This show, which closed on the road before reaching Broadway in 1971, carries a certain mystique among musical theater fans as perhaps the definitive example of a bad idea well-executed. Ken Mandelbaum, the world’s greatest acknowledged authority on Broadway flops, described it as “a grand attempt at the impossible”. The reason it failed should be fairly obvious from the title: it was a musical version of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, a book so scandalous in its subject matter that its title has become a universal byword for pedophilia in multiple cultures.
Of course, the primary basis and appeal of Nabokov’s original novel is the elaborate mind games it plays regarding the nature of fictional narrative. Most of this content is inevitably lost in a visual medium, so no musical (or film, for that matter) could ever fully adapt the novel. However, another Alan Jay Lerner show, Camelot, is also based on an ultra-complex novel that it had to heavily water down simply to fit its contents into three hours of theater, and it still succeeded, because what was left of the story was still interesting enough to justify the adaptation. And I’d argue the same holds true for the actual plot of Lolita, which is what is retained for the musical…the story of an ultra-erudite sociopathic pedophile who marries a woman in order to get at her preteen daughter, and his cross-country odyssey with the daughter in tow after her mother’s death. The problem with this story is not that it isn’t interesting enough to carry the musical…it’s that the story is so insanely audience-unfriendly, both in its outrageously shocking basic subject matter and in the sheer unpleasantness of its story details, that no matter how brilliant the writing was, no-one wanted to see it.
Most of this has to do with the central character of Humbert Humbert, and not just because of his attraction to underage girls. Humbert is so utterly self-involved and self-deluded, and his supposed “love” for Lolita so devoid of any real concern for her or anyone else, that the age difference is arguably not even the sickest thing about their “relationship”. Humbert describes, in the beautiful ballad “The Broken Promise Land of Fifteen”, his rationale for his perversion (an obsession with the memory of an adolescent crush that fled from him), but that doesn’t really explain everything that’s wrong with him: quite apart from his unlawful sexual proclivities, he is clearly a clinical sociopath, and you don’t get that from a lost love, however traumatic.
It’s a shame, because the show, unappealing as it is, is an amazing showpiece of theater writing. The book, written by the great Alan Jay Lerner, makes Humbert as vivid and complex in the nuances of his monstrousness as he was in the original novel (it’s worth noting that Nabokov’s entire reason for granting permission to produce the musical, against his better judgment, is that he was himself a huge fan of Lerner’s oeuvre).
The music, by famed film composer John Barry, is extremely accomplished and frequently gorgeous, and Lerner’s lyrics are absolutely dazzling. The numbers for Humbert and his unfortunate wife Charlotte are superb—Humbert’s haunting ballads “In the Broken Promise Land of Fifteen”, “Tell Me, Tell Me”, and “Lolita”; his dazzling dissertation on his chosen perversion “Dante, Petrarch, and Poe”; Charlotte’s irresistible showstopper “Sur le Quais”; “Farewell, Little Dream, Farewell”, perhaps the most loathsome villain song in Broadway history (all the more so because it’s being sung by the protagonist); and “How Far Is It to the Next Town?”, an extended musical scene for Humbert and Lolita designed to play like a waking nightmare. It might be a controversial statement, but I’d argue these numbers may well represent the best lyrics Lerner ever wrote for anything (and I’m including My Fair Lady in that statement).
Not that the show is perfect. The opening number for Humbert’s rival Clare Quilty, “Going, Going, Gone” is also quite fine (amazingly, it actually got a Pop recording by Shirley Bassey), but the numbers for Lolita herself and the ensemble are less interesting. And given that the show, like any Broadway-bound show that closes on the road, was never properly finished, there is some material (like Quilty’s “March Out of My Life”) that is a total waste of time and would assuredly have been cut had the show completed its journey to Broadway.
There is no official recording of the score (only a live bootleg that was apparently briefly available on the legitimate market before Lerner and co. found out about it), and the show has only seen one revival since its original production closed. And while we should probably all be grateful that it ever got revived at all in any form, the recent ‘Musicals in Mufti’ performance of the show was not entirely satisfactory. There are probably times in history since the show’s creation when a small-scale, limited engagement production of it might have been well received (after all, Sondheim’s Assassins has subject matter just as taboo, and it has managed to see some success over the years), but today’s political climate is not one of those times. As a result, the people behind this revival felt compelled to soften the material by introducing a framing device involving a female psychiatrist who consistently calls Humbert out on his bullshit accounts of what supposedly happened, and tacked on a new ending completely foreign to the spirit of Nabokov’s novel intended to give Humbert at least a small grain of potential sympathy. (They claimed to have found most of the alterations they made to the show in various unused drafts Lerner made of the libretto, but even if that’s true, there’s probably a reason most of these scenes never even made it into the tryout version.)
They also cast a twenty-something actress as Lolita, and while she worked hard at playing the part as convincingly as she could, it still kind of undermined the reality of the premise. By contrast, the original Lolita, Denise Nickerson, was only 13 years old. (You’ve probably seen Nickerson…she played Violet Beauregarde in the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which came out the same year as Lolita, My Love.)
None of these compromises actually made the show less shocking (the performance I saw still drew many an appalled gasp from the audience), but they did serve to water down its dramatic impact, in spite of a superb cast that could for the most part hold their own with the original leads. Robert Sella, the revival’s Humbert, sounds remarkably like John Neville on the original cast bootleg in both singing and acting, and The Band’s Visit alumnus George Abud was a show-stealing delight as Quilty. And while Jessica Tyler Wright offered a much more sympathetic interpretation of Charlotte than Dorothy Loudon’s raucously vulgar portrayal in the original, she nonetheless gave a powerful performance in the role. And as disappointing as that revival was, it doesn’t seem especially likely there will be another anytime soon, so this show will have to live on as a widely-coveted bootleg recording and a vivid theatrical legend.