in the mezzanine.”