ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Here's a blast from the past, which may have a theatrical future.
"Little House on the Prairie," the musical, officially opens tonight in Minneapolis. Ticket sales for previews have been so strong that the Minneapolis run has already been extended by two weeks.
And that has led to speculation about "Little House" going to Broadway, as Minnesota Public Radio's Euen Carr reports.
EUEN CARR: "Little House on the Prairie," the musical, has a lot going for it. It's based on the series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which has sold 50 to 60 million copies worldwide since the first book was published in 1932.
The musical also follows the popular TV series, which ran on NBC for nine years and is still in syndication. And the musical has got Ma and Pa Ingalls, along with their daughters Mary, Laura and Carrie getting ready to head west on a great adventure.
Unidentified Woman #1: Then we got to leave while we still have good weather.
(Soundbite of cheering)
(Soundbite of musical, "Little House on the Prairie")
Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) (Unintelligible)
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Bring our favorite butter churn. (Unintelligible).
Ms. FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO (Director, "Little House on the Prairie" the musical): We have the story, we have the tune, we have dance, we have humor, we have love, we have all those things that I think are the ingredients that you want in a musical.
CARR: "Little House on the Prairie" director Francesca Zambello should know a hot property. She's a celebrated opera director who has won awards all over the world. She's also responsible for the production of Disney's "The Little Mermaid," which has been a popular, if not critical, success since it opened on Broadway in January.
In Minneapolis, a record number of people bought tickets to "Little House" the day they went on sale. And according to a Guthrie Theater survey, more than half said they had never been to a Guthrie show before.
Ms. ZAMBELLO: The advantage is, of course, many people know the characters, and the disadvantage is the same thing - the people who know the characters think maybe they know them better than anybody else.
CARR: Sensitive to the intense loyalty of "Little House" fans, Zambello assembled an all-star creative team to tell the Ingalls' family story. There's Oscar-winning composer Rachel Portman. Tony Award-winner Rachel Sheinkin wrote the book. And Donna DiNovelli did the lyrics.
Some of the songs there are what you might expect. Others are funny, such as when Laura meets the fearsomely snooty Nellie Oleson on the first day of school.
(Soundbite of musical, "Little House on the Prairie")
Unidentified Woman (as Nellie Oleson): (Singing) I smell some pain. I feel (unintelligible). At the start of the year and we're shiny and new, I will overlook your look since it's your debut.
CARR: Given its early success, there's been a lot of talk of "Little House" on Broadway. New York producer Ben Sprecher has invested almost $2 million in the show. But Francesca Zambello says she and her crew are just trying to get through the Minneapolis run.
Ms. ZAMBELLO: I honestly think it's too early to tell. We're only in previews. It's still an enigma what will happen to this afterwards.
CARR: Still, Variety theater reporter Gordon Cox says Broadway producers will be looking to see if the musical can establish an emotional connection with audiences similar to that created by the books and the TV series.
Mr. GORDON COX (Theater Reporter, Variety): Matter of fact, it's even more important than what the critics think of it, the word of mouth afterwards. Do you go and get what is largely considered to be this sort of heartwarming "Little House" experience from this version of the story?
CARR: Cox says it was a canny decision to cast Melissa Gilbert in the role of Ma. For millions of "Little House" TV viewers around the world, Melissa Gilbert is Laura Ingalls, or Halfpint. Cox says brand recognition can have a significant impact on sales, and casting Gilbert provides a tangible link to the TV show.
That's a point not lost on Kevin McCollum. He is best known as the producer who brought "Rent," "Avenue Q," "In the Heights," and most recently "[title of show]" to the stage. Even though those were all hits, he says there is something to be said for working with stories people already know.
Mr. KEVIN McCOLLUM (Broadway Producer): Because there's every reason not to see a show. It's very expensive. A Broadway show only happens in New York City. And you have to really plan them to go see a Broadway show. And therefore, you know, the most important thing is that it captures the public imagination.
CARR: McCollum says Minneapolis is a good place to start a show. A few years back, Adrianne Lobel helped adapt her father Arnold's books into the musical, "A Year with Frog and Toad." The show did well here, but then had the misfortune of moving to Broadway right before 9/11. It sank without a trace.
Lobel suggested the "Little House" musical idea to director Francesca Zambello, and she hopes the show will not rush to Broadway.
Ms. ADRIANNE LOBEL (Production Designer): I would love to see the show go on a nice, healthy American tour before it goes anywhere near New York.
CARR: It looks like Lobel will get her wish - a 40-city tour is in the works.
For NPR News, I'm Euen Carr in Minneapolis.
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