TURNING Lolita into a musical was a bad idea from the start. Nabokov's novel dazzled us with its wit and moved us with its poetry. Lolita, My Love. now in pre-Broadway tryouts at the Schubert, has chucked the wit and the poetry in favor of a plodding, graceless retelling of the plot in the tradition of garish, simple-minded musical comedy.
The problems involved in adapting Nabokov's story of Humbert Humbert's passion for thirteen-year-old Dolores Haze are huge. A major character, Clare Quilty, doesn't appear until the last scene of the book, though his presence is felt throughout. Occasionally the entire story-line teeters on the brink of unreality, as when Quilty follows Humbert and Lolita from motel to motel across the country. And the whole plot of the novel is seen through the decidedly abnormal eye sof Humbert: to make it objective is inevitably to falsify it.
To solve these problems Alan Jay Lerner seems to have turned more than once to Stanley Kubrick's movie version. The killing of Quilty takes place at the very beginning, making the entire story a flashback. Quilty is presented as a real character, popping up continuously throughout the action. The advances Lolita's mother makes to Humbert are set up almost exactly as they were in the movie.
When Lerner decides to be original, his changes are always vulgar, simplistic, or downright perverse. The killing of Quilty doesn't take place in an eerie, Poe-like mansion, but at a party in Arizona in front of Quilty's freaky set of disciples, thus giving Lerner a chance for a rousing song-and-dance opening. The Enchanted Hunters Motel where Lolita seduces Humbert is changed to the Bed-D-Bv Motel, full of whores and Mr. and Mrs. John Smiths. And Lerner perversely places Humbert's final visit with the married, pregnant Lolita at the very end, enabling him to stage a tear-jerking finale.
What is most annoying about Lerner's adaptation is its complete lack of a moral sense. Certainly Nabokov's book wasn't written to make parents more vigilant in bringing up their children, but there is a real feeling that what Humbert has done is wrong, that he has destroyed a girl's childhood. This idea is completely missing from the musical, and without it we are almost forced to root for Humbert as he tries to violate Lolita. The actual seduction is almost sickeningly sentimental.
SINCE Lerner himself invites the compassion, it's only fair to say that the cast suffers badly in comparison to that of the movie. The best of the lot is John Neville as Humbert, who has the perfect appearance and accent for the part, and a fine singing voice as well. What he lacks, and this is probably Lerner's fault in his writing of the role, is James Mason's air of old-world degeneracy. He doesn't leer at Lolita, he gazes in wonder at her beauty.
Leonard Frey as Quilty is too young, and he simply doesn't have Peter Sellers' comic talent. Dorothy Loudon as Mrs. Haze does a fairly good Shelley Winters imitation, but she overplays a part that is overwritten in the first place. Denise Nickerson as Lolita just can't project the sexual attraction of the nymphet, and can't sing either.
It is in those special departments of the musical comedy that Lolita, My Love is strangest. The sets by Ming Cho Lee are all very impressive, the choreography by John Morris occasionally exciting. John Barry's first Broadway musical score (after Goldfinger, Midnight Cowboy and lots of other movies) includes several fine numbers, including a very charming ballad about Humbert's past, "In the Broken Promise Land of Fifteen." "How Far Is It To The Next Town" is a good song, but its refrain is hardly an adequate substitute for the constant car travel between motels in the book and movie. The mindless opening number, "Going, Going, Gone," sounds like Top 40 material.
Lolita, My Love needs much more than Top 40 material, however. It needs style and taste and depth, and these are things which Alan Jay Lerner's idea of theater evidently can no longer offer.