Care to know what happened to Nora after she shut that door? It seems she entered the kind of limpy blend of "Bitter Sweet" and "Sweeney Todd" that sort of segued into "Onward Victoria." At least, that's as much as I could make out of "A Doll's Life," the ponderous musical that came to the Hellinger last evening without a prayer.
Nothing is right about this show: not the capriciously unwinding Betty Comden-Adolph Green book, not the Larry Grossman score, not even Harold prince's staging, which seems obtrusive and heavy-handed. Of course, the whole thing was obviously a lost cause to begin with, and it's no wonder that all these people, as well as the cast, appear hopelessly adrift all the long evening.
We open with a present-day cast rehearsing a production of Ibsen's "A Doll's House," the final scene; and then, when Nora goes sailing through that apartment door (no outer, unseen, door slamming here), she enters her new life. A hackneyed stage device to begin with, and to no useful purpose, since all that follows is a series of trite events observed and commented on by a full-voiced chorus of townspeople shuffling about in the background. At the same time, a weak parallel between Nora's encounters in Christiania (later Oslo), the big city to which she has fled, and similar moments in the Ibsen play is attempted by having the freedom-seeking woman or her lovers (she slams the door on two more) echo Ibsen lines delivered by Torvald, the husband she has left, from one side of the stage.
The writers, Comden and Green, could come up with nothing fresher than having Nora first take up with a struggling young opera composer, next leave him for his wealthy benefactor, and then ditch the latter to join his newest mistress in a business enterprise that prospers, and, finally...but I just can't tear it out of myself to tell you how it all ends, except that it's Christmas.
Threading its way laboriously through all this is Nora's effort to find herself, represented by her fight and subsequent jailing for better working conditions for the women, of which she's one, in a herring cannery (proper herrings by the dozens get slapped about) which just happens to be owned by her future paramour, and finally be her own business success. Reflecting on the mad way of 19th-century European men with their women, a couple (she in scarlet and he in black), comes swirling out from behind the scenery now and then to sweep off after a few turns. Have I left anything out? You bet.
While the groupings, often tableaux, seem to derive some inspiration from Ibsen's famous contemporary, the painter Edvard Munch, the overall effect is almost prevailingly ominous, what with that omnipresent door and a kind of belfry resembling a huge guillotine or, heaven knows, the Master Builder's final perch, dominating much of the action, or catwalks occasionally approaching it from either side to allow for some batty background promenading.
Although nobody could have salvaged this mess, Betsy Joslyn, a small and rather pushy brunette, was a poor choice for Nora. While she handles her songs well with a full voice, she is totally lacking in charm. George Hearn is seen to somewhat better advantage as both Torvald and a successful lawyer and man-about-town who befriends our heroine - he almost, but not quite, gets to make an honest woman of her - but his is a largely thankless assignment. In other roles, Edmund Lyndeck (in common with Joslyn, he's a "Sweeney Todd" vet) makes the most of the role of Nora's sleek, ruthless financier-lover, and Peter Gallagher, the young composer, is halfway amusing singing a soprano part from the piano in an audition of his opera.
While the book is impossible, Comden and Green's lyrics are characteristically well-turned, though often pointless in their jumble of a book. But Larry Grossman's quasi-operatic score, with its delusions of Sondheim and yielding only once or twice to a mildly pleasant show tune, is mainly a hollow bore overly advantaged by Bill Byers' attractive orchestrations. The generally excellent husband-and-wife team of Timothy O'Brien and Tazeena Firth designed the unflattering scenery, Florence Klotz created the apt costumes, and Ken Billington did the moody lighting. The aimless choreography, which I suppose includes all that chorus meandering, is the work of Larry Fuller.
A distinguished contemporary of Ibsen's remarked of the master's shattering play, "It ends where it ought to begin." He should have bitten his tongue.
To start with, Harold Prince's A Doll's Life, which got the new Broadway season properly under steam at the Mark Hellinger Theater last night, is a fascinating concept.
To end with, it is a concept gone fairly adrift, an idea gone askew, a heady inspiration vaporized, at times excitingly, in its own promises. Now let us fill in the middle ground.
We all know what happened to Shakespeare's Hamlet, or Sophocles' Oedipus. Ibsen's Hedda Gabler ends in a pool of self-inflicted blood, Shaw's Major Barbara gets her man. But what happens to Ibsen's Nora in A Doll's House?
At the end of this 100-or-so-year-old play, Nora steps out of a door on her marriage, which to her has become a living falsehood. The door closes behind her, the curtain falls. The play has ended.
But as Nora goes through that door, she walks onto a new stage...every exit is a new entrance seen backward, and few entrances could have been more terrifying than Nora's, valise in hand, heart in mouth, the cold Christmastime air curling around her, on to that Norwegian provincial street.
Behind her she has left a pompous husband and her children - and a life that has made her a paper doll in a paper cage. Before her lies the jungle of cities.
How many people have not prepared a sequel to Nora's departure on their way home from the theater? But who would dare to write a play, that was the sequel to an Ibsen classic?
Harold Prince and his personally picked team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green for the book and lyrics, and Larry Grossman for the music, have been adroit.
Instead of writing a play, they are offering a musical, or rather the latest in that newish breed, largely bred in Prince's own stables, the Broadway operetta. What would be impious to say can, without impropriety, possibly be sung.
A marvelous idea - and Prince's princely shaping hand seems everywhere, asserting its style with regal authority. And what does Nora discover in the outside world? Well, things are pretty much the same everywhere - and life in Oslo doesn't treat her much better than did her husband, the simplistic male chauvinist, Torvald.
A young composer exploits her, a wealthy magnate displays her as a possession, and the one man, a wryly cynical lawyer, who really respects her as an intelligent, feeling creature, prompts her to go back to see what has happened to her family.
So what eventually does happen to Nora? Damnably - and rather damningly - this sequel fails to come clean. At the end we are left, once more in the air, with Nora sitting across a table in Torvald's same old doll's house, about to assess what each has discovered and where to go from there. So the answer to a question is a question. Are we - in Hollywood style - one day to be regaled with Nora III?
Nor is it merely the ending that is unsatisfactory. Prince has as much difficulty, if not more, in starting as an ending. How do you explain to a contemporary audience that you are offering a sequel to A Doll's House?
To be sure you can presume that your entire audience knows the finer details of Ibsen's original - but is this anything like a safe assumption?
Prince opens, rather frantically, with the device of a rehearsal of a contemporary staging of Ibsen, showing two actors working out the last scene. The actress playing Nora - confused by the modern feminist implications of the role - goes off into this musical fantasy. It is a device almost threadbare in the last resort of its desperate honesty - and it is confusingly carried out.
In a Prince musical, style is everything, or close to everything. Here the design team of Timothy O'Brien and Tazeena Firth, with Florence Klotz providing the costumes, is vital. Their work reminded me of two paintings by Ibsen's Norwegian contemporary, Edvard Munch - the famous one of a woman with her gaping mouth rounded in a silent cry of terror, and his picture of love in a cold climate, his passionately passionless Dance of Life.
The show itself lacks involvement. The book and lyrics miss the weight of Ibsen. The music sounds written to order. It invites comparison with Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music and falls short. Grossman, even though helped by the sensuously sumptuous orchestrations of Bill Byers, cannot capture Sondheim's urbane melody and fervently worldly lyricism.
Except in its look and performance, the show itself never flies with the concept. And even the performances waver dangerously in some no man's land between the Broadway musical and the classic theater.
George Hearn, who excellently plays both Torvald and the befriending lawyer, is an actor who would conceivably play Ibsen's Torvald. Betsy Joslyn - who gives a wonderful performance - is scarcely the sort of actress one would pick for Ibsen's original Nora. Her style is musical comedy, as is her metier.
Peter Gallagher, as the pompous ass of a young composer seeking to write a Norwegian national opera, and Edmund Lyndeck as the elegantly wiley tycoon are also admirable. The cast is faultless, with Joslyn showing a rebel radiance that brings the perils of Nora as close to reality as they are going to get.
But the bottom line is the basic product - the book, the lyrics and the music. Alas, aspiration and perspiration are not enough. A Doll's Life remains the dream of a musical unfulfilled.
The season is still young, but it's not likely to produce a more perplexing curiosity than ''A Doll's Life,'' the dour musical that opened at the Mark Hellinger last night. On this occasion, three legendary Broadway hands -Harold Prince, Betty Comden and Adolph Green - have inflated a spectacularly unpromising premise with loads of money, good intentions and hard work, only to end up with a show that collapses in its prologue and then skids into a toboggan slide from which there is no return. These calamities happen, of course, but not usually to artists who've been leading lights in the musical theater for two generations. Call ''A Doll's Life'' a casual blunder, which, like Topsy, just grew and grew and grew.
It doesn't take long to see that things are wildly out of control. Confusion reigns once the curtain rises to reveal a bunch of actors and stagehands, dressed in 1982 street clothes, as they rehearse Act III of Ibsen's ''A Doll's House.'' (In what translation? It's the first time I've heard Nora trill ''Goodbye'' before her final exit.) The rehearsal is contentious, perhaps because the actor who plays Torvald, George Hearn, is also unaccountably the director; he keeps stopping Nora (Betsy Joslyn) in mid-scene to give her instruction. But once he shuts up, Miss Joslyn is finally allowed to slam Ibsen's famous door.
What next? The scenery flies away, Miss Joslyn disappears, and a chorus chants ''Is she here or isn't she?/ Are we here or aren't we?'' Good questions - but the precise answers never come. Through some undefined magic - maybe H.G. Wells's time machine lurks in the wings - the cast suddenly travels back to 1879 Norway. At that point, Miss Comden and Mr. Green's libretto begins to speculate about what happened to Nora after she left her husband and children to make a new life alone. Yet we still don't always know where we are. Between the garbled Act I flashbacks to ''A Doll's House'' and Act II's rushed, cryptic chronology (in three different time frames, no less), we expect at any moment to land in Act V of ''Peer Gynt.''
If all this Pirandellian gimmickry is baffling and unnecessary, the main story is more so. The Nora of ''A Doll's Life'' isn't Ibsen's Nora, and she doesn't resemble the fizzy, independent heroines of delightful Comden-Green musicals past. She's merely a symbol: The Unliberated Female. In an episodic, didactic fashion - and in a psychobabble idiom that suggests a 10-year-old Phil Donahue show - she's propelled through a series of agitprop consciousness-raising crises. Among other things, Nora learns that sex can be fun, that women deserve equal rights and pay, that economic power is a political tool, that we're all ''human beings'' who can ''make choices.''
At this late date, these revelations are facts of life, but, even so ''A Doll's Life'' can't muster what should be a foolproof case for them. The characters who teach the heroine these lessons are cut from the same threadbare, old-fashioned musical-comedy cloth that she is: the men she encounters are mostly abject cads (as Ibsen's Torvald was not), and the shackled women she tries to liberate are tarts or clowns.
Though Nora waltzes through many liaisons, into a sweatshop and jail, and finally into a relationship with a perfectly enlightened man (Kris Kristofferson's great-grandfather, no doubt), the cartoon characterizations foreclose the possibility of drama. Worse still, ''A Doll's Life'' at times unintentionally parodies or trivializes feminism - and misreads Ibsen's play - by paradoxically arguing that most men are despicable and that a woman's goal should be to ''act like a man.''
Mr. Prince drapes this material in black crepe, lest we not recognize how heavy it is. The set, by Timothy O'Brien and Tazeena Firth, is dominated by dark expressionist swirls: Edvard Munch dipped in mud. Ken Billington, that unequaled master of gloom, provides the shadowy lighting. The gifted Florence Klotz's costumes, when visible, recall the ones she did for Mr. Prince's last foray into period Scandinavia, ''A Little Night Music,'' but this time with all the pastels expunged.
As always, Mr. Prince's direction is fluid, but, remarkably, there isn't a single idea in the staging that he hasn't done before - and better. As in ''Sweeney Todd'' and ''Evita,'' there's a bridge from which the chorus constantly comments on or glowers at the action below. (One keeps expecting the assembled to cry out ''Sweeney! Sweeney!'') We also get a symbolic pair of ghostly ballroom dancers (''Follies''), an oversized bed of carnal passion (''Evita''), and a finale that returns us to the show's beginning (a Prince staple since ''Cabaret''). If only the script actually showed us the parfumerie that Nora runs during her entrepreneurial phase, we might even have been transported back - and gladly - to ''She Loves Me.''
The director's apparent exhaustion carries over to the choreographer, Larry Fuller, who also reprises a routine from ''Evita'' (wind-up-doll phalanxes of society folk). The casting is as erratic as in last season's ''Merrily We Roll Along.'' Miss Joslyn, a would-be Barbara Cook whose voice wavers as her self-satisfied expression does not, is too inexperienced to create a character where there isn't one in the script. Her personality hardly changes from beginning to end, and we never understand why every man drops dead with lust before her. Nor is it remotely clear why Edmund Lyndeck, who still seems to be playing the villainous Judge of ''Sweeney Todd,'' is cast as her most sexually magnetic paramour.
Mr. Hearn acts and sings his roles with an unpretentious charm that is highly refreshing under the circumstances; one may choose to forget that his Torvald has a Nazi accent. The rest of the company is undistinguished, with the passing exception of the attractive, if tentative, Peter Gallagher, as a young bohemian who delivers a pretty ballad before vanishing into the blackness.
The one other participant who emerges with some minor distinction is the composer, Larry Grossman. His operetta-like score, feelingly orchestrated by Bill Byers, is frequently impaled by the prosaic lyrics, but it strives for subtle, thematically integrated effects rather than Broadway numbers. Despite a few thrown-in party songs, some Sondheimisms and an opera parody as endless as the one in ''Nine,'' Mr. Grossman at least seems to know where he's going in ''A Doll's Life.'' Maybe his next collaborators will turn up the lights so he can find his way.