Smarting from the failure of “Merrily We Roll Along,” his last collaboration with Stephen Sondheim, director Harold Prince turned in 1981 to a new musical by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with whom he’d had a hit three years earlier, “On the Twentieth Century.”
The new show followed the life of Nora Helmer, the heroine of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” after the most famous door-slamming in dramatic history, and featured music by newcomer Larry Grossman. All of them were convinced they had a big, romantic musical on their hands that also scored some strong feminist points.
Following a disastrous Los Angeles tryout, “A Doll’s Life” limped to Broadway , where it opened at the Mark Hellinger on Sept. 23, 1982, and closed after five performances at a loss of $ 4 million. The critics clobbered Prince in particular for a show that was at once confusing and pedantic, over-produced and undernourished, opulent and under-lit — and audiences obviously weren’t buying it, either.
But while it was possible to discern a few gems in the score, the failure was in truth as much Comden, Green and Grossman’s as it was Prince’s, a point the York Theater Co.’s current reclamation makes clear in spades.
Even on a spare set in intimate surroundings, and even with a few notable changes in the plotting and score, “A Doll’s Life” is still a terrible show, primarily because the central character remains almost totally unlikable and the new ending is as unsatisfying as the old one.
Until the unlikely time when someone actually does come up with a viable musical sequel to “A Doll’s House,” it’s probably safe to say that “A Doll’s Life” answers a question — What happens to Nora? — best left, as Ibsen did — to the imagination.
The heroine of “A Doll’s Life” is every bit as willing to use the men she encounters as they are to use her. Upon leaving home and children, Nora (Jill Geddes) sets out by train for Christiania (now Oslo).
En route she tricks the impoverished and talentless violinist/composer Otto (Jeff Herbst) into paying her fare and then becomes his lover and muse, working as a seamstress in an opera house.
With the help of an admirer, the lawyer Johan (Tom Galantich), Nora even gets a diva (Robin Skye) to host a reading of Otto’s idiotic nationalist opera, “Loki and Baldur” (an opera parody — could anyone else but Prince have done this show?).
When Otto mistakenly thinks Nora has blown his opportunity, he proves himself a brute and she leaves. She ends up working in a fish cannery, organizing the working girls and landing them all in jail.
She’s rescued by Johan, the show’s sole good guy, who sets up a meeting with the fabulously wealthy cannery owner Eric (Paul Schoeffler), who just happens to be the diva’s unfaithful lover. He accedes to all of her demands if she will become his mistress, and she agrees, instantly falling in love with the good life.
Johan bides his time. Nora hocks the jewelry Eric showers on her, making a fortune in the stock market and reading Machiavelli, leaving Eric only when she finds him cheating on her. She sets up a chain of perfume shops and becomes enormously successful. Johan bides his time. Nora returns home determined to convince her husband, Torvald (Seth Jones), to share custody of their three children.
This is pretty much “A Doll’s Life” as Comden and Green originally wrote it. Prince, however, wrapped a Pirandello-ish gimmick around the whole thing, beginning with a modern troupe rehearsing the play’s final scene and the actress playing Nora then time-tripping back to 1879 provincial Norway.
He also added a commenting chorus and a quartet of dancers who would mysteriously appear at key moments to silently punctuate what was going on in her life. The ending, suggesting a rapprochement between Nora and Torvald, strained credibility even more than everything else that had come before.
All that stuff has been dropped. The revival begins with a straightforward enactment of the final scene from “A Doll’s House” and proceeds from there.
The key addition to the score is “Can’t You Hear I’m Making Love to You?,” a pleasant ballad late in the second act in which Nora and Johan secretly express their love for each other; the song only makes the new ending more infuriating (if somewhat more believable, as it parallels the play).
“A Doll’s Life” has several real high points: The ballads “Letter to the Children,””Stay with Me, Nora” and, especially, “Learn to Be Lonely” are quite lovely, as is “No More Mornings,” an anthem in which Nora sings of the pleasures of the rich life.
The real keeper in the score, however, is “Power,” the only song that shows Comden and Green at their most playfully inventive. Power, Nora sings, is about being a man –“casual baritone rumblings, low con-spiratorial whispers/the look of snowy white billowing shirt fronts, black Mephistophelian whiskers”– and Grossman’s melody has genuine thrust.
But many of the other lyrics are crude, along the lines of Nora’s “Give them hope, give them soap!” and “Worse than being on your own/is to mate (!) and feel alone,” and the trios and quartets never take off.
Although the York Theater Co. has done several stripped-down Prince shows, I haven’t liked any of them, and this is easily the worst. Robert Brink’s staging isn’t minimalist, it’s all but nonexistent, seeming mostly to be about actors moving pieces of furniture on and off James Morgan’s otherwise bare stage, and having scenes unfold with thudding obviousness.
The music is supplied primarily by one backstage piano, which the actors apparently can’t hear; how else do you explain the excruciating pitch problems all of them seem to have? Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lighting is fine, but accents the awfulness of Patricia Adshead’s ugly, unflattering costumes, particularly for Nora.
The company is as unconvincing as any in a recent major production, a farrago of mugging, snarling, sniveling, sneering and bad accents (the only exception is Galantich’s comparatively genteel Johan).
Geddes is a competent singer, but her voice is devoid of character and she’s utterly charmless here. In 1982, an unknown Betsy Joslyn carried the weight of that enormous production on her shoulders, and your heart just went out to her. Thirteen years later, Nora turns the heart to ice.