It's a story, the librettist Rachel Sheinkin says, about "a girl who wants to run wild, growing up with her family in a land that also wants in some ways to remain wild. It's about the domestication of a girl alongside the domestication of the prairie, and the ways in which she finds her spirit within that land."
Or as the director, Francesca Zambello, has put it, it's about a girl who "struggles to become an adult, alongside the story of the land, as it becomes the American West."
They are talking about a new musical version of Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder's beloved series of fictionalized stories about her life growing up on the Midwestern frontier in the 1870s and '80s. The new musical has its world premiere this summer at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis (it opens Aug. 15 after previews from July 26) — an appropriate venue, since Wilder's family lived in Minnesota, as well as Wisconsin, Kansas and South Dakota.
The decision was made to focus on Wilder's teenage years in a prairie community in DeSmet, South Dakota, Sheinkin says, to make the story about "personal change and societal change — that's our history. It's not necessarily all to the good — that's not the point of the change." The books are such classics, she says, that perhaps long-ago readers might have built up images of Wilder and her family as "paper dolls." But the musical looks at "the ways in which these characters are flawed. It's wonderful to go back to look at how great they are, the ways in which they love each other and are dedicated to each other, the strength of the family, which is a big part of the strength of the series. But it's also wonderful — and refreshing — to go back and realize that they are flawed."
Sheinkin won a Tony in 2005 for best book of a musical for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Zambello is known for her directing in opera and theatre, most recently for Disney's The Little Mermaid on Broadway. The composer is Rachel Portman, the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Original Score, for 1996's "Emma." The lyricist is Donna di Novelli, whose work has been featured at The Public Theater and the New York City Opera.
Because of Portman's film work, Sheinkin says, the music for Little House has a "sense of wonder, of the environment — of the land, the sweep, the expanse of this world." The project, she says, originated with Zambello and with the scenic director Adrianne Lobel (Passion, A Year With Frog and Toad). "It's great that a set designer was part of the impetus for the show," Sheinkin says. "It appropriately puts design so central in what we're doing, which feels right for this material."
Sheinkin herself was born "on the prairies of Brooklyn" and grew up in upstate New York. Her interest in playwriting began at Brown University in a course in European theatre with the playwright Paula Vogel. "I became so excited reading Brecht and Dürrenmatt and Genet and Pinter and Beckett. I began thinking about taking her playwriting class — and I haven't looked back."
She studied with William Finn in the graduate musical theatre writing program at NYU. It was, in fact, Finn who recruited her for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Sheinkin was asked in January to come on board for Little House on the Prairie. "I need to put it together even faster than for Spelling Bee," she says. "But I enjoy being under the gun. The pressure helps."