Portable Pioneer and Prairie Show
A lively band of traveling players relates the story of their ancestors in this exhilarating tale of American prairie life.
Show Essentials

Full Synopsis

Act One

The show begins. A man named Karl enters while playing the harmonica. Other actors enter and begin transforming the stage into their own playing space. Alone, Karin enters and reveals the diary of her mother, Kristina Andersson. Karin then begins to tell of the Spring of 1884, when she and her brothers, Karl and Paul, set out on the road with others, just as their parents had done years before. They call themselves the Andersson Family Ensemble.

One by one, other actors join Karin onstage. Soon, both stage and time are transformed, and the new Andersson Family Ensemble is ready to tell its family history. We officially meet Karin Andersson, who will portray her mother. Karin's brother, Paul, will enact the role of Lars Andersson, the father of the family ("Band of Brothers").

We shift to Sweden in 1865. Lars and Kristina Andersson are considering a move to Minnesota to better their lives. It appears as though the crops are doing poorly in Sweden and the animals are starving. Lars comes across a pamphlet that shows America to be the land of prosperity and opportunity, but many people attempt to talk them out of leaving Sweden; Kristina is with child, which could make the voyage more difficult. Their pastor also tries to convince them to stay. He appeals to them on the basis of their talent, asking the Anderssons to sing a song that celebrates the passing of another winter of darkness ("Seasons of Change").

Despite all of this, Lars and Kristina set sail to America and are promised a luxurious voyage. Unfortunately, the ship is not as advertised, and many people have become sick due to poor food, deplorable accommodations and the storms that ravage the journey. Additionally, the ship goes off-course and becomes lost. To add to these calamities, Kristina gives birth aboard ship, one month early. They name the child Karin and call her the miracle child, because her birth brought the passing of the terrible storm ("The Perilous Crossing").

Upon arrival, the Anderssons head to Minnesota, first by train and then by rafting up the Mississippi River ("Ancient Waters"). Along the journey, both Lars and Kristina desperately try to learn English from their companions, but it proves to be difficult. Finally, the Andersson's journey by way of covered wagon ends, and they arrive at the promised land, where the soil appears fertile and hope lies ahead. They immediately build a house and celebrate their success ("Government Claim"). The first season boasts a plentiful harvest, with blizzards holding off until December. The Anderssons pray to the Lord and survive the winter ("Speak to the Earth"). They quickly make friends with their neighbors as the town begins to form; the community constructs streets, schools, stores and other public buildings ("Paradin' down the Main").

Some time has passed. Lars and Kristina are blessed with another child, but he falls ill. Members of the community recommend that Kristina administer American medicine – rather than the familiar Swedish sulfur and ginseng – and although the pastor wants to christen the baby, the Anderssons are not accustomed to the new diseases in America, and their boy dies tragically at only eight months old. Kristina and Lars are consumed with grief but, eventually, they grow hopeful for the future and assure each other that there will be more children ("Dancin' Sam").

On July 9, 1887, a cloud of locusts covers the sky, causing peril among the town members. Unfortunately, to get rid of the locusts, the Anderssons must torch their fields. After twelve years of work, they are forced to leave their home again with only their wagon, music and each other ("Speak to the Earth – Reprise").

Act Two

The Spring of 1878 brings the Andersson family newfound joy and a new baby boy, Karl. While the land heals its wounds, the pastor recommends that the Andersson family travel and perform their music for others. The family is reluctant at first, but they quickly realize that their options are limited. They pick up and set out on a brand new adventure ("Traveling On").

Over time, the Andersson family becomes very popular through their musical performances. One day, a young singer named Cordelia asks to sing for them. She tells them that people have compared her to the great opera star, Jenny Lind, who is also known as the Swedish Nightingale. Cordelia surprises the Anderssons with her knowledge of their family, leaving Kristina and Lars wondering how she learned so much about them. Cordelia convinces them of her talent, and the Anderssons adopt her into their performing troupe ("Talking Shoes").

In the next town, a Shakespearean group called the Pendergast Players performs Shakespeare to a rowdy and unhappy crowd. Suddenly, Cordelia introduces the Andersson family to the Pendergast Players, and it is decided that the family will sing in the back while the Shakespearean actors perform on the Andersson wagon. Cordelia convinces the Pendergast Players to add some music and dancing. After much resistance, especially from one member named Tyrone, they all agree to give it a try. Annie pours her heart into a new song that has been written by Lars, titled "Dancin' with the Air." The audience enjoys the new show tremendously.

Despite many successful performances, Lars tells Tyrone that the Andersson family must now head home to restore their land. They arrive back home after an entire season of traveling on the road. Much to their dismay, the land is not fully recovered, so the harvest will not be enough. Johnny arrives and pleads with the Anderssons to come back. After some coaxing, the Andersson family is convinced and takes to the road once more. The reunited group performs a drama that combines all of their talents ("Temperance Play"). Cordelia then sings a Jenny Lind song ("Don't Stain Your Lips, Daddy"). Under the direction of Tyrone, Lars and Kristina act out a scene from Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, but Tyrone is not pleased with their work. Johnny, Annie and the audiences, however, enjoy having the family back in the group. The group continues to travel and perform together, eventually becoming the Pendergast-Andersson Singers, playing vaudeville houses all across America ("Band of Brothers – Reprise").

After many weeks on the road, Kristina reveals to Lars that she has been yearning to go back to Minnesota and discover herself, but he wants to stay. Kristina takes Karin and leaves for home; Lars assures the group that Kristina will return after visiting Minnesota. Kristina, meanwhile, returns to town and realizes that it does not feel like home – she and the town have changed too much ("Seasons of Change – Reprise"). She eventually returns to Lars and the group.

While playing Lady Psyche at one performance, Cordelia has a vision and begs the group not to take the train west the next day. The group manages to get Cordelia offstage, thinking that she is going crazy, and they continue with the show. Cordelia continues to press the issue, but it falls on deaf ears. Lars and the group travel west ("The Iron Horse"). The song ends at an unbearable tempo as the actors explode. Karin reads her mother's last journal entry from July 8, 1893, as Paul narrates the tragedy of the deaths of all those lost in the explosion of the train. Both Lars and Kristina have died in the accidents. After laying their parents to rest, Karin, Paul and the rest of the group continue to spread their legacy of the Andersson family ("Guardians of the Land").



Cast Size: Small (Up to 10 performers)
Dance Requirements: None

Character Breakdown

Johnny's assistant, and a schemer and scammer like he is. A dancer and an actress. Strong-willed and stubborn.
Gender: female
Age: 25 to 45
The "songbird" of the group. Cheery and sweet. Whimsical and free-spirited. Clairvoyant and a bit of a flower-child.
Gender: female
Age: 25 to 50
Johnny Slade
A jack of all trades, he plays several characters throughout the story. An emphatic, scheming, and smarmy salesman.
Gender: male
Age: 40 to 50
The oldest Andersson daughter. She also plays their mother, Kristina. A storyteller. Strong. Loving and warm. Nostalgic for Sweden at times.
Gender: female
Age: 28 to 32
The youngest of the Andersson children. Does not speak as much as his siblings, but contributes much music to the storytelling. A good-ole boy. Jovial.
Gender: male
Age: 22 to 26
The second of the Andersson children. He also plays their father, Lars. Kind but headstrong. Proud, firm, and the definitive leader of the family.
Gender: male
Age: 26 to 30
The "actor" of the group. Very dramatic. He plays several characters throughout the story. Honest, religious, and very serious. Larger than life. A bit of a diva.
Gender: male
Age: 40 to 55
Full Song List
Portable Pioneer And Prairie Show: Band Of Brothers
Portable Pioneer And Prairie Show: Seasons Of Change
Portable Pioneer And Prairie Show: The Perilous Crossing
Portable Pioneer And Prairie Show: Ancient Waters
Portable Pioneer And Prairie Show: Government Claim
Portable Pioneer And Prairie Show: Speak To The Earth
Portable Pioneer And Prairie Show: Paradin' Down The Main
Portable Pioneer And Prairie Show: Dancing Sam
Portable Pioneer And Prairie Show: Traveling On
Portable Pioneer And Prairie Show: Talkin' Shoes
Portable Pioneer And Prairie Show: The Bard On Wheels
Portable Pioneer And Prairie Show: Dancin' With The Air
Portable Pioneer And Prairie Show: Temperance Play
Portable Pioneer And Prairie Show: The Iron Horse

Show History


The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, commissioned The Portable Pioneer and Prairie Show. Although the story is fictional, the idea of  Swedish immigrants escaping a bad harvest in the mid-1800s is based on factual events. During the nineteenth century, Sweden underwent a series of political, social and economic changes that resulted in large-scale emigration to the United States. Many Swedes who came over during the time period in which The Portable Pioneer and Prairie Show is set, ended up in Minnesota.


The original Guthrie production of The Portable Pioneer and Prairie Show premiered during the 1973-1974 season.

In 1974, there was a production at Washington, D.C.'s, historic Ford's Theatre, where the authors did some more work on the show.

After touring extensively over the years to great acclaim, the show was lured to New York for a limited engagement at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1985 with a cast that included superstar Donna Murphy as Cordelia.

The Portable Pioneer and Prairie Show returned to New York in 1997, where it was produced by the Melting Pot Company at the Theatre of the Riverside Church.

Cultural Influence

  • The libretto and vocal book of The Portable Pioneer and Prairie Show was published in 1985.
  • The New York Public Library's Theatre on Film and Tape archive recorded the 1997 production of the The Portable Pioneer and Prairie Show.


  • The Portable Pioneer and Prairie Show's co-author, Mel Marvin, wrote and performed in the musical, Tintypes, and has since collaborated with the Guthrie Theatre on a number of family-oriented musical theatre pieces.
  • The Portable Pioneer and Prairie Show was Melting Pot Theater's inaugural production.

Critical Reaction

"Cleanly staged... charmingly performed.... Pioneer is a sweetly old-fashioned musical."
– Variety

 "...stirring musical drama with a catchy country western style score."
– CurtainUp



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This play was originally comissioned
and presented by The Guthrie Theater
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