Director Zambello brings Wilder's stories to the stage

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Not only has she directed "Little House on the Prairie -- The Musical," Francesca Zambello was the impetus behind bringing Laura Ingalls Wilder's beloved stories of a pioneer family settling in South Dakota to the theater stage.

While Zambello wasn't someone who grew up loving the "Little House" books or watching the television show based on the stories, sitting down one summer to read one of the books she found herself enthralled.

"I could not put them down because (Ingalls Wilder) knows so well how to draw a character and all stories, all drama, has to come from strong characters," Zambello said. "That was what she offered in a sense. These not seemingly complex people who brought great universality to their story."

Zambello had previously adapted a story based on the French novella "The Little Price" for the stage and was hoping to do the same with another work. She and "Little House" set designer Adrianne Lobel decided to weave the beloved "Little House" children's books into a musical.

"I was looking for more pieces that would have a broad audience, families, newcomers to the theater, expanding an audience," she said, "and it seemed like this topic had that potential and it speaks to us in many different ways in terms of its story, the importance of the characters and their actions."

The stories of the Ingalls family seemed well suited for the stage.

"It has a lot of the things you look for in a musical," Zambello said, "big narrative, well developed characters, opportunities for song, dance, a lot of humor."

A project that started five years ago, "Little House on the Prairie -- The Musical" debuted in 2008 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. A national tour kicked off in October 2009 starring an actress well known by fans of the television series: Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura Ingalls in the decade-long TV series, all grown up and now playing the role of Caroline "Ma" Ingalls.

Zambello said it was her producers' idea to call on Gilbert for the role.

"Melissa has been a wonderful trooper, a great partner," she said. "She initially at first had to let go of the character Laura and discover her own version of Ma. It was really interesting watching her woodshed Laura and take on Ma. It was very beautiful. It was like watching a butterfly."

For Zambello, the musical is an opportunity for audiences to go along with the Ingalls family as they settle in a new place.

"The musical engages I think with the audiences' imagination in a different way than many other musical because the simplicity if these peoples' lives is reflected on the stage," she said. "Everything is created by the cast in terms of building a house, in terms of the huge sections with horses and nature. We theatricalize these moments and I think the audience goes with us."