‘Little House on the Prairie’: The Time Melissa Gilbert Played Ma Ingalls

Melissa Gilbert is most known for playing Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie, however, she also played a different role in the franchise. Specifically, she once took on the role of Ma Ingalls. Here’s a look at how she tried to make her Ma different from Karen Grassle’s Ma.

Lindsay or Sydney Greenbush, Michael Landon, and Melissa Gilbert  with a bag
Lindsay or Sydney Greenbush, Michael Landon, and Melissa Gilbert | BCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

How Melissa Gilbert felt about taking on the role of Ma Ingalls in the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ franchise

Firstly, a little background. The show Little House on the Prairie ran from 1974 to 1983. Apparently, both the show and Ingalls Wilder’s books stayed in the public consciousness long afterward. In 2009, the book series was adapted into a stage musical simply called Little House on the Prairie.

Fittingly, Gilbert had a role in the musical. She played Ma. During an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Gilbert discussed how she felt about stepping into the role.

The theme from Little House on the Prairie

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How Melissa Gilbert’s version of Ma Ingalls was different from the one on the show

“Other than the challenge of taking on a new role, I didn’t feel pressure in any sort of way,” Gilbert said. “I had to sort of focus [a] bit to get the sound of Karen Grassle (who played Ma on the TV show) out of my brain, because she is Ma. She’s a completely different Ma than I am, as written in this piece, too.”

Gilbert noted how the musical version of Little House on the Prairie differed from the television version. “Both Ma and Pa are written very differently,” she said. “There’s still that core that makes the story work so well, family and community and love and faith and strength through adversity, but the people themselves are different. Ma and Pa are much more of a team. It’s a little — how should I say this? — a little sparkier.” 

Melissa Gilbert with a microphone
Melissa Gilbert | Daniel Zuchnik/WireImage

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During a separate interview with The New York Times, Gilbert also discussed her approach to the role as compared to Grassle’s. “Karen’s Ma always reminded me of Grace Kelly,” she said. “My Ma’s a little more feisty, a little more earthy,” she said. “I’m a redhead. So is Ma in this show. So there’s some fire under those petticoats.”

How the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ musical performed

Clearly, Gilbert was trying to bring some spice to the role of Ma Inaglls. Did it work? The musical version of Little House on the Prairie didn’t become one of musical theater’s iconic hits like The Sound of Music, The Phantom of the Opera, or Hamilton. It didn’t even garner a cult following like other musicals such as Assassins and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. It only ran from 2009 to 2010. It remains an artifact for major fans of Little House on the Prairie and Broadway — even though the average Broadway fan probably hasn’t heard of it. Regardless, the show gave Gilbert a chance to do a different take on Ma.