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Actress Melissa Gilbert answers a question during a panel discussion at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena Jan. 9, 2007. (GUS RUELAS/REUTERS)
Actress Melissa Gilbert answers a question during a panel discussion at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena Jan. 9, 2007. (GUS RUELAS/REUTERS)

Monday Q&A

Melissa Gilbert's no Laura Ingalls (but she plays one on stage) Add to ...

Laura Ingalls Wilder's true story of growing up in a little house on the prairie became the first in a series of children's books, and then a hugely popular 1970s television series. Now her tale is a musical, and Melissa Gilbert, who played pioneer girl and archetypal middle child Laura on the TV show, has grown up to play Laura's Ma. The touring show begins a five-week stop in Toronto on Wednesday. The Globe and Mail spoke to Gilbert, 46, on the phone.

What accounts for the continuing interest in Little House on the Prairie?

The basic themes of these stories never go away: Community, family, love, faith. Especially now, with the financial difficulties that we're going through, they're a reminder of where we all came from - and that we actually did start with nothing.

What's it like for you playing Ma instead of Laura?

Hang on a second, let me just tell my dog to go pee. (Jesse, go potty!) At first the odd thing for me was not answering to Half Pint - that was my nickname off-set as well. But I am an actor - if anything, the challenge was getting the sound of Karen Grassle's interpretation of Caroline on the series out of my head, and replacing it with my own voice. ( Jo-Jo!)

Are those the names of your dogs, Jesse and Jo-Jo?

No, that's Josephine, my French bulldog - she has so many nicknames. It's freezing. We're in northwestern Arkansas. There's some crazy cold snap that just came through and I'm standing outside in socks. (Jo, come on! Cookie!) All right, I'm good to go.

Josephine's on tour with you?

She is sort of our mascot, I guess. She's one of my three dogs. And then my son, my 14-year-old, is also on tour with us. He's in the show.

It's unfortunately noteworthy that all the creators of this musical - director, lyricist, composer, book writer - are women.

All women have a little bit of Laura Ingalls - that tomboy - in them. That's why the books are so relatable to young women across generations. It's a happy accident, but it's poetic and perfect that the entire creative team is women

But Little House does have its male fans.

It's not a chick-flick musical. The men of the show are not feminized - these are manly, Prairie men. The relationship in this play between Ma and Pa is very progressive for that time. They definitely have a real partnership, and the decisions are mutual decisions. There's also a real spark of, well, I guess you could call it sexuality. It's clear why these people have so many children.

Did you have any qualms about your children working in show business?

I've never wanted my children to act as children. Never. And none of them wanted to really, except for my Michael. He was even born three months early, just to get our attention.

That's the son who's named after the late Michael Landon, who played Pa on the series, right? Fitting he should be a part of this.

Yep, and one of the roles he plays is a character called Willie Oleson, who's Nellie Oleson's little brother, and that role on the series was played by my brother Jonathan. It's like going through the looking glass, back and forth and back and forth.

Any plans to take the show to New York?

That's the ultimate goal, I think, but there was some trepidation about starting it off on Broadway. Shows live and die by the New York critics, who can be kind of hard on softer material. Although we do have some very difficult moments in the show, it's hardly what I would call edgy. But if you open up your heart, you're going to feel it. And I'm the first one to be cynical, believe me.

I was, to be honest, taken aback to discover that your ring tone is Joe Cocker's You Can Leave Your Hat On .

Well, I am a person. That's a specific friend's ring tone. My 20-year-old son's is the song America (Fuck Yeah) from Team America: World Police. I am neither Laura nor Caroline Ingalls, by and large, in my life. I'm me.

Little House on the Prairie runs at Toronto's Canon Theatre from Jan. 27 to Feb. 28.

 

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