NEW YORK - The cast of "To Kill a Mockingbird" ditched its somber Broadway home Wednesday for the cavernous Madison Square Garden, performing the play for 18,000 school kids in an electric one-time-only performance that one actor called "primal."
It marks the first time a Broadway play has been performed at the venue nicknamed "The World's Most Famous Arena," which is home to the New York Knicks and Rangers. The last line of the play is "All rise" and the students did exactly that, giving it a standing ovation and a hearty thank you.
"I loved the book in middle school when I read it and seeing it live and seeing the characters come to life, it's so much more real," said Alissa DiCristo, 17. "It makes you feel so much more."
The play's usual Broadway home is the 1,435-seat Shubert Theatre, where it's routinely sold out. But thousands of middle and high school students from all five boroughs got to see it for free, courtesy of the Scott Rudin-led production and James L. Dolan, executive chairman and CEO of The Madison Square Garden Company. The tickets were distributed by the city's education department. Free popcorn and bottles of water were also offered on the way out.
The audience this time surrounded the stage and, in the moments before the play, started using the flashlight feature on their phones to make patterns and signals, turning the Garden into a tapestry of lights, like a forest ignited with fireflies.
As the play progressed, the students clapped, booed, cheered and gasped, even erupting in the same pitched excitement as a buzzer-beating 3-point basket when the stately Atticus Finch wrestled with the evil Bob Ewell. At other times, the Garden was completely silent as it felt like 18,000 young people held their breaths, particularly during courtroom scenes.
"We did say how we feel and each and everyone was respectful, too, when they needed to," said 17-year-old Eric Meza, who had his first experience with a Broadway show. "It was just an amazing experience."
"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and has been widely praised as a sensitive portrait of racial tension in 1930s Alabama. At its core is Finch, a lawyer called upon to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin adapted Lee's play and it crackles with current issues: institutional racism, a flawed criminal justice system, police misconduct, sexual assault and standing against evil. Ripples of anger coursed through the crowd when racial epithets were used.
"I feel like it targeted a lot of prominent issues in today's society and it really did speak to me," said Ambria Creary, 17. "Definitely there were parts where you had to react because it hurt so bad to even imagine it happening today."
The entire current Broadway cast performed the show, led by Ed Harris as Finch. They practiced for the Garden show in a warehouse in Long Island City, preparing to work on their new space, a stage measuring 90 feet in length by 40 feet in width.
Despite the size, the actors kept the experience intimate, rolling pieces of equipment onstage and helping put away props. Some, when not on stage, sat in chairs or a bench waiting for their cues. At one point, Nick Robinson, who played Jem, gave Lisa Gay Hamilton, who played Calpurnia, a gentle hug after a powerful scene.
"It was magical. It felt like what theater used to like be thousands of years ago," said actor Taylor Trensch, who played Dill Harris. "It's something I'll remember forever."
Mayor Bill de Blasio and city first lady Chirlane McCray introduced the show, urging the students to think about the themes of the play and urging them to embrace the arts. "You are part of history today," McCray said. Director Spike Lee, a die-hard Knicks fan, said: "Don't let anyone tell you you can't be artists. Follow your dreams."
While Sorkin's script wasn't altered, the staging had to adapt to the hulking space. Eight cameras captured the action and beamed it onto four massive screens so everyone could see small details.
The stage arrived in about 100 pieces and took four hours in install, including the jury box, which remains empty throughout, a signal that the audience also is complicit in the trial. On Wednesday, director Bartlett Sher paced along one side of the stage during the performance, helping actors with their sound equipment and cheering them on.
Trensch thought back to his own youth and didn't initially know if the three-hour play would capture the attention of the children. He needn't have worried.
"It was almost primal," he said. "There was like an electrical charge in the air that you don't get at the Shubert Theatre."