‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ just turned 60. Inside this Utah theater’s 4-year battle to tell the story
It’s been a winding road of highs and lows, but looking back it at all, Seth Miller believes the messages behind ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ — a story that opened his own eyes as a preteen — made the production worth fighting for
SALT LAKE CITY — Seth Miller was in the seventh grade when he entered the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, for the first time.
There, through the pages of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Miller met Atticus Finch, a lawyer with dry wit and a commitment to racial equality. He met Atticus’ daughter, Scout, a confident and precocious tomboy.
And he met Tom Robinson, an honest Black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.
At 12 years old, Miller recognized the injustice of Robinson’s situation.
“It was a very impactful story to me,” he told the Deseret News. “It made me just more aware of how racism still exists and how we have to actively try to overcome that in our society. It was a very important story for me.”
Saturday marks 60 years since “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published. Over the years, Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that tackles racism has come under scrutiny. It’s been banned from schools due to racial epithets, profanity and its discussion of rape — in one early case, a school board in Virginia even called the book “immoral.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” has also been criticized for perpetuating the “white savior” trope through Atticus’ character and leaving Black characters relegated to the margins in a story about oppression.
But for all the criticism, “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains a staple in American literature and has even found heightened relevance lately as protests throughout the country demand racial justice, according to Miller.
“It’s still an issue 60 years later,” he said. “It’s really actually very sad.”
Miller has spent several years trying to bring the classic story to the Grand Theatre in Salt Lake City. Most recently, the theater was producing Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” — a newer version that calls into question Atticus’ viewpoints and expands the roles of the story’s Black characters.
But after scheduling conflicts, copyright issues and a pandemic, Miller, the theater’s artistic and executive director, had to cut his losses. On June 30, just a few days before the theater’s long-awaited premiere of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Miller announced that the spike in COVID-19 cases made it “impossible” for the theater to continue forward with the production — on the day of that announcement, Utah reported 553 new cases and four more deaths.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” was officially canceled.
“I’ve always wanted to do the show because the story personally means something to me,” he said. “It’s an American classic, and we really wanted to bring it to life to our audience and our community. But after three times, we just said, ‘We’re not even going to try again.’”
A legal drama
It started four years ago.
Miller and director Mark Fossen began talking about staging “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the first time at the Grand Theatre.
Their plan got put on hold, though, when Hale Centre Theatre announced it would be bringing Christopher Sergel’s long-standing adaptation of the story to its stage in 2017. Miller didn’t want to do it at the same time, so the Grand Theatre secured the rights with Dramatic Publishing to put on the production for the following season.
Rehearsals were underway for a spring 2019 run when Miller received a cease-and-desist letter from a Broadway production company headed by Scott Rudin, who at the time was producing Sorkin’s newer version on Broadway.
Rudin argued that Lee had “signed over to him exclusive worldwide rights to the title of the novel,” according to The Associated Press, and that the Broadway adaptation was the only version allowed to be performed.
He threatened Miller with legal action if the Grand Theatre didn’t cancel its show.
“We were actually kind of prepared to fight it because we thought we had pretty good legal ground to stand on,” Miller said. “But the expense of a lawsuit and stuff like that, that just made it impossible for us.”
The Salt Lake City venue wasn’t the only casualty. Dozens of community and nonprofit theaters across the country were forced to cease production, according to the Associated Press. But after receiving public backlash — including an online call to #BoycottRudinplays — Miller said Rudin’s company “softened,” extending an olive branch of sorts and offering the affected theaters the rights to produce Sorkin’s newer version.
The show was back on again.
A newer story
Sorkin’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” version premiered on Broadway in 2018. Prior to its debut, Miller said the adaptation ran into issues with Lee’s estate because the script strayed from the novel — especially when it came to Atticus’ character.
In Sorkin’s adaptation, the Finches’ Black housekeeper, Calpurnia, has a greater role and blatantly challenges Atticus’ views.
“Her role is greatly expanded, and there’s a lot more dialogue ... between Calpurnia and Atticus,” Miller said. “Atticus is still his kind of, ‘There’s good in everybody and we have to try and see everybody’s points of view,’ and Calpurnia really kind of takes him to task in this version: ‘No, that’s not true and that’s not OK. And some people don’t have good in them and you can’t try to justify their actions.’”
Tom Robinson’s character also has more of a voice and plays a larger role in Sorkin’s version.
And as a whole, Miller said, the adaptation “more bluntly hits the nail on the head,” mentioning issues that were merely implied in the earlier version.
At the same time, though, Miller was surprised that Sorkin’s version only included two roles for people of color — the earlier version had four.
“The roles that are there are greatly expanded, but there are fewer of them,” he said. “That was one of the problems I had with the original. It was a story about this black man on trial for his life, and there were only four people of color in the whole cast. I thought there would be more expanded roles. But other than that I think it’s a well-written, good show.”
The Grand Theatre cast went to work putting the new production together. The theater planned to premiere it in March.
And then the pandemic hit.
Rehearsals were once again underway when Miller made the decision to shut down and postpone the production until July due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
“We thought, ‘That’s four months away. That’s plenty of time,’” he said.
With safety precautions in place — and a July 2 premiere date in sight — rehearsals eventually resumed. One major change this time around included Fossen, the director, taking on the role of Atticus since the previous actor, Paul Kiernan, had to drop out when the Actors’ Equity union wouldn’t allow members to sign contracts amid the pandemic.
“It broke our hearts, because he really was doing such a phenomenal job,” Miller said. “Our entire cast, I really can’t thank them enough for the phenomenal job that they did.”
As the pandemic continued, the theater staff disinfected stage props and wiped down surfaces. The performers wore masks during rehearsals. They even planned to wear masks during the actual performances. A costume designer created masks out of fabric true to the “To Kill a Mockingbird” time period, with the goal of blending in and being as “unobtrusive as possible,” Miller said.
But as rehearsals carried on, COVID-19 numbers continued rising. On June 30, Miller made the final cancellation. It was an emotional decision for him, Fossen, the cast and everyone involved.
“It was extremely difficult. We felt like we’ve worked so hard for this for so long. We were so close,” Miller said. “I think there’s probably a pretty low chance that anybody would’ve gotten sick, … but too many of the cast were just too scared to continue. We didn’t want to put anybody in a situation where they’re coming some place five days a week where they’re terrified to be there.”
At the moment, the theater — which is currently planning on returning in February — doesn’t have plans to revive “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The Broadway touring production of the show comes to the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City next August.
“I don’t think that less than a year out from their touring production they would allow a local company to do it,” Miller said. “That just doesn’t make sense for them.”
It’s been a winding road of highs and lows, but looking back at it all, Miller believes the messages behind “To Kill a Mockingbird” — a story that opened his own eyes as a preteen — made the production worth fighting for.
“I think it was worth it, all the heartache and the stress and the headache,” he said. “My beard is much more gray than it was a year ago, but I wouldn’t have done anything different.”