"Little House on the Prairie - the musical" is based on the later volumes in Laura Ingalls Wilder's much beloved autobiographical series. The show opens with Pa Ingalls working to convince his wife and teenaged daughters Mary, Laura and Carrie, it's time to join the flood of pioneers heading west to South Dakota.
"We have the story," said Little House on the Prairie director Francesca Zambello. "We have the tunes. We have dance. We have humor. We have love. We have all those things that I think are the ingredients you want in a musical."
Zambello knows she has a hot property. More than half the record number of people who bought single tickets the first day they went on sale had never been to a Guthrie show before. Some of the women and girls in line wore pioneer bonnets. Zambello knows how important these stories are to people, she's a fan herself.
"The advantage is people know the characters, and the disadvantage, the flipside, is the same," she said. "Some people who know the characters may think they know the characters better than anybody else."
Zambello has been with the project since the start. She is a long time opera director who now focuses on musical theatre. She directed the production of "Disney's The Little Mermaid" currently doing well on Broadway.
Over the last four years she has assembled an all-star creative team for Little House. There's Oscar-winning composer Rachel Portman. Tony Award-winner Rachel Sheinkin wrote the musical book, and Donna di Novelli did the lyrics.
Zambello said the themes in the Little House stories about coming of age, respect for the environment and the challenge of building a community resonate today
Some of the songs are wistful, others funny, such as when Laura meets the fearsomely snooty Nellie Oleson on the first day of school.
Zambello said she'd like the show to have a life after Minneapolis. Yet she won't be drawn as to when or if Little House will make the jump to the Great White Way.
"I honestly think it's too early to tell," she said. "We are only in previews. It's still an enigma what will happen afterwards."
Zambello said for now she's concentrating on molding the best possible musical for the Guthrie.
But a lot of other people in the theatre world are seeing promising signs.
Another early partner in the production was Broadway producer Ben Sprecher, whose company invested almost $2 million in the show. According to Variety Theater reporter, Gordon Cox, that, combined with ticket sales and positive audience reaction in the previews, bodes well .
"Right now things are looking pretty good for it," Cox said.
Cox said there's another thing is catching Broadway's attention.
"I think the Melissa Gilbert casting is very canny," said Cox.
To millions of Little House TV series viewers around the world, Melissa Gilbert is Laura Ingalls. Now a little older she plays Ma Ingalls in the new show. Cox said brand recognition is important to the modern musical and casting Gilbert provides a tangible link to the TV show.
The Little House musical crew is also winning credit for choosing the Guthrie Theater to develop the show.
Kevin McCollum is best known as the producer who brought "Rent," "Avenue Q," "In the Heights," and most recently "[title of show]" to the stage.
Also, as the former president of the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, he knows the Twin Cities is great place to hone a new production.
"The great thing about the Twin Cities is the very sophisticated audience," he said. "It's a great theatre town and often times, the creative team and you learn so much once you add an audience."
McCollum said it's also a good place capture the public imagination about the show, an ingredient he said is vital in what he calls the alchemy of creating a new musical.
It's an alchemy Little House set designer Adrienne Lobel knows all about. She was the one who suggested the Little House idea to Francesca Zambello.
A few years back she helped adapt her father Arnold Lobel's books into the musical "A Year with Frog and Toad." The show was a big hit at the Children's Theater in Minneapolis with people of all ages. But, she said it was misidentified as a kid's show when it moved to Broadway, and then sank without trace in the days after 9/11.
She hopes the Little House musical will take another route.
"I would love to see the show go on a nice healthy American tour before it goes anywhere near New York," she said.
And it looks like Lobel will get her wish.
Producer Ben Sprecher told Broadwayworld.com he's planning a 40-city tour for the show in the fall of 2009. There are other good reasons to hold off on a quick move to Broadway. A lot of big new shows are scheduled to open soon, including "Billy Elliot," "Shrek the Musical," and a revival of "West Side Story," produced by Kevin McCollum.
At the Guthrie box office staff say many of the Little House performances are sold out but tickets are still available for later in the run.