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'Annie Live!': NBC bets its bottom dollar on another old-school musical for a 'new generation'

·6 min read
In this article:
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  • Taraji P. Henson
    Taraji P. Henson
    American actress
  • Robert Greenblatt
    American television executive

BETHPAGE, N.Y. – The sun will come out tomorrow. But Sandy will have to wait.

It's late afternoon on a labyrinthine Long Island soundstage, where the cast of NBC's "Annie Live!" (Thursday, 8 EST/delayed PST) is performing the first full dress rehearsal of the show just two days before Thanksgiving. Mop-topped "orphans," some of them masked, are bemoaning the hard-knock life as they clap, stomp and tumble across the floor with cleaning rags in hand. Taraji P. Henson, who plays seedy orphanage head Miss Hannigan, is fanning herself and chugging water from a prop vodka bottle between scenes.

Celina Smith, the 12-year-old newcomer picked from 2,000 girls to play plucky ragamuffin Annie, is preparing to serenade stray pooch Sandy with the musical's signature tune, "Tomorrow." But the actress's four-legged co-star – also named Sandy – is sitting out this particular rehearsal as crew members tinker with set changes and camera blocking. Ever the consummate professional, Smith gamely pets the air and cuddles an invisible mutt while she belts out the heart-tugging anthem.

"It feels weird, but it's gonna have to do for now," Smith says of her pantomiming. "Singing the song is fun, so I don't really mind!"

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"Annie Live!" cast members Harry Connick Jr., left, Celina Smith, Nicole Scherzinger, Tituss Burgess, Sandy the dog, and Taraji P. Henson in costume ahead of Thursday's live broadcast on NBC.
"Annie Live!" cast members Harry Connick Jr., left, Celina Smith, Nicole Scherzinger, Tituss Burgess, Sandy the dog, and Taraji P. Henson in costume ahead of Thursday's live broadcast on NBC.

"Annie Live!" is a splashy TV production of the classic Tony-winning show, which first premiered on Broadway in 1977 and has spawned three film adaptations (most recently in 2014, starring Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis). The musical, based on a 1920s comic strip, tells the timeless story of a cheerful orphan named Annie who wins over grumpy billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Harry Connick Jr.) while staying at his mansion for Christmas.

The show is NBC's first live musical since 2018's critically acclaimed (but modestly rated) "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert" starring John Legend. Like fellow broadcasters ABC and Fox, NBC has found mixed success with its live musical events, which kicked off in 2013 with Carrie Underwood's "The Sound of Music Live," drawing a robust 18.6 million same-day viewers, according to Nielsen. Ratings sagged for more recent productions of "Peter Pan," "The Wiz" and "Hairspray," the network's lowest-rated live musical at 9 million viewers in 2016.

"If we fail, everyone goes, 'Uh! We can't do a musical anymore,' and the whole genre gets put on the shelf," says former NBC Entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt, who's producing "Annie." "There's been a couple live musicals over the years that haven't done that well, like 'Rent' and 'A Christmas Story' (on Fox). Each time that happens, we go, 'Oh, shoot.' "

Liesel (Ariane Rinehart, left), Maria (Carrie Underwood), Kurt (Joe West), Brigitta (Sophia Anne-Caruso) and Friedrich (Michael Nigro) in a scene from NBC's mega-successful "The Sound of Music Live!"
Liesel (Ariane Rinehart, left), Maria (Carrie Underwood), Kurt (Joe West), Brigitta (Sophia Anne-Caruso) and Friedrich (Michael Nigro) in a scene from NBC's mega-successful "The Sound of Music Live!"

After NBC canceled its 2019 broadcast of "Hair" due in part to the fraught political climate, Greenblatt reached out to executive producer Neil Meron during COVID with the idea of doing "Annie."

"We thought, 'If anyone's going to do a live musical, it would be this one," Greenblatt says. "It's a big, family-friendly, fun, optimistic musical. And there aren't that many blue-chip musicals with titles that are just known to everyone."

Unlike the 2014 movie, which was set in present day and used pop/hip-hop arrangements, "Annie Live!" is faithful to the show's original Broadway score and Great Depression-era setting. But it still resonates today: Warbucks makes a casual remark about "Broadway getting back on its feet again" in spite of hard times, which feels especially poignant coming off the 18-month pandemic shutdown of New York theaters. Producers also took a colorblind approach to casting with stars including Tituss Burgess as con artist Rooster and Nicole Scherzinger as Warbucks' head of household Grace.

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"We thought, 'It's 2022 almost – let's just put people in these roles that we love,' " Greenblatt says.

"In terms of diversity, 'Annie' is a classic and every generation needs to own their classics," adds Meron, who with late producing partner Craig Zadan was behind several TV musicals, including ABC's 1997 "Cinderella" starring Brandy and Whitney Houston. "It was the same theory even then: If you're going to be redoing it, you need to let the new generation own it. And I think the way we cast ('Annie') and we're approaching it is for the current audience."

Henson grew up venerating Carol Burnett's Hannigan in the 1982 "Annie" movie. "This is a role I certainly didn't think I would ever play," she says. "I haven't seen a Black woman portray Miss Hannigan yet ... and that's the beautiful thing about these plays that have been around for a long time: just getting different people to play the same characters with their interpretation."

The "Empire" star studied musical theater as a drama student at Howard University. Although she sang on "Saturday Night Live" and Three 6 Mafia's Oscar-winning "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," "I don't think a lot of my fans know this about me," Henson says. "This is really a chance for people to see me perform in this light."

Like Henson, Connick was familiar with "Annie" through John Huston's film and has a theater background, starring in the latest Broadway revival of "The Pajama Game." He appreciates the "complex" yet "wonderful" relationship between Warbucks and Annie – a dynamic that Smith elevates.

"If you tell her something, she incorporates that into her (performance) immediately," Connick says. "She's very present, so smart and just a real joy. I absolutely adore her."

Celina Smith, left, and canine co-star Sandy pose for a portrait.
Celina Smith, left, and canine co-star Sandy pose for a portrait.

Smith, an Atlanta native, has appeared in Nickelodeon sitcom "Young Dylan" and the national tour of Disney's "The Lion King" as young Nala. But she's the first to admit she never saw herself as an actress and pursued gymnastics for years.

"As my mom likes to say, my cartwheels 'weren't getting any better' – which is a full-blown lie," Smith says, giggling. "My cartwheels were fine."

At 7, she got her first taste of performing when she sang Jessie J's "Price Tag" at an arts summer camp. Flash forward five years: Smith landed "Annie Live!" after multiple auditions over Zoom. "She felt authentic and not like a kid doing Shirley Temple," Greenblatt says. Plus, adds Meron, "she sings like crazy."

As Thursday's live broadcast approaches, "I'm most excited for my friends and family to come to the show," Smith says. "I hope they're as blown away as I was when I got the news I'm playing Annie. I just want to represent for my people that I love."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Annie Live!': Taraji P. Henson talks NBC musical's colorblind casting