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How Aaron Sorkin reworked 'To Kill a Mockingbird' for Broadway


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Finally, something old is new again and still relevant to these times.

It has been more than half-a-century since Harper Lee penned "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Our well-traveled and multitasking correspondent Jeffrey Brown is back again to tell us more about the reworked "To Kill a Mockingbird" staged on Broadway and up for a handful of Tony Awards next month.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeff Daniels: The defendant isn't guilty, but someone in this building is.

Jeffrey Brown:It's a new take on one of the most-beloved and well-known stories in American literature, "To Kill a Mockingbird," in Aaron Sorkin's Broadway adaptation of the Harper Lee classic.

Sorkin is creator of the hit TV show "The West Wing."

Jack Nicholson: Those walls have to be guarded by men with guns.

Jeffrey Brown: And writer of films including "A Few Good Men" and "The Social Network," which won him an Oscar.

When we met recently at the famed Sardi's Restaurant, he said he'd had two distinct reactions when the opportunity came to bring "Mockingbird" to Broadway.

Aaron Sorkin: My heart sank, because I thought, this is a suicide mission. I'm never going to get out of this alive.

Jeffrey Brown: Right.

Aaron Sorkin: And I was thrilled because of the opportunity to be doing a play, to be back in the theater. My first draft of the play reflected the heart-sinking part. I simply was trying to swaddle the book in bubble wrap and gently transfer it to a stage.

And the result was that first draft was tepid.

Jeff Daniels: It's a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Jeffrey Brown:The play he finally did write, starring Jeff Daniels, still focuses on Atticus Finch, the small town lawyer in Maycomb, Alabama, tasked with defending Tom Robinson, an African-American man wrongly accused of assaulting a white woman.

The story, set in the 1930s is still told from the point of view of Finch's young daughter, Scout, who learns important lessons about race, class and morality.

The book was first published in 1960. Two years later, it was made into an Academy Award-winning movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus.

Jeff Daniels called Sorkin's version a rethink. After getting the part, he read the book and rewatched the film.

Jeff Daniels: I wanted to see how he -- you know, he chose to do that that way, that way, that way. And you go, OK, thank you. Clocked it. Again, different medium, different script.

Jeffrey Brown:Different time.

Jeff Daniels: And different time.

Jeffrey Brown: Different time. That's -- because one of the big questions is doing "To Kill a Mockingbird" today.

Jeff Daniels: I think Harper Lee went as far as she could. Peck was -- it was written as the great white hero, savior, and that's what he played. That was the book. That was the movie.

Jeffrey Brown: How much change is allowed? That became a question last year, when Lee's estate sued, saying Sorkin's script unacceptably altered characters.

The suit was ultimately settled, and the show went on. Sorkin argued "Mockingbird" today should reflect an increased awareness of racism then and now. That meant a more meaningful role for the African-American characters.

The defendant, Tom Robinson, and Finch's maid, Calpurnia, who's played by LaTanya Richardson Jackson.

Jeff Daniels: Which means I don't want them hating people they disagree with.

LaTanya Richardson Jackson: You got to give Maycomb time, Cal. This is the Deep South. You got to give Maycomb time. Well, how much time would Maycomb like?

I didn't want her to be the magical Negro. Neither did I want her to just be scenery.

My coming to it was filled with what I would always hope that I knew about these women, that I knew about people who were in service. And if that was going to happen, then I was in. But if that wasn't what was happening...

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

LaTanya Richardson Jackson: ... the truth of who they really were, of their strength, of how philosophically they filled the void of living for most people then, then I wasn't in.

Jeff Daniels: He knew that a Negro man can't feel sorry for a white woman.

Jeffrey Brown: Sorkin decided the lead role of Atticus Finch had to shift too, with more of an arc from the play's beginning to its end.

Aaron Sorkin: Is he a bad lawyer who becomes a good lawyer, a bad father who becomes a good father, a racist who becomes someone who believes in justice and equality? Of course not. It's any of those.

I saw that I didn't have to give Atticus a flaw, that reading the book today, instead of back when I read it, he already had a couple. It's just that we were taught that they were virtues.

Atticus says you can find goodness in anyone. It's your job to get around inside their skin.

Jeffrey Brown: That assertion, Sorkin said, had an echo in President Trump's remarks after the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Violence erupted, leaving one woman dead.

The president famously said there were -- quote -- "very fine people on both sides."

Aaron Sorkin: I thought, wait, Atticus is suddenly -- I have some questions for Atticus. This was no longer an exercise in nostalgia. This wasn't a field trip to a museum. It wasn't an homage to one of America's favorite books. It was something new.

Jeff Daniels: So let's hasten the change. Let's hasten the end of the beginning. Let's do it right now in Maycomb. Let's begin by restoring this man to his family. Let's begin with justice.

It isn't enough for Atticus to lose the case and go back to his porch, get a bourbon or a tea and then solve the Boo Radley mystery and go to bed.

You have got -- what are you going to do? You're the hero. What are you going to do? What are you going to do about it? And he tries to stand for his beliefs. And then he finds out that maybe we can't wait for people to find the goodness in themselves.

Jeffrey Brown: For Celia Keenan-Bolger, who plays Scout, the play is still squarely Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," but she said Sorkin tugged at the themes most in need of examination today.

Celia Keenan-Bolger: I think it feels very fresh. While, you know, Harper Lee wrote it in 1960 about the '30s. And here we are doing it in 2019, looking back on 1960, looking back on 1930.

I mean, I think we -- it's old and new all at once, and that that's part of what makes it -- it's an enduring piece of literature, but it's also something that can withstand a production like this, which dares, I think, to draw out the relevancy of the themes that Harper Lee put down for -- in the first place.

Jeffrey Brown: Celia Keenan-Bolger received one of "To Kill a Mockingbird"'s nine Tony Award nominations.

Jeff Daniels: A man will have his dignity.

Jeffrey Brown: Also included, Jeff Daniels for best actor in a leading role.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown on Broadway.

Judy Woodruff: Old and new all at once.

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