MARBLEHEAD — A Broadway production of "To Kill A Mockingbird" is playing to sold-out crowds and drawing rave reviews in New York City. But that hasn't stopped the show's producers from finding time to clamp down on a small amateur acting troupe in Marblehead.
A company formed by the producer of the Broadway hit is threatening to sue the Mugford Street Players if the group goes ahead with its planned version of "To Kill A Mockingbird" at Marblehead Little Theatre.
In a letter to Mugford Street Players President John Fogle, a lawyer for Atticus Limited Liability Company said the Marblehead performances would constitute "willful infringement of copyright" and subject the nonprofit group to damages of up to $150,000.
The threat forced the Mugford Street Players to cancel the production on Friday, a week before it was scheduled to open on March 1.
"It's a huge disappointment," said Fogle, who was also the play's director. "I've been directing for 40 years and done over 80 productions and I've never had this happen."
Fogle said the Mugford Street Players purchased a license to stage "To Kill A Mockingbird" from Dramatic Publishing Company of Illinois, paying $100 per performance for 12 shows, or $1,200.
Dramatic Publishing Company created a theatrical adaptation of the famous novel for amateur performances in the 1990s after an agreement with author Harper Lee. But Jonathan Zavin, a lawyer for Atticus LLC, said in his letter to Fogle that the agreement prohibits amateur performances within 25 miles of major cities if a version of the play leased by Lee to another company is playing in New York or is on tour.
Producer Scott Rudin acquired the stage rights for the novel in 2015. His Broadway version, written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, opened on Nov. 1 and is "expected to run for years," Zavin wrote in his letter to Fogle.
"Any public performance of the (play) in your theater during the Sorkin play's run would infringe the exclusive rights granted to Atticus, and would constitute willful infringement of copyright, which would subject your theater to both damages (up to $150,000 for willful copyright infringement), as well as attorney's fees and costs," Zavin wrote.
Fogle said it's not unusual for an amateur show's rights to be pulled when a professional production comes to a nearby city. But he said it was very unusual for a "blackout" to be imposed within 25 miles of any major city, regardless of where the professional production is being staged.
"The rationale is that we damage the marketability of the Broadway production with our production," he said. "It's really kind of ridiculous."
Fogle's point is highlighted by the fact that Stage 284 at the Community House, which is based in Hamilton, staged five productions of "To Kill A Mockingbird" in January.
Stage 284 Managing Director Katie Clarke said she also licensed the show from Dramatic Publishing Company, but never heard anything about a copyright infringement.
Clarke said she's not sure if it's because Hamilton is farther than 25 miles from Boston. By one Google Maps measure, the Community House is 25.8 miles from Boston; Marblehead Little Theater is about 16 miles from Boston.
"I applied for the rights after it was announced on Broadway and no one ever pulled them from us," Clarke said. "I'm not sure exactly how many miles we are from Boston. I'm not exactly sure why we weren't revoked."
Christopher Sergel, president of Dramatic Publishing Company, could not be reached for comment.
Fogle said a cast of 33 had been rehearsing for six weeks, and a crew of about 10 had been designing costumes and building sets. The cast and crew are all volunteers, and range in age from 14 to 75.
He said the theater had sold "quite a few" tickets for the shows and is refunding the money.
Marblehead is not the first victim of copyright infringement threats from the Broadway show. A scheduled tour of "To Kill A Mockingbird" in England and Ireland was cancelled last month, according to published reports.
Fogle said he and Mugford Street Players producer Greg Mancusi-Ungaro have not given up on staging "To Kill A Mockingbird." They are now looking for a theater outside the 25-mile limit where they could possibly hold the play this spring.
"We have a wonderful cast, ready to tell an incredible story to audiences," Fogle said. "It would be a sin not to let them finish the job."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.