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Poor Grace, left out in the cold again...

For those of you who tend to follow this blog, you are somewhat familiar with my deep interest, yes, some would say obsession, of Laura Ingalls Wilder/L.M. Montgomery.  I have spent a lot of time researching these two writers and to say that they haven't influenced me would be an understatement. It is with that in mind, that I could not pass up the opportunity to see Melissa Gilbert play Ma in Little House on the Prairie the Musical at the Canon Theatre in Toronto. I had heard about this last year and read the mediocre reviews, but I didn't care. As obsessed as I am about the woman who wrote the Little House Series, I am also (as some of you might recall regarding another recent post that I did) fascinated by how things are adapted for stage and screen. mindel-73.livejournal.com/#asset-mindel_73-1724, 

So, my Mom and I went last night to see it. After all, it was she who introduced me to the series and bought me the books when I was seven - it seemed only fair that we observe a story that we knew well together. This is not going to be a review on the musical itself, but more about a reflection on the adaptation of four of the nine (or eleven depending on your point-of-view) Laura Ingalls Wilder's books into a musical. I think that the critics of the show forget again about the source material - which I think is an integral part of looking at a show. But more on that later. For your reference, the books that this show is based on are: By the Shores of the Silver Lake, Little Town on the Prairie, The Long Winter, and These Happy Golden Years.

The show traces the story from the time that Ingalls family decide to leave Burr Oak, Iowa and go west again to the DeSmet South Dakota because the government was offering "Free Land" to any MAN who would claim a piece of it, work it for five years and then it would be theirs. Pa, Ma, Laura, Mary and Carrie are all present to take part of this adventure. Like in the books, Laura is her father's daughter, wanting to be out in the fields instead of being home sewing with her sisters. Like in the books, there is some tension between Laura and her perfect sister Mary. But, for whatever reason, the writers of the show, Rachel Sheinkin, and Donna DiNovelli, decided that they would just leave the fourth and youngest sister out. This happened once before in the Little House Series. Although Grace wasn't left out per say, given the time lines they were working with in the show, Grace was only ever a baby. But, open to By the Shores of the Silver Lake and Baby Grace is there. In later books, we see her grow up like we do Carrie. So, why leave her out at all? Was it because an audience familiar with the TV series, wouldn't really understand why there is a fourth sister there? Would it take the focus away from Laura and Mary's relationship? The only reference to Grace is at the end of the show, Ma puts her hand on her stomach as if you tell Pa she is expecting.  Carrie's character is odd because she kind of says things for comic relief. But Sheikin and DiNovelli pick up on her nervousness of her character in the books. I kind of think that she is there for the little kids in the room probably. As Laura and Mary grow up, Carrie stays 10 the whole time.  They never age her. Laura has to grow up and get married, but Carrie's character doesn't have to.

Curious if I was right about some of my initial impressions, I browsed the books this morning to see if I was right.  One thing that dawned on me was that the problem with bringing these books to screen or stage is the amount of stuff that happens.. Each chapter contains new drama. Perhaps that is why critics find it so uneven. It makes sense to pick one or two dramatic moments  in a stage production because otherwise one would spend most of the time watching the Ingalls family fight one natural occurrence after another. This is the stuff a good mini-series makes (which I haven't really seen anyone do that well yet.) So, I am okay that they focused on the fire that wipes everything out and the long winter. Sheikin and DiNovelli actually used a lot of the material from The Long Winter in the first half of the show - particularly the twisting of hay and  Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland's trek through the snow to get the wheat.

I was trying to find exactly where the reference to Mary's blindness occurs in the books this morning, but it alluded me. But, I am fairly certain that it happens before they go to DeSmet.  But, I won't argue that right now. Plus, I've kind of discuss that in other posts.  Laura's response to her sister's blindness, about "Being Her Eyes" (as one of the songs goes,) is lifted from the books. As they travel to DeSmet, Laura visually describes everything she sees to her sister. She also takes a job sewing in town to help pay for her sister's education. This is left out of the show. That might have been an interesting scene. Women sitting around singing about sewing...or not... 

Here, though, I have a great example, of how people confuse adaptations with the "real thing." In the bathroom after the show, my Mom overheard two women talking and one of them commented that the writers concentrated on Laura's marriage, but not Mary's.
"Well, of course they didn't," I told my mother in my know-it-all tone, "Mary never married. That was Michael Landon's interpretation of Mary Ingalls's life. In real life, she came home and lived with her parents, beaded and played the organ. Perhaps she wrote a few things too. But, she never married."  It made me wonder of the long lasting influence of the show and how many people actually took the time to read the books.

Clearly, the critics of the show haven't. This is where I might get a little mean. Sorry critics, nothing personal. If you are going to critique a show, know the source material. I understand that the medium that something is working in should stand on its own.  And, one would hope, that if you have at team like Rachel Portman, Rachel Sheinkim and Donna Di Novelli with scenic design by Adrienne Lobel (daughter of that Frog and Toad author we loved as a kid) that perhaps we would see something with a little more cohesiveness, some great and memorable music and a moving production. And, admittedly I was disappointed in the end with what I saw. I cannot really remember any of the music, which is too bad as I think there may have been one or two numbers that were ok...and I think that I would have liked to see a really great song between Laura and Almanzo and the one that was there was...eh... (Although I would go back again for further analysis which probably just makes me insane...) But, as I said,this is not a critique on the show per say. 

One of the reviews that I read this morning in the Globe and Mail was not incredibly kind to the show. But, I took issue with some of the critics descriptions of the show itself because they didn't actually consider the source material. (I have included a link to the article below.) One of the points in particular is right at the end of the article, the critic, J. Kelly Nestruck says: "Laura, billeted with a slightly psychotic housewife in Brewster, learns through song that marriage isn't all its cracked up to be due to that "obey" bit in the vows. Later, Laura tells Almanzo that if she ever weds, she couldn't say that word."  Nestruck then goes on to say that it might as well be like that all familiar song we all know and love from Oklahoma "I'm just a girl who cain't say no."  This is where I really take issue. If Nestruck had actually gone back to the source material, s/he may have realized that that is actually in the book. That this is an integral part of the fictional (and possibly the writer Wilder's) character.


One of the things that I liked about the show was that Sheikin took phrases from Wilder's books. If you are using her story, you might as well, take the dialogue from the source. This happens a couple of times in the show - but mostly I noticed it towards the end. I am sure if I go deeply into the books, I will find more but these are the ones I immediately recognized. 

1) Almanzo and Laura's courtship is lifted from These Happy Golden Years. At one point in the show, Laura, Nelly Oleson and Almanzo are all out at his settlement and when he asks her if he can pick her up, she says that he may as well not bother unless he was coming just for her.  This is pretty well what she says in the book.
2) When Almanzo asks her if she would be open to a wedding ring and she says, "depends on who is offering." This is also from the book. In the book though, he leaves her and comes back with it...that would be a little odd in a play.
3) When Laura and Almanzo talk later about the vows, she tells him that she will not say "obey" as she will want to always speak her mind.
4) When Laura tells her family that she will marry Almanzo, in the play Pa jokes and says that maybe it is more the horses than Almanzo. and she says that she couldn't separate them.  However, in the book, it is Ma who says it.

So, essentially, if you were going pick at plot points, one may want to think about why it is there. And to compare this show to Oklahoma doesn't seem fair because this show was about being on the Frontier where life is hard, and, well, Oklahoma just isn't.

I don't know if I could do any better doing an adaptation, but I think in the end, these artists were trying to pull together a story from some very difficult source material weighted underneath the ghost of Michael Landon, which  may have been even further complicated by bringing in the woman who played a Laura that we just see in our minds' eye as part of our collective consciousness. For better or for worse.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 31st, 2010 03:15 pm (UTC)
i look forward to reading them aloud one day in the future. i loved them so much when i was growing up. Given the G&M review, I have a feeling I would have been similarly uncharitable towards the musical though.
Jan. 31st, 2010 05:28 pm (UTC)
Yes. I have a feeling that you would. :) It isn't a great musical for some of the things that I said, but I ponder what it would have been like had they workshopped it a bit more or something. The second half was definitely much stronger than the first. Almost like, everyone was more comfortable.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )