bad ideas

Yes, They Once Tried to Make a Broadway Musical Out of Lolita

Yeesh. Photo: John Barry

Alan Jay Lerner needed a hit. The Broadway lyricist and librettist was a decade removed from his greatest successes, when his partnership with composer Frederick Loewe produced something approaching unholy alchemy. It began with Brigadoon (1947), continued with Paint Your Wagon (1951), turned stratospheric with My Fair Lady (1956), and was still going strong on the Great White Way when Camelot opened in 1960. And for good measure, there was Lerner & Loewe’s score for the 1958 film musical Gigi, known as much for its lush cinematography depicting 19th-century Paris as for Maurice Chevalier’s queasy opening number, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.”

But 1960 was 11 years past. Tastes were changing on Broadway, and Lerner was not equipped to write the next Hair or Company or, heaven knows, Oh! Calcutta. He married and divorced and married and divorced (the fourth and fifth marriages of his eight) and got hooked on amphetamines. His next musical project, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, in 1965, had a fantastic score by Burton Lane and Barbara Harris in the lead, but it was a soft success. A “strained and muddled” libretto helped scuttle its Broadway run after a year and a half — a far cry from Camelot’s 873 performances. The less said about Coco (1969), starring Katharine Hepburn as Chanel, the better. The musicals Lerner excelled at had abruptly become passé, and they didn’t make bank.

Then one of Lerner’s assistants had a left-field suggestion: What about adapting Lolita?

Vladimir Nabokov’s novel had been a best seller upon its 1958 American release. The 1962 film directed by Stanley Kubrick had done decent box office. There was a pedigree, a track record. And a promotional poster of Sue Lyon sucking on a bright-red lollipop, peering out a car window through equally brilliant-red, heart-shaped sunglasses, likely better remembered than the film. There were so many signs that pointed to success for the musical — a venerated writer, a rising-star composer, a strong cast, a good score — but ultimately there were many more leading to disaster. Yet Lerner did not balk; instead, he dived in.

“I think that the story [of Lolita] is much more pertinent now than when the film was made,” Alan Jay Lerner told the Philadelphia Inquirer in early 1971. “Humbert is such a tragic, flawed, misplaced romantic, lost in post-World War II. There are countless men like him over 40 who find it impossible to wake up in the morning and not blink once or twice at the life facing them.”

Lerner’s view of Lolita owed entirely to Kubrick’s film. It’s been suggested that Lerner did not even read Nabokov’s novel. Perhaps tellingly, the lyricist’s archives at the Library of Congress include a copy of Nabokov’s Oscar-nominated screenplay but not the book itself.

By June 1970, Lerner was deep into the first draft of what was then called My Lolita, writing lyrics for Humbert Humbert to sing, like “While you are still / All fluff and frill / That little girls are known for” and — in the number “I’ve Found You at Last,” where he confronts Quilty — “You odious, unspeakable, Yosemite of sleaziness! / I’ve got you at last. / You hideous, contaminated Switzerland of cheesiness! / I’ve got you at last.” He’d also chosen his composer, John Barry, for being “a contemporary man” — Barry was 37 to Lerner’s 51 — and for his scores for Midnight Cowboy and Born Free. (He’s best known for orchestrating the theme for the James Bond films.)

To produce, Lerner turned to Norman Twain, whose theater and film credits would run the gamut from success (Lean on Me, The World of Charles Aznavour, The Hotel New Hampshire) to failure (John Guare’s Cop-Out). Twain, in turn, sought out Broadway veterans, including the choreographer Jack Cole, and neophytes, such as New York City opera artistic director Tito Capobianco. CBS Records, then run by Clive Davis, came in as the primary backer.

Most of the principals were cast quickly. John Neville, a Shakespearean actor, won the role of Humbert, though not before Twain and Lerner put out feelers for Peter Sellers (“He is very intrigued with the idea of playing Humbert on B’way”), Peter O’Toole (“as far as I can tell, O’Toole is available”), and Richard Burton, who publicly declined. Dorothy Loudon, later a Broadway star as Miss Hannigan in the original Annie, wowed in her audition for Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother, securing the part. Lorna Luft took on the role of Dolores’s best friend, Mona Dahl.

Leonard Frey, fresh off The Boys in the Band and shooting the role of the tailor Motel Kamzoil in Fiddler on the Roof, beat out dozens — including David Carradine (“lovely easy integrated folk sing sound”), Soupy Sales (“juvenile approach to comedy – as expected!”), and George Carlin (“Reading: amateur, [no good]”) — for the role of Clare Quilty.

Even Vladimir Nabokov himself gave the musical his blessing when Lerner visited him in Montreux, Switzerland, in August 1970. “It’s in the best of hands,” he told his former student Alfred Appel within weeks of Lerner’s visit, despite Appel’s “disapproving” look at the news.

But one pivotal part was left to cast: that of Lo herself. The choice of a Dolores Haze would be a harbinger of all the problems yet to come for the show now known as Lolita, My Love.

Between 2 and 5 p.m. on a mid-November day in 1970, dozens of girls and women between the ages of 10 and 21 gathered at the Billy Rose Theater for their shot at theatrical stardom. “I wouldn’t like to be Lolita, but I’d still like to play the part,” one 13-year-old told the Associated Press reporter observing the spectacle, unknowingly mirroring Tuesday Weld’s line when asked why she turned down the role in Kubrick’s film: “I didn’t have to play Lolita. I was Lolita.”

“There’s a wickedness wherever you go,” said the mother of one aspirant, 14-year-old Verna Harrison. “It’s just lucky that my daughter only play-acts it.” Verna didn’t get the part, despite eliciting an approving “Fourteen? No kidding” reaction from the all-male judges — Twain and two of Lerner’s production assistants, Grey Kayne and Stone Widney — when she took off her coat to reveal a “tight copper blouse, pale face, hair the color of filaments in a turned-on toaster.”

Widney, in a “pleasant, guidance counselor voice,” oozed charm toward one 15-year-old, Teresa Conforti. “I don’t think you’re right for Lolita but we might have something else for you. And don’t wear makeup next time.”

“I wanted to look sexy,” said Conforti.

“You look sexy anyway.”

But, in the minds of the men who had the power to decide, that was the problem. The girls were too sexy, or not sexy enough. Too tall or too short, too busty or too flat-chested, too heavy or too emaciated. “We’ve got to have a girl who makes a man forget the moral conventions of society,” Twain complained. “But it’s got to be a complete mental situation. If Lolita is 5-foot-5 with a great figure, it would be perfectly normal for Humbert to go after her.”

Twain wanted to “rule out anything that looks normal.” The ideal Lolita, at least for a short while, turned out to live in Los Angeles: 16-year-old Annette Ferra, an actress and singer who once opened for Buffalo Springfield and later guest-starred on The Brady Bunch. Ferra looked a lot like Sue Lyon. She also gave similar responses about how Humbert Humbert viewed Lolita: “Oh, no, there’s nothing dirty about what Humbert does,” she told the Associated Press. “It’s not a crime. In the end Humbert is cured. It’s just a love story.”

Annette Ferra in 1971, as she appeared on the sitcom Nanny and the Professor. Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

And Ferra “confided” to the Daily News that before being cast, she received letters from a boy her age “who always starts with ‘Dear Lolita.’” Then, it solidified her belief that boys her age weren’t worth it: “I prefer older men, in their 20s.” (What Ferra, now a casting director and writer who works under the name Chris Gilmore, may think of these quotes today remains to be seen: She did not respond to telephone and emailed requests for comment.)

As Lolita, My Love prepared for its February 15 opening at the Shubert Theater in Philadelphia, Norman Twain went into promotion overdrive. Of course he told a Camden Courier-Post reporter that the show was “the best thing Alan’s ever done … including My Fair Lady” and that Lerner and John Barry “are going to be the team of the ’70s … as renowned as Lerner and Lowe [sic] or as Rodgers and Hammerstein.” Of course he would insist the show had “no controversy, no nudity, no four-letter words. Nothing which compromises the taste of Nabokov.”

Where things grew strange was when the reporter, Craig Waters, asked about the moral of Lolita. “The moral,” said Twain, “is that total obsession — with anything — destroys a person … whether the obsession is a little girl or a philosophy.” Did Twain have any personal obsessions of his own? Like, for example, underage girls? “[Could I be] involved with a nymphet? Yeah, I could be — absolutely! There are certain types of girls — little girls — nymphets, that, all else being equal, would turn me on. If you met them in a motel by chance … But I haven’t fallen yet. I’ve been playing it pretty straight. My wife prefers it that way.”

Twain’s public bravado and skeezy comments covered up problems. Jack Cole, the original choreographer, never showed up for rehearsal. Danny Daniels, his replacement, retooled the ballet sequences so completely that one of the principal dancers, Dan Siretta, chose to sit it out despite his contract requiring he stay with the show for a minimum of six months.

Evening after evening, the cast and crew convened at nearby bars and — uncharacteristically for theater people — spent their drinking time trying to figure out what the show was all about, “the last thing you usually want to talk about,” Siretta, now 80, told me in a recent interview. “John Neville kept saying, ‘There’s nobody really to root for. Nobody to care about. You care about the child — the victimization of this child. But the play…’ Everybody was reading the novel. In Philly, everyone was fixing the book in their own head.”

Lerner kept changing Lolita, My Love’s book, moving around scenes and reworking dialogue. None of it helped. The first round of out-of-town reviews was brutal. “In its present form, which will doubtlessly be drastically altered before it leaves town, the show is only a ghost of Nabokov’s comic masterpiece,” judged the Inquirer’s William Collins. Ernest Scheier of the Evening Bulletin was even more forthright: “The kindest thing that can be said about the new musical is that it is a disaster.”

Lolita, My Love would not, in fact, make it to Broadway by March 30. “The show didn’t work technically,” Twain told an interviewer on February 18. “And when things don’t work technically, nothing goes right.” Twain fired Tito Capobianco and replaced him with a British director, Noel Willman.

Lorna Luft’s role was cut so she, too, left the show. “While I don’t think that a musical of Lolita was a good idea, I thought the show was great — I was 19; what did I know? — and was devastated when they let me go,” Luft said in 2011. And Annette Ferra was fired for, according to one gossip column, “looking 24 when she was supposed to be 16.”

After a new round of auditions — including a young Sissy Spacek — Lerner and Twain picked the “damn good” Denise Nickerson, a four-foot-nine-inch, 75-pound 13-year-old who had starred on the soap opera Dark Shadows and had just wrapped production on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as the gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde. (Neither Ferra nor Nickerson, who recently had a stroke, responded to comment requests for this story.)  

Danny Daniels also exited, giving Dan Siretta his first gig as choreographer. The dance sequence that proved so troublesome when he was set to play Quilty now worked when he directed Leonard Frey: “I laid this thing out like I had been doing it a hundred years. I don’t know where it came from.” The “thing” took its cues from German Expressionism. Lerner believed, as did Siretta, that audiences would only buy into the retooled musical if it veered far away from realism. That’s what the next tryout, at the Shubert Theatre in Boston, was for.

But Lolita, My Love had already lost more than $650,000, and Boston cost another quarter million. Despite retooling and revising, despite Loudon’s first-act showstopper “Sur Le Quais de Ramsdale, Vermont” garnering near-universal praise for her Piaf-ish turn (so much so that, according to Loudon, several comment cards collected from the audience said that the show “would be better if Loudon’s character didn’t die at the end of the first act”), despite Neville and Frey’s consistently good performances and Nickerson’s pluck, the reviews once more ranged from mixed to terrible. The Associated Press judged it to have “some good music and some fine wit, but it is done in by the plot.”

The Boston Globe was less kind: “I’m afraid it’s going to be a case of better never than late,” said its reviewer, Kevin Kelly. The Record-American’s Elliot Norton couldn’t figure out if the musical “is to be taken as face, or melodrama, or satire, or just a dirty musical comedy.” And the Harvard Crimson was positively brutal: “It needs style and taste and depth, and these are things which Alan Jay Lerner’s idea of theater evidently can no longer offer.”

The Boston run of Lolita, My Love ended after a mere nine performances — though one of them was recorded at decent enough quality to be preserved by the New York Public Library (and widely available on YouTube.) The total gross was $14,505.

Alan Jay Lerner still did not give up. He vented to Loudon in a letter that “there’s a conspiracy somewhere against decent people.” Lerner secreted himself at his Oyster Bay writing shed to retool the libretto, and once again changed the title. Light of My Life went through at least two more drafts, in April and June of 1971.

Between those drafts, as reported by gossip columnists Joyce Haber and Leonard Lyons, Lerner went to London to coax Rex Harrison into playing Humbert Humbert and Hayley Mills into starring as Dolores Haze. Such a cast might, despite the earlier disasters, make a fall Broadway debut more palatable, and perhaps recoup the nearly $1 million of lost investments.

It was not to be. After so many attempts to mount a musical version of Lolita, the project was well and truly dead by the summer of 1971. Chief among those relieved: Vladimir Nabokov. Though he had been charitable at the time, Nabokov’s opinion soured by the time he told the New York Times that October: “If they’re going to do it someday, they’re going to do it. So I had better be around when they do it — not only to criticize the thing, but also to explain that I have nothing to do with it.”

Nabokov hadn’t seen either the Philadelphia or the Boston versions (“I have spies I incited to go see it”), but that did not make his his opinions less definitive, especially on the casting of Annette Ferra and Denise Nickerson. “Both girls — the one they fired and the one who replaced her — were awful; little bosomy girls, the wrong type altogether,” said Nabokov.

The New York Daily News covers the show, February 16, 1971. Photo: NYDN/Newspapers.com

Lerner himself had moved on to another project: a musical film adaptation of The Little Prince, which reunited him with Loewe for the penultimate time (there would be one last hurrah in 1973 for the stage version of Gigi). Neither man was happy with the end result, and The Little Prince flopped. Loewe resumed his Palm Springs retirement, and Lerner never had a successful Broadway show again, despite working with great partners such as Leonard Bernstein, Burton Lane, and Charles Strouse.

Only six months earlier, when Lolita, My Love had opened in Philadelphia, Lerner seemed to foreshadow the outcome. Parroting advice he had received from a friend, Lerner said: “The first thing you learn is that it’s impossible to get a show on — and you can’t get it on. Then,” he added, with a dry smile, “You go from there.”

Sarah Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World.