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Show Business: Profit Without Honor

4 minute read

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.

−Vladimir Nabokov

That was the novelist’s original resolve when Hollywood first sought the movie rights to his Lolita in 1958. But one evening he dreamed that he was reading the screenplay; overnight, Nabokov came to the age of consent. An offer of $150,000 did not exactly dissuade him, and he agreed to do the script himself. James Mason was cast as obsessive old Humbert Humbert, with Sue Lyon, then 14, in the title role of the stepdaughter who seduced him. Everybody said the adaptation could not be done, and they were right. But the pallid, bowdlerized film did gross about 21 times its $1,900,000 cost.

Having profited if not learned from the experience, Nabokov in 1969 dealt away the rights to turn Lolita into−what else?−a Broadway musical. While the author seemed calm at the prospect, readers who consider the novel a masterpiece could only be horrified at what Broadway might do to Lolita. At any rate, this time Nabokov decided not to be a party to the adaptation himself. He waived script approval, though he did retain veto power over the choice of the adapter and composer. As it happened, Librettist Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady, Coco) was at that very moment inquiring about Lolita. Nabokov, who had never seen a Lerner musical, listened to some of the original-cast albums, met him, and was satisfied. “Mr. Lerner,” he said, “is most talented and an excellent classicist. If you have to make a musical version of Lolita, he is the one to do it.” Composer John Barry, who scored the James Bond films, Midnight Cowboy and has won three Oscars, also passed Nabokov’s muster.

Fascinating Experiment. With them approved, CBS agreed to make what Producer Norman Twain (Bajour) called “a substantial, six-figure investment” in what was to be a $650,000 production. The timetable was set. Rehearsals would begin in January, followed by an out-of-town shakedown in Philadelphia and = the Broadway opening March 30.

But what about a cast? Producer Twain thought, rightly (after the film), that James Mason was wrong for Humbert. Richard Burton was an early choice, but after one musical (Lerner’s Camelof), Burton decided: “I have no desire to repeat this fascinating but exacting experiment.” In his place will go John Neville, 45, a first-rank British actor. “When I was first approached,” he admits, “my feeling was that I didn’t see how it could be done with taste.

But I trust Lerner.” (Presumably, Coco Chanel also trusts Lerner.) The title role, naturally, is far more ticklish. The novel described Lolita as a “mixture of tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity.” And, as Humbert said, “you have to be an artist and a madman with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in order to discern by certain ineffable signs the little deadly demon among the wholesome children.”

Twain and Lerner, according to their pressagent, pursued their demon “nationwide” among “professional children’s schools, teen-age beauty contest sponsors and drama departments of high schools.” Their casting call at Manhattan’s Billy Rose Theater produced several dozen girls from Flushing and thereabouts. But they were mostly overage, self-consciously oversexed or overplaying Sue Lyon. “It was so much better,” Twain discovered, “in California. The girls there were fantastic−completely sexual, but in an unaware way.”

As of last week, though, Twain was still “cooling off” on the decision, but convinced “Lolita will come from California. It’s down to one or two,” he said. “We’re waiting a while because these girls aren’t going anywhere. Walt Disney’s not knocking down their door.”

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