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The Lost Musicals: Uncovering the Dorothy Loudon flops Part Two: Lolita, My Love
After the disappointment of The Fig Leaves are Falling, Dorothy Loudon got a great part in a new musical with much more promise, but this one didn’t even make it to Broadway, despite being, without question, artistically superior.
The book and lyrics were by one of musical theatre’s heavy hitters, the music was by a successful pop hit composer and the source material was one of the twentieth century’s most acclaimed, controversial, and popular novels. The lyricist of mega-hit and critical triumph My Fair Lady teaming up with the composer of James Bond theme sounds like a recipe for a hit. But Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry’s Broadway-bound musical, Lolita, My Love folded in Boston after eking out troubled tryout engagements there and in Philadelphia.
Like Fig Leaves, it was a product of its sexually-conscious era—but while Fig Leaves may have been too tame, Lolita was too controversial—for a musical, anyway. Maybe audiences who’d read Nabokov’s novel and seen Stanley Kubrick’s film version couldn’t actually handle this material singing. Peter Sellers’ portrayal of Clare Quilty in the film had comic—albeit darkly comic—elements, but a rhyming, singing Quilty describing Humbert as “that viper who likes them post-diaper” must have turned some people off. In One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 1970s, Ethan Mordden speculates that Lolita was simply too risqué for conservative Philadelphia and Boston audiences, but might have landed in New York—if it had it ever made it there.
Before granting the novel’s film rights, Nabokov had gone on record as saying “It was perfectly all right for me to imagine a twelve-year-old Lolita. She only existed in my head. But to make a real twelve-year-old girl play such a part would be sinful and immoral, and I will never consent to it.” This attitude, as well as censorship rules, resulted in the casting of 16 year old Sue Lyon as the adolescent Lolita in the film version, which lessened the creepiness factor and the musical originally cast a slightly older Lolita as well, 15 year old Annette Ferra. But when the show was over-hauled between the Philadelphia and Boston runs, Ferra was replaced by 12 year old Denise Nickerson, an actual adolescent. Seeing a 12-years old girl in sexual situations with an adult actor playing Humbert (John Neville) was jarring in a way that neither the novel nor the film had been.
Despite the many problems with the show itself, Loudon herself was, again, singled out for praise for her brilliant performance as Lolita’s mother, Charlotte, blending wacky comedy, pure pathos, deliciously annoying nagging, with, as always, her distinctively torchy singing voice. In the scene where Charlotte tries to make a pass at Humbert, she stopped the show with a comic tour de force, “Sur le Quais de Ramsdale, Vermont.” Then after they are interrupted by Lolita’s unexpected reappearance, Loudon flips seamlessly into a tragic reprise of that big comedy number, which is just as heart-breaking as it had previously been hilarious. According to interviews given by Loudon later in her career, during the tryouts the creative team collected comment cards from the audience and several of them said that the show would be better if Loudon’s character didn’t die at the end of the first act!
Lolita didn’t get a Broadway opening, and it didn’t get a real cast album. The limited release “cast album” that came out on a minor label, Blue Pear, was simply a songs-only edit of a live recording made through the sound system during the Boston run, or perhaps even from rehearsal tapes. Copies of this LP and the equally limited CD release pop up for sale on eBay from time to time. These as well as a handful of commercial recordings of various songs (including Loudon herself doing her showstopper, “Sur le Quais” on Ben Bagley’s Alan Jay Lerner Revisited) have been cherished by devoted musical theatre fans, and many critics and scholars agree that the score is excellent.
While Fig Leaves is a novelty, a mere footnote in Loudon’s career, with three good songs, Lolita is a remarkable score that deserves to be heard. I’m going to make the case that the time is ripe for a new production, in our society where children and teenagers are increasingly over-sexualized. Maybe we’re ready for Lolita (if any producers are out there reading, how about Alexander Hanson as Humbert, Emily Skinner as Charlotte and Alan Cumming as Quilty? Anyone?) But maybe the audiences that get on their feet to cheer the kind of musicals that opened on Broadway last season aren’t ready for Lolita, my Love. If you are, you can listen to the live recording of the complete show, in its Boston run at the New York Public Library.
For access to these recordings, write to the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound, firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about these shows in the Dorothy Loudon Papers, see the finding aid (pdf). Inquiries may be directed to the Billy Rose Theatre Division, email@example.com.