The crowd at Madison Square Garden Wednesday. (Photo: Jenny Anderson)

“To Kill a Mockingbird” made history Wednesday afternoon when the play was performed in Madison Square Garden in front of approximately 18,000 New York City public school students. 

This is the first time a Broadway play or musical has appeared in the arena, which is typically home to the New York Knicks, New York Rangers and rock concerts. The full Broadway cast, led by Ed Harris as Atticus Finch, performed, with director Bartlett Sher, playwright Aaron Sorkin and producer Scott Rudin on hand to monitor the action.  

Unlike the play’s Broadway proscenium stage, Wednesday’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” was played on long rectangular stage in the center of Madison Square Garden, with four separate sections representing the front porch of the Finch home, the interior of the home, the courthouse and Tom Robinson’s jail cell. Cast members had rehearsed for about a month in a rehearsal space in Long Island City in preparation for the special performance. 

Video cameras were used to capture scenes at the far ends of the stage and the images were projected on four screens throughout the auditorium. 

As is the case with many school-aged audiences, the reactions to dramatic moments in the play were bigger than with the typical Broadway crowd. Screams began as the ensemble cast members first approached the stage and reached a fever pitch when Atticus Finch began to fight Bob Ewell in the second act. Students reacted with soft “awws” to Dill Harris’s more tender moments and with loud boos to the Ewell family’s racist diatribes. 

Moments of the play were accompanied by the singing of school choirs seated in the audience. 

The performance was free to New York middle school and high school students from all five boroughs through a partnership between the Madison Square Garden Company and “To Kill a Mockingbird” producers. The impetus for bringing “To Kill a Mockingbird” to the Garden was to open up the play to a younger and more diverse audience, which has a been a goal of Rudin’s since the beginning of the production, according to a spokesperson for “To Kill a Mockingbird.” 

The production took on personnel and rehearsal costs and Madison Square Garden provided the arena rent free and covered in-house expenses for the three days of arena preparation. 

“We have been honored to join Scott Rudin, Barry Diller and the Department [of] Education in offering this very special event, which we hope marks the beginning of a new tradition of Broadway at The Garden, for the benefit of our city’s students,” James L. Dolan, executive chairman and chief executive of the Madison Square Garden Company, said in a press release.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” opened at the Shubert Theatre on Dec. 13, 2018 and has been maintaining high grosses and high capacity throughout its run. It announced the recoupment of its $7.5 million capitalization in April 2019. Before coming to Broadway, however, the production had been flagged by lawsuits filed by the Harper Lee estate over Sorkin’s adaptation. The matter was later settled. 

The production also faced pushback from community theaters across the country after the theaters were not allowed to perform Christopher Sergel’s 1991 adaptation of the play due to the first-class production running in New York. Rudin later offered those community theaters the ability to perform the Sorkin play. 

The production has also claimed Wednesday’s event saw “the largest attendance at a single performance of a theatrical work ever in world theater.” Presented with that claim, Professor Eric Csapo, an expert in ancient theatre at the University of Warwick, noted that the theater of Megalopolis, built in the fourth century B.C, had seating for 20,000 and that larger theaters were built in Roman times. 

In modern history, however, only the Hollywood Bowl, which lists a capacity of 17,500 and the Muny, the 11,000-seat outdoor amphitheater in St. Louis, come close to Wednesday’s predicted attendance. Closer to home, Kevin Spacey’s solo show “Clarence Darrow” played Arthur Ashe Stadium in 2017, drawing crowds of more than 4,000, according to the New York Times

Load-in of the “To Kill a Mockingbird” set — which took nine hours — preparation for the stage and lighting programming started two days prior to Wednesday afternoon’s performance, according to a spokesperson for Madison Square Garden. The production planned to load-out the set after the performance Wednesday. 

The performance was introduced by Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray. Spike Lee, who has been tapped to direct the live capture of “American Utopia,” also spoke, noting that he had also been a public school student in New York. He credited his career in film, in part, to his mother bringing him to Broadway shows when he was younger. 

“Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t be an artist,” Lee said.