There's a famous saying in showbiz: "Never work with children or animals." NBC is wisely ignoring that as it mounts a live version of the hit Broadway musical "Annie."
The tale of the spunky young orphan with her dog Sandy set during the Depression will be NBC's first live musical since its triumphant "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert" in 2018. "Annie Live!" airs Thursday.
"It is a musical about hope and optimism, and it couldn't come at a better time," said Neil Meron, who has served as executive producer on all of NBC's live musicals.
Twelve-year-old newcomer Celina Smith has the title role, backed by co-stars Harry Connick Jr. as Annie's rescuer, Daddy Warbucks, and Taraji P. Henson as the orphanage's callous Miss Hannigan. Nicole Scherzinger, Tituss Burgess and Megan Hilty also are in the cast.
Henson admits to being nervous but says she needs to be: "Nerves mean you're alive and you're in the moment. It's not a bad thing. Nerves are good," she advises. "Go out there with shaky knees and shaky hands and use it."
The musical premiered on Broadway in 1977 and was revived in 1997 and 2012. The 1977 original show won the Tony as best musical and ran for 2,300 performances, inspiring tours and revivals that never went out of style.
"Annie" has been adapted many times for the screen, including a 1982 film version featuring Carol Burnett, another in 1999 featuring Kathy Bates and one in 2014 starring Quvenzhané Wallis.
The musical contains musical gems like "Tomorrow" and "It's the Hard Knock Life." Martin Charnin's lyrics, which earned him and songwriter Charles Strouse a Tony for best score in 1977, are playful and moving: "You're never fully dressed/without a smile" and "No one cares for you a smidge/when you're in an orphanage." Strouse, now 93, attended rehearsals and hugged the new Annie.
"The show was written in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration, and I think these guys were consciously trying to do something uplifting at a dark time in the country," said Bob Greenblatt, who oversaw live musicals during the years he ran NBC and has teamed up with Meron to executive produce "Annie Live!"
The creative team has gone back to the first Broadway show to add in songs that movie versions have cut. Meron says they are honoring the roots of the original show. "We've basically gone back to the original Broadway version and more or less have followed the structure of that show, adding back songs that no other film production ever used."
Tony Award-winner Emilio Sosa has designed the costumes, and the choreography will be led by Tony-winner Sergio Trujillo, who says he saw the 1982 film version but otherwise came to it like a blank slate.
"I began to discover what a gem it is," said Trujillo, whose Broadway work includes "Ain't Too Proud" and "On Your Feet!" He adds: "It has been one of the most surprising experiences in my career thus far because I have just let myself go and be carefree in the room."
NBC has found success with live musical events. Previous productions include 2013's "The Sound of Music Live!," 2014's "Peter Pan Live!," 2015's "The Wiz Live!," 2016's "Hairspray Live!" and 2018's "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert." Other networks have gotten in on the act, with Fox doing "A Christmas Story" and "Grease Live!" and ABC's "The Little Mermaid Live!"
Each has tried to evolve the viewing experience: "The Sound of Music Live!" was done in a movie style, and "Peter Pan Live!" gave producers license to be more fantastical. Over time, live audiences have been added.
"We didn't really know how to do one of these things, and we kind of invented it as we went along," said Greenblatt. "Each time we try to look at the show and the show kind of hopefully guides us to what we should do with it."
Greenblatt and Meron note that while "Annie" is set in the 1930s, it does have some parallels to today, in terms of economic turbulence, big government spending and social isolation.
"We sort of felt after a year and a half of this crazy pandemic and a political climate that's really dicey and very divisive at the moment that a show like this would be so welcome because it's just about optimism and hope," said Greenblatt. "There's some real parallels to what's going on. So we thought it was really relevant."
Henson has been sure to check out each of the live musicals but missed the last one and hated to be out of the conversation the next day. "If you don't want to get left out of the water cooler conversation the next day, I suggest you record it," she says.