'To Kill a Mockingbird' Becomes Top-Grossing American Play in Broadway History

To Kill a Mockingbird-Jeff Daniels-Publicity Still-H 2018
Julieta Cervantes

Producer Scott Rudin and playwright Aaron Sorkin's blockbuster stage adaptation of the 1960 Harper Lee novel about racial injustice in the Jim Crow-era Deep South has surpassed $40 million in just 27 weeks.

Right on schedule, Scott Rudin's hot-ticket production of To Kill a Mockingbird has become the top-grossing American play in Broadway history, with cumulative box office as of Sunday hitting $40.1 million.

Last week marked the fourth new house record for a nonmusical in the 27 weeks since the play began performances at the Shubert Theatre, with grosses for the seven-day period of $1,767,464. The $40 million total does not include advance ticket sales, which bring the gross sales total to more than $55 million. The advance has consistently remained north of $20 million since the production opened Dec. 13 to superlative reviews.

Adapted by Aaron Sorkin from Harper Lee's 1960 novel about principled small-town Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch, who takes on the defense of a local black sharecropper falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1934, the drama has struck an emotional chord with audiences in a time of resurgent race-based intolerance and shocking hate crimes like the 2015 church shootings in Charleston, S.C., and the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., two years later.

The production also has acquired the status of event theater, with its rich thematic scope, its large cast of 23 and its ability to address topical themes in stirring theatrical fashion, while eloquently championing the virtues of human decency.

It has not played to an unsold seat at a single performance since the start of previews Nov. 1, registering the kind of weekly numbers more customary for a musical than a play, and recouping its entire $8 million investment just 19 weeks after its Dec. 13 official opening.

"The success of To Kill a Mockingbird so quickly out of the gate is — beyond our obvious pride in what we made — actually a testament to Harper Lee and the power of her novel," Rudin told The Hollywood Reporter. "Forty-five million copies is a lot of books, and we're the beneficiaries of what she created." 

The production's stratospheric sales now seem all the more remarkable given that, a little over a year ago, a lawsuit filed by the Lee estate threatened to derail the adaptation, claiming that Sorkin's script departed from the spirit of the novel. The dispute was settled in time for rehearsals to begin, though the terms were undisclosed.

"Given the travails we went through to get the play on, this is a satisfying landmark to have the play achieve," added Rudin. "It's been a huge pleasure for all of us from start to finish, even during the litigation, which in fact had the effect of bringing this group together immediately and decisively. The company of Mockingbird is a remarkable and passionately dedicated group of people — on stage and off — and given the likelihood at one moment that the play would open and close in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, this is a giant moment for all of us."

The show received nine Tony nominations, including Bartlett Sher for best direction, Jeff Daniels for lead actor, Celia Keenan-Bolger for featured actress and Gideon Glick for featured actor. Composer Adam Guettel also earned a nomination for best original score, making Mockingbird one of the rare nonmusicals to be recognized in that category.

In what was hands-down the biggest shocker of the nominations announcement, the production failed to land a best play nomination, leaving Sorkin shut out and radically altering the picture in what was widely predicted to be a two-horse race between Mockingbird and Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman, which also landed nine nods but trails far behind the Sorkin play in grosses.

Observers attribute the Sorkin snub to a quirk of the Tony Nominating Committee's anonymous voting system in an unusually crowded year for new plays, as well as the tendency to favor original works over adaptations. However, Mockingbird needs the marketing boost of Tony attention less than any play currently on the boards, and its track record as a bona fide Broadway smash should provide ample fuel for the two-year national tour, kicking off in August 2020 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Plans for a London production will be announced in the next few weeks.

The production takes the top-grossing American play spot from previous record holder It's Only a Play, the Terrence McNally backstage farce that made $37.5 million in a starry 2014 revival; followed by Proof, the 2000 drama from David Auburn that earned $32.9 million; and Tracy Letts' August: Osage County from 2007, which totaled $32.8 million. 

American plays trail behind London imports on Broadway, however, with the two-part J.K. Rowling wizardry sequel, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, leading by a wide margin with a current gross of $118.7 million. Other top-grossing Brit behemoths include War Horse with $75 million and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time with $68.3 million, totals that Mockingbird appears likely to hurdle before the end of the year.