You may only know Aaron Sorkin from his hit TV series (“The West Wing,” “The Newsroom”) and films (“Being the Ricardos,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7″). You may not know this prolific hitmaker’s first love is theater.

Sorkin’s big break, in fact, was his well-received 1989 Broadway play “A Few Good Men.” And his affinity for live drama will be on display at the Paramount Theatre (Oct. 11-16) in a tour of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” his adaptation of the Harper Lee novel about white, widowed lawyer Atticus Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1930s Alabama. Bartlett Sher, former artistic head of Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, directs.

While he usually crafts scripts from scratch, Sorkin made it clear in a recent interview that putting his own spin on Lee’s classic 1960 book, and bringing it to a diverse audience at this moment, has been a passion project for him.

“Aaron has mixed a perfect cocktail of empathy and outrage” in the play, says noted actor Richard Thomas, who stars as Finch in the tour. (The cast also includes Mary Badham, who played Finch’s daughter Scout in the 1962 movie of “Mockingbird.”)

The empathy is for those facing the brutal injustices of the Jim Crow era. And the outrage, by inference, is over the racial inequities and politically right-wing tilt of our own era.

Sorkin is no stranger to controversy over views expressed in his work. And before the play premiered on Broadway in 2018, the Harper Lee Estate sued to stop the production because it veered from the novel (unlike the Oscar-honored film of “Mockingbird,” starring Gregory Peck), particularly by depicting Finch as a more flawed figure. The suit was settled out of court, and the show opened as planned. 


In an interview with The Seattle Times, Sorkin discussed his evolving feelings about Lee’s novel, the campaigns to ban or restrict its use in classrooms, the challenges of adapting the story, and the play’s warm reception in New York and London. He also teased his next, very different project: a remake of a popular musical. (This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.)

“To Kill a Mockingbird” came out 60 years ago, and has been a favorite of so many adult and younger readers since then. What do you think of the numerous attempts to ban or restrict the book, including the Mukilteo School District’s 2022 decision to take it off the required reading list for middle schoolers?

That’s been troubling. There are those on the left who feel it’s a “white savior” story and want to ban it for that reason. And those on the right who feel it makes Jim Crow racism look bad. I think those are interesting conversations that shouldn’t be had by parents at school board meetings. They should be had by students and teachers in classrooms.

An earlier play, by Christopher Sergel, based on the novel was widely performed including in Seattle. How did you come to write a new adaptation?

I haven’t read or seen the Sergel play. The producer Scott Rudin told me after three years trying he’d secured the stage rights to the book. And Harper Lee, who was alive at the time, approved me as the playwright. I just knew it was a suicide mission. I’d ruin a lot of people’s childhoods! Why would I put on a 10-point PowerPoint presentation comparing Harper Lee’s talent and mine? But I said yes right away because I wanted to be back in the theater, doing a play, and this sounded like an exciting project.

You’ve said in interviews that your first draft was “terrible.” How so?


I tried to swallow the book whole, Bubble Wrap it and gently transfer it to the stage. It felt like a greatest hits album done by a cover band. What I had to do was stop doing a Harper Lee impersonation. And stop writing a play as if it was 1959.

Why did you decide to reframe the character of Atticus?

In the book and the movie, Atticus isn’t the protagonist. The protagonist has to be put through something and change. And he’s the same person in the book at the beginning and the end … I wanted the central protagonist to be Atticus. That meant he was going to have a flaw, and change.

Atticus does have a flaw. He believes goodness can be found in everyone … and he apologizes for terrible racism in his own community. He says you have to understand Bob Ewell [who accuses Tom of raping his daughter Mae] — Bob just lost his job, that makes a man feel small, in the Deep South things move slower here. That understanding was taught to us as a virtue. I wasn’t so sure it was. 

What is different about writing it in this era?

Today I feel like we thought we knew our friends and neighbors too. Like nothing that’s going on in this country now could possibly go on, but we were wrong. So that journey Atticus goes on felt very relevant to me, in light of the whole MAGA thing, the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor [killings], the Jan. 6 [insurrection].

You also reworked the Black characters. Why?

The book has two prominent [Black] characters, the housekeeper Calpurnia and Tom. It’s about racial tension in the Deep South in the 1930s. But neither of them has anything to say about that. I thought it was a waste. These were very valuable characters in the story. With Calpurnia I kind of used her to make the anti-white savior argument. 

Why was that important?

When I was young watching the movie with my [lawyer] father, our favorite scene was at the end of the trial, when the court empties after Tom is found guilty. All the Black residents of the town are sitting in the balcony, and stand silently in respect for Atticus as he walks out.


I liked that they were acknowledging Atticus as one of the good [white people]. I want to be acknowledged as one of the good ones. But to do that would mean all the Black people had to be standing there, docile, out of respect for the white guy who had, by the way, lost the case. They should be out in the street shouting “No justice, no peace!” Or burning down the courthouse.

How did you shift that, but still set the play in the 1930s?

I created this tension between Calpurnia and Atticus. When he tells her he’s defending Tom, he thinks she doesn’t show enough gratitude. As far as Tom goes, his undoing in the book is saying he felt sorry for Mae Ewell. That is the final nail in his coffin. In my play, Atticus warns him not to say that. But Tom does on the stand, not out of naiveté but because he’s a man who’s had enough. It’s a hero’s turn.

The play was a big hit before the pandemic shut down Broadway. What did you learn from the response?

It got a very powerful response every night, and still does. We also did a performance for 18,000 school kids at Madison Square Garden. It was the most profound experience I’d ever had in the theater. You could tell they want more plays, more theater. They were hanging on every word, every sentence. And it was the most diverse audience we ever had. 

I hear your next project is a new stage version of the musical “Camelot,” with Sher again as director.

Yes, we’re doing a final workshop soon. It will open on Broadway next spring. Bart’s a magnificent director who loves stagecraft as much as I do. The other thing that comes with Bart, frankly, is the cachet of Seattle. You come out of Seattle, it’s like coming out of Juilliard.

“To Kill a Mockingbird”

By Aaron Sorkin, adapted from Harper Lee’s novel. Oct. 11-16; Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; tickets start at $35;