When her people first pitched the idea to her, she said, "Are you crazy? I can't sing. I can dance, but I can't sing."
Melissa Gilbert is on the phone from Fayetteville, Ark., where she is starring as Ma in the Madison-bound touring production of Little House on the Prairie: The Musical. At the moment she is puttering in the kitchen, putting dishes away and listening to Alicia Keys, who can indeed sing.
Since her manager talked her down from that initial reaction, Gilbert has learned that she can sing, too - in public, night after night, before audiences all across the country. Many are drawn by the exquisite symmetry of the former child star, who portrayed pioneer girl Laura Ingalls Wilder during her formative years on TV's Little House, now playing the author's mother, Caroline Ingalls, in the musical adaptation.
That's not why Gilbert took the part. "The music was irresistible," she says. "The book itself was beautifully written, and it's nice to have the opportunity to do something new as a female actor in her 40s, when opportunities are supposedly drying up."
She pauses, then adds: "When something scares me, I tend to jump in."
Not that coming home to Little House has been all frightful. Sometimes, she notes, she will stand in the wings and observe the dynamics between Kara Lindsay, as Laura, and Steve Blanchard, as Pa. This can sometimes leave her feeling "a bit wistful" about the late Michael Landon, who produced the TV series and starred as the family patriarch, Charles. Wistful, "and proud."
The greatest challenges she has confronted, Gilbert says, include "developing the physical stamina that I needed to do this, and learning to pack efficiently, which I have not learned to do yet." She sustained a back injury early in the tour, but says she is pain-free now.
There are rewards to counterbalance the challenges, she adds. One is "watching my son grow." Michael Boxleitner, 14, plays Willie Olesen in the musical. "I couldn't be more proud of him," Gilbert says. She also delights in "feeling the audience and hearing them laugh and gasp."
What might Gilbert ask Caroline Ingalls if she had the opportunity to turn back the clock and meet the matriarch she is now portraying? "The first thing that comes into my head right now," she says, cracking up, "is, 'Am I doing this right? Are you okay with this?'"
How does she imagine the woman who served as the basis for the musical's Ma might answer? "Oh, gosh," Gilbert says. "'You'll have to figure that one out for yourself, dear,' is what she'd say."