Half Pint grows up in the 'Little House on the Prairie' musical

If you want to catch a glimpse of Melissa Gilbert this week when she's not onstage playing Ma Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie: The Musical, walk down the street from Bass Hall to Leddy's Ranch at Sundance.

One of the actress's priorities in Cowtown, she said by phone last month, would be to buy boots at the legendary Western-wear store. Someone in the show's wardrobe department, see, has been wearing some pretty spectacular boots -- and Gilbert simply must have some herself, she said.

"But I'm not telling anyone when I'm going," she said, adding that she'll be wearing a "big ol' hat" around town. "That's how incredibly private and rabidly anti-social I am."

It's hard to imagine that Gilbert, 46, has enjoyed a moment of privacy since she was 10 and just starting out as Laura Ingalls (Wilder) on TV's Little House on the Prairie -- especially not since last year's shockingly revealing memoir, Prairie Tale (Simon Spotlight, $26), in which she shattered any notions fans might have had that she grew up in that fantasy "ma-and-pa" world off set.

Gilbert -- who still sounds like a little "Half Pint" on the phone -- stepped back into the Little House genre two years ago, playing Ma in the musical version of the show, which opened in Minnesota and then hit the road with a grueling tour schedule. (The show traveled to Sioux Falls, S.D., between dates in Dallas and Fort Worth -- to which Gilbert said, "Clearly a mommy was not in charge!")

She admits she didn't think a Little House musical was such a good idea at first. ("I said, 'Are you out of your mind? You can't turn that into a musical! Did you see Waiting for Guffman?'") But she changed her mind after she read the script and heard the music.

Here's more of our conversation with Gilbert:

Will it ever be possible for you to escape your 'Laura Ingalls' identity?

I don't think that's a reality. That just is not gonna happen -- ever. I rebelled against it a bit when I was a teenager: The last couple years of the show I wanted to wear my hair like everyone else was, I didn't want to wear petticoats, I was dating, I was in love -- and when the show was over I immediately wanted to do the show. I never thought I would go back to it, certainly not in this way [the musical version].

Even when I was president of [the Screen Actors Guild] people expected a 12-year old girl in gingham with pigtails to walk into the room. Actors pray to be able to earn a living doing a job, and when people use words like 'iconic' and 'multigenerational' it's just ... people show up [to the musical] with sunbonnets on.... I see multiple generations of families there, and it's really very moving.

What did you think about the fact that the role of Ma Ingalls in the musical would involve singing?

I've been singing off and on my whole life, and dancing, and I just never had the chance to do it professionally.

And your son is in the show? What is that like?

My youngest, Michael, who is 14, is in the show. When we started out ... we had a long conversation about being professional, and I said, 'Unless you're hurt or sick, I'm not 'Mommy.'" It worked great until a wall rolled over his foot, and I came running on stage and shut everything down.

I've read that you've been injured, too.

I have managed through the course of the show to virtually obliterate two discs; I've left in an ambulance four times. I have to have two operations in the next few years. I'll have one in July; then I'm escaping to a hideaway and doing physical therapy and sitting by the river, doing yoga and fishing.

Sounds like the tour has been grueling.

I left L.A. at the end of July. Our longest sit-down was six weeks in Toronto in January and February -- that was insane! But this has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. It's coming to an end now, and I'm starting to get very emotional.

Your book reveals some unpleasant truths about your life. Were you afraid that audiences may not warm up to you, knowing that you didn't have the fantasy 'Little House' childhood everyone thought you had?

No, I really didn't. It didn't really concern me all that much. This is me, warts and all. The book is available for sale here at the theater, but I insisted they put a sticker [warning of adult content] on the outside of the book before allowing children to see it.

The public has been nothing but supportive. Nobody, thank God, is perfect. Nobody has a flawless life. It only makes me more relatable and maybe even a little more accessible, I think.

What do you think of Melissa Sue Anderson's (Mary Ingalls on Little House) and Alison Arngrim's (Nellie Oleson) new books about their childhoods on the show?

I read Alison's first because she wanted a quote from me; her book is extraordinary. She's one of my best friends -- she's very much like a sister, and she was when we were children. We had sleepovers all the time, and I had no idea until we were adults that her brother was sexually molesting her. For her to be as honest as she is about that and talk about activism on behalf of children molested is extraordinary. And she has some wicked funny stories about me that I had forgotten.

It's no secret that Melissa Sue and I were far from close.... I was a goofy, bucktoothed, bouncy nut-job, and she was proper, focused, quiet, reserved girl, and when she hit puberty ... Melissa Sue was flat-out mean to me. Her book is more like an episode guide.

Did you give Kara Lindsay, who plays Laura Ingalls in the musical, any advice?

Lord no, I wouldn't dare! This child is so extraordinarily brilliant. They didn't tell her I was playing Ma.... She flipped when she found out. But she absolutely has owned the role of Laura since stepped into the shoes.