After Minneapolis tryout, tuner bypasses Broadway

It’s still “Little House on the Prairie,” but everything from the floorboards to the shingles is new.

The “Little House” musical, based on the beloved series of children’s books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, bowed at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in August 2008, breaking box office records and steamrolling mixed reviews with an extension that pushed the show’s run to 16 weeks.

After rumors that the tuner would make a quicker-than-expected leap to Broadway, though, the property went back into development, effectively hibernating for the past year as producers and creatives ironed out kinks. Now the show is set to begin performances at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse on Sept. 10 — the first five-week leg of a national tour that may bypass the Rialto altogether.

So why didn’t the production strike while the iron was hot and relocate to Broadway?

Producer Bob Boyett says the show needed work, whether or not people wanted to see it transfer. “We were doing what we thought was our first big development production,” Boyett says of the Guthrie run. “But you can get a snowball effect — you immediately get this huge response and then suddenly you have opening dates to run on Broadway. Instead, we sold the run out, and we thought ‘This is good. But we still have more work to do.’ ”

“Kevin Stites, our music supervisor, just told me that we’ve changed every single musical number in some way or another,” says helmer Francesca Zambello. “I hope it’s gotten a lot better.”

Reflecting the girl-centric perspective of the iconic American story, Zambello heads a creative team of four women. Working alongside the director is her frequent collaborator composer Rachel Portman (Zambello has directed the composer’s “Little Prince” and “Rebecca”), “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” book writer Rachel Sheinkin and lyricist Donna DiNovelli.

“The books are very dark in a lot of ways — our story is propelled by blindness and fire and devastation,” Zambello says. “But it works best when it comes through the personal.”

Part of the remodeling job involved focusing that story, culled from seven of the 12 books, on Laura “Half-Pint” Ingalls — the character played by Melissa Gilbert on the venerable NBC television series. In Minneapolis, the show’s box office receipts benefited from Gilbert’s presence in the cast as Ma, demonstrating to producers exactly how attached the nostalgic aud was to Laura, and how important it was for Laura to stay at the center of the story.

“We knew we needed to figure out how the whole show focused on this one character’s arc,” says producer Ben Sprecher, who, along with his wife, Amy, took over development of the production with Boyett’s blessing. “It needed to be about the choice she’s faced with: to be a schoolteacher or a wife, when she really wants neither. Every period, every apostrophe, every lyric has been retouched over and over again.”

The show, per Sprecher, was “about 60% there” during the Guthrie run, and the gap between the Guthrie and the Paper Mill runs has not been an idle one. By the time it opens, Sprecher estimates, the show will have had two full productions, five readings, and will have spent a capitalization cost of $4.5 million — an amount that will take between 40 and 50 weeks of road time to recoup.

But the musical is already booked for double that length of time, with $1.5 million in advance ticket sales at the Paper Mill. It’s also sold 40% of the seats at its next venue — the 1,900-seat Ordway Theater in St. Paul, where it opens Oct. 13. That result augurs especially well for road potential given that it’s right on the doorstep of a market in which “Prairie” has already played.

Producers felt that “Little House” was always going to be a better fit for the regions.

“The show didn’t require a New York production to give it value,” Sprecher says. “We all agreed that we would develop it exactly the way we would a Broadway show but we’d do it for the road.”

“We’re already locked in for this year and next year, and now we’re beginning to look at Asia and Europe,” he adds. “Who knows if the show is ever going to come to New York?”

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