‘Little House on the Prairie’: Melissa Gilbert Had an ‘Identity Crisis’ When She Played Ma Ingalls in the Musical
Melissa Gilbert is best known for her part as Laura Ingalls Wilder on Little House on the Prairie. But many years after the role that catapulted her career, Gilbert returned to Walnut Grove — this time in a theatrical production and as Ma instead of Laura. The rehearsal and performance process was quite reflective for Gilbert. She thought about how far she’s come, from Laura to Ma, and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
Melissa Gilbert signed on to do the musical version of ‘Little House on the Prairie’
As soon as Gilbert agreed to join the cast of Little House on the Prairie at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, she began taking singing lessons. She trained for a full year before rehearsals even began. Even so, she was incredibly nervous. But, at the same time, she was thankful to get the opportunity to do something she loved and that challenged her as an actor.
“Normally, opportunities for actresses my age begin to wane, and yet there I was at forty-four starting a whole new facet of my career,” she wrote in her 2009 memoir, Prairie Tale.
She felt “equally blessed” to be working with “such a wonderful cast and creative team.”
“All of us bonded instantly, and I grew especially (and appropriately) close to Steve Blanchard, who was playing Pa,” she wrote, mirroring her incredibly close relationship with Michael Landon from back in the day.
Melissa Gilbert as Ma instead of Laura
“The strangest part of the whole experience for me was grappling with the idea of playing Ma instead of Laura,” she wrote. “Talk about an identity crisis.”
Early in the rehearsal process, whenever someone would call for Laura or Half-Pint, Gilbert would answer.
“Later, during the scenes when Pa and Laura (Kara Lindsay) were onstage, I stood in the wings and wept, remembering Mike and me and watching the two of them create that bond in a whole new and beautiful way,” she wrote.
‘Little House on the Prairie: The Musical’ was a success
As opening night crept closer, Gilbert grew anxious. She “felt the pressure of the Little House legacy. Would we be able to catch lightning in a bottle again?”
“On the day tickets went on sale for the official run, the Guthrie’s website crashed,” wrote Gilbert. “Hundreds of fans stood in line at the theater. I greeted people and marveled at the dozens of girls who showed up dressed as Laura, their hair in pigtails.”
Gilbert’s then-husband, Bruce Boxleitner, and their children flew in for opening night.
“After the two-and-a-half-hour performance, Bruce and the family engulfed me backstage,” she wrote. “All of us were sobbing from joy. Elated and relieved, I sighed, ‘Oh man, I did it. This is really good.'”
What Melissa Gilbert learned about herself
After the performance, members of the audience called out for Gilbert. Some called her Caroline, others called her Laura.
“Ultimately, it didn’t matter what people called me,” she wrote. “I didn’t have to be one person to anyone, including myself. Instead of worrying about who I was, the key was to focus on who I could become.
“Somewhere on my journey from Baby Girl [the name written on her birth certificate before she was immediately put up for adoption] to grown woman, I had discovered myself. I had also become the triple threat that once seemed possible only in my dreams. I could act, sing, and dance. I could also laugh, cry, and forgive. I didn’t worry as much about who I was compared to who I could become.”