Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Little House, big plans

I'm hoping to make my first visit to the Land of 10,000 Lakes for the world premiere of a new musical based on the Little House on the Prairie books. I haven't heard much about the project since it was announced in November by Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater. But apparently, things are moving right along. In fact, they may be moving in an unexpected direction.

The Guthrie's artistic director, Joe Dowling, said last fall that the producers were looking at a national tour after the show's premiere. I wonder if things have changed? In an article earlier this month in the Newark Star-Ledger, Michael Sommers writes that the Little House musical is coming to Broadway in the fall. It seems a little soon for a Broadway debut, but who knows?

I found a logo for the show on the Guthrie's Web site - and I kind of like it. The stalks of wheat and cursive script give it a bit of an old-fashioned look. It's a nice contrast with the more modern typeface for "on the prairie." Together, they project a sense that this is a combination of something old and something new. And the beautiful but slightly ominous reddish-brown sky evokes the wide-open spaces of the 19th century American West.

Here are photos from an open call for auditions held earlier this year at the Guthrie that attracted 125 girls and a much smaller number of boys. Most of the girls said they'd come because they were huge fans of the books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

While the Guthrie doesn't list an opening date yet, I did find one on the Web site of director Francesca Zambello. Her calendar lists Little House from Aug. 15. I'm not sure whether that's the date of the first performance, but it's entirely possible. The show is scheduled to be staged at the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium, and there's nothing else on tap for that venue after July 11.

Here's how the project is described on the site of lyricist Donna di Novelli: "Set on the vast plains of the American West, Little House on the Prairie is the story of one girl’s struggle with the wildness in her soul. Both girl and land fight against the forces that seek to tame them in this epic story of Western migration." I love epics stories, so it sounds promising.

In addition to Zambello and di Novelli, other members of the Little House creative team include Rachel Portman, an Oscar winner for Emma, who is composing the music, and Rachel Sheinkin, Tony winner for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, who's writing the book.

Portman is British, and Zambello is an American who grew up in Europe. I don't know where di Novelli and Sheinkin are from, but from their biographies, they seem very much Ivy League-educated New York-centric artists.

When Joe Dowling announced the musical, he said, "The work of Laura Ingalls Wilder has a deep and powerful connection to the people of the Midwest. This musical fits perfectly within the Guthrie's goal to develop new work that speaks directly to this community."

Maybe I shouldn't worry about this, but I am a little concerned that none of the four seems to have a "deep and powerful connection" to the region where the story takes place. On the other hand, writers write, actors act and composers compose movingly all the time about people, places and events that don't seem connected to their lives.

Of the four, Sheinkin is the only one whose work I know. I saw Spelling Bee on tour last fall, and I loved it. It's a sweet musical that treats the joy and pain of growing up with humor and sensitivity. Sheinkin did a wonderful job developing the characters of the elementary school spellers, so I'm really interested to see what she'll do with a group of 19th-century adolescents.


Sarah B. Roberts said...

After the travesty that Jason Howland (music) and Mindi Dickstein (lyrics) created with my precious "Little Women," I'm completely skeptical about my other childhood favorite "Little House." Sigh.

Esther said...

Yeah, I understand how you feel and I don't blame you for being skeptical. I remember reading "Little Women" as a kid, and I also loved the "Little House" books growing up.

I never saw "Little Women," but I often see the cast CD in Borders, and I've often thought about getting it, just to hear what it sounded like. But I've never read anything good about the show!

I'm keeping my fingers crossed for "Little House." I have some doubts about the composer and lyricist. I'm not sure they have a feel for the region or for that period in American history. But I do like Rachel Sheinkin's work in "Spelling Bee."