Wilder's 'Prairie' seems increasingly bankable
“Little House on the Prairie” looks to yield a bumper crop in the Midwest, raising hopes for an even more bountiful harvest on Broadway.The Rialto-bound tuner version of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s frontier-family tales, currently in previews at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, broke box office records as soon as it went on sale. Based on Wilder’s life story, known to legions of fans from her books and the NBC skein, the tryout run has been extended by two weeks (through Oct. 19) to help accommodate demand. “Prairie,” which opens at the Guthrie Aug. 15, seems increasingly bankable in a Broadway landscape where an established brand can offset the risks of big-budget musicals. The Guthrie sold more than 5,000 ducats on the first day of sales, with almost 60% of ticketbuyers reporting they were first-timers at the theater. The response was good news for Global Broadway Prods., the commercial producing org that has paired with the nonprofit for the preem. Part of the draw comes from the casting of Melissa Gilbert, who began playing Wilder in the 1974-83 series at age 9. This time around, Gilbert, 44 and appearing in her first musical, will play Wilder’s mother, toplining a cast that includes Steve Blanchard (“Beauty and the Beast”) as Pa and newcomer Kara Lindsay as Laura. Francesca Zambello — the opera helmer who made her Rialto debut with another legit adaptation of an enduringly popular property, “The Little Mermaid” — directs. The show has music by film composer Rachel Portman, who picked up an Oscar for “Emma,” and lyrics by Donna di Novelli. Rachel Sheinkin, a Tony winner for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” provides the book. “I’ve been told people know these books better than the Bible,” Sheinkin says with a laugh. “Adapt the spirit of the books — that’s the first mandate.” While it’s increasingly common for nonprofit and commercial orgs to partner for large-scale offerings such as “Prairie,” that’s not the case at the Guthrie. “It’s highly unusual for us,” says a.d. Joe Dowling. “We built the production, and we worked with the director in casting it, but to put on a new musical, with the size of this cast and with an orchestra, is outside the scope of our usual budget.” Dowling is hesitant to speculate on the show’s future, although he sees cause for optimism. “It definitely has a future outside of Minneapolis,” he says. “The $64,000 question is whether it will make it on Broadway, but that’s where the commercial producer will dictate.” If the Gotham run materializes as planned, it would be the Guthrie’s first Rialto transfer in almost 30 years. Although local critics have yet to weigh in, all systems are go for N.Y. at the moment. Global Broadway, which ponied up $1.85 million to pay development costs, estimates a total Rialto capitalization of about $8 million. “I think there’s a yearning for this,” Zambello says. ” ‘Little House’ speaks to the environment, ecology, adventure, homesteading — and there’s this spunky protagonist at the center of it.” The show’s plot follows Laura from her early hatred of school to her older sister’s blindness to a harsh winter blizzard, eventually ending with Laura becoming a schoolteacher and finding love. Her bratty nemesis, Nellie, gets not one but two solo numbers. Not all of Wilder’s tales, spread over eight books written between 1932 and 1943 (plus two more published posthumously in the 1970s), will fit into the tuner. “We’re focused on the later years,” Zambello says. “A musical is about telling a story and achieving a clear narrative — and, the fact is, you’re trying to reach a much larger audience than you are with an opera.” As for the actress who’s best known for playing that spunky protagonist, Zambello says, “Melissa’s gone through the journey of Laura growing up. Now she’s finding her own definition as Ma, as well as giving us the connection to Laura because she knows her so well. And as an actress, she’s adapted to musical theater, which is a huge step.” Dowling reports that preview auds have included little girls dressed in calico. Sheinkin views such fervor with a mix of fondness and responsibility. “We want to give something to the little girls in bonnets,” she says.