"It was a huge part of my life,'' Gilbert said recently. "I owe so much to not only the legacy of Michael Landon (who played her father and was executive producer of the show) and the television series but Laura Ingalls Wilder and the books. I feel a real mantle of responsibility in being one of the flame keepers.''
Especially for women around Gilbert's age — she is 46 in May — Little House is a touchstone of childhood. "It's like comfort food — the comfort food of television,'' Gilbert said of the series, which has been in constant syndication for 30 years.
The musical is adapted from Wilder's books, not the TV show. "Because we were on for 10 years, there was a lot of dramatic license taken,'' Gilbert said. "There were a lot of characters in the show that did not exist in the books: the brother Albert, the kids whose parents were killed in the wagon accident. Mary's husband — Mary Ingalls never married; she never had a baby that died in a fire. Mr. Edwards existed, but not in the way he existed in the series. But had we stuck exactly to the books, we would have had nine episodes, because there were only nine books.''
Gilbert, who was calling from a tour stop in Toronto ("the tundra''), has been with the musical for most of its long development process, including its premiere in 2008 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. During that run, she and several other cast members took the five-hour drive to Walnut Grove, Minn., and De Smet, S.D., the real-life homes of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family.
It was the first time Gilbert visited either place. At a museum in De Smet, she was shown Laura's nightgown and handkerchief.
"I climbed into bed late that night, exhausted but unable to fall asleep,'' she recounts in her 2009 autobiography, Prairie Tale: A Memoir. "I kept thinking about the flood of memories I had experienced after touching Laura's nightgown and handkerchief. While my finger ran over the cotton fabric, I relived everything from my first audition for Little House to the present: happiness, sadness, heartbreak and love.''
The musical's score is by Rachel Portman, who has composed an opera, The Little Prince, and music for many movies; it has lyrics by Donna di Novelli and a book by Rachel Sheinken, who won a Tony Award for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. It has gone through many changes since the Guthrie production, including a run at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey before heading out on tour.
"It really had an overhaul,'' director Francesca Zambello said. "It was very successful at the Guthrie, but I think for it to have a longer life, it needed a lot of work. I'd say one-third of the songs are new. Much more dance was put in the show. There were a lot of book and scene rewrites.''
The musical focuses on Laura and her efforts to help her older sister, Mary, who loses her sight, and Laura's becoming a teacher and falling in love with Almanzo Wilder.
"It's the story of Laura's coming of age and taking responsibility for her actions and becoming the one who helps, in a sense, save her sister's life,'' said Zambello, primarily known as an opera director, though she directed The Little Mermaid on Broadway. "In teaching, she learns about herself, and then she meets Almanzo and realizes that love is not something that holds you down but can keep you free.''
Gilbert was well aware of the impact her presence had on other actors in the production. "I'm sure they were looking out of the corners of their eyes and going, 'Well, what does the original one think?' '' she said.
Laura will be played by Megan Campanile in Tampa. Campanile was the understudy to Kara Lindsay, who has been in the show since the Guthrie production but is on a leave of absence until April 8 in Spokane, Wash.
"Both these young women have completely owned the role,'' Gilbert said. "There's no question from the second they walk out on stage that that's Laura — not me, them. Unless I was asked a specific question (about Laura), I didn't step in. I have my own fish to fry. I had to step into the shoes of Karen Grassle, who played Ma in the television series for 10 years. I had to bring my own professionalism to it and reinterpret it as well.''
Gilbert's 14-year-old son, Michael Boxleitner (named after Michael Landon), is accompanying his mother on the road and making his professional stage debut in several small roles in the show.
Little House on the Prairie is scheduled to tour through June. As a show that has received a few tepid reviews — and some raves, too — it is not a sure thing to go on to Broadway. But Gilbert said she was optimistic producers would take the plunge. "It's an iffy prospect doing anything in this economy. That's why we took it on the road. The idea was to build an audience first.''
Zambello worries about how New York critics would treat such a family oriented show. Her production of Disney's The Little Mermaid got a mixed reception and ran less than two years. "The New York critics are very harsh and not particularly warm to something that is really about families, new audiences, first-time theatergoers,'' she said.
Gilbert was working on Prairie Tale: A Memoir, just issued in paperback, while she was performing the musical at the Guthrie. "There was no ghost writer; it's all by me,'' she said of the book, which covers her adoption into a show business family, her experience as a child actor on Little House, her marriages and her two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild. It's pretty racy in recounting her days as party girl with the "Brat Pack'' of the 1980s (Rob Lowe was a longtime flame) and candid about her family.
"The only people who reacted unfavorably were my ex-husband (actor Bo Brinkman) and my mother,'' said Gilbert, who has been married to actor Bruce Boxleitner since 1995. "My ex-husband was over it in a couple of days. My mother carried it for a while, but now she's over it, although I don't think she realizes it came out in paperback, so I'm waiting for the next wave from her. She claims to have not read it. I keep telling her to read it because it's not as bad as she's thinking it is. I don't know what she thinks she's guilty of.''
Gilbert is estranged from her brother, Jonathan, who played Willie Oleson on Little House. She does keep in touch with her half-sister, Sara Gilbert, who starred on Roseanne.
"My sister was very supportive of the book,'' Melissa said. "She was one of the first people to read it. She would not come to my book party or support it publicly, because she was uncomfortable that I didn't like her father, and I understand that. I'd feel the same way if someone said they didn't like my dad.''
In the memoir, Gilbert is open about her alcoholism, discussing her repeated efforts to get sober and her participation in Alcoholics Anonymous. She attends AA meetings on the road but said it's hard to be anonymous when you grew up on a hit TV series.
"There is no anonymous for me,'' she said. "But at this point, I have to let go of that. If people talk about me being in a meeting, well, I broke my own anonymity, which you are allowed to do.''
She found writing about her alcoholism to be therapeutic and even part of her own 12-step program.
"It was very cathartic,'' she said. "AA's fourth step is a searching and fearless moral inventory of oneself. By and large, that's writing down all of your bad behavior, and the fifth step is sharing it with someone else. I think this book is probably the biggest fourth and fifth step I could have possibly done.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampaybay.com/arts.