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NBC’s ‘Annie Live!’ Producers Bob Greenblatt and Neil Meron on Why It Took So Long to Get to ‘Annie’

Plus: What the live-TV musical masterminds have in mind for their next gig

It’s been the hard-knock life for everyone over the past year and a half, as the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world in almost every conceivable way. But one tiny bit of “normal” we’ll get back Thursday is broadcast TV’s return to live-TV musicals with the debut of NBC’s “Annie Live!”

While this is obviously not a cure for what ails the globe, “Annie Live!” producers Bob Greenblatt (former NBC Chairman) and Neil Meron are really hoping “the eternal, optimistic musical” will help the sun come out for viewers in an even more powerful way than it would have, had “Annie” been one of the first five live-TV musicals the two made for NBC.

But now you might be wondering why “Annie” wasn’t among the first crop of shows NBC has done since it revived the live-TV musical format with “The Sound of Music” in 2013, which was followed by “Peter Pan,” “The Wiz,” “Hairspray” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Well, Greenblatt — who was the chief in charge of all of them — “won’t argue with you” that it’s strange it took the network this long to get around to “Annie,” through there are a few good reasons why.

(Before you ask: Last year’s “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Musical” starring Matthew Morrison on NBC was not a live production, it was pre-recorded over two days, and was not produced by Meron and Greenblatt.)

“Look, every year after we started doing these as a yearly tradition, people would bombard us with ideas like, do ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ do ‘Hello, Dolly!,’ do ‘West Side Story.’ Everyone would have their favorites,” Greenblatt told TheWrap. “And ‘Annie’ would come up from time to time. I think part of the reason we didn’t do it immediately was Neil produced a movie version of ‘Annie’ in 1999 for the Wonderful World of Disney. And I think we thought, ‘Well, you know, they did it recently. And maybe there’s other shows we would do before.’ But I’m thrilled we came back around to it because it’s a great big family holiday musical.”

Meron added: “The truth of the matter is also, at the time, we always considered ‘Annie’ and the rights holders [Charles Strouse, and the estates of Thomas Meehan and Martin Charnin] weren’t prepared to let it go live. And I think it was a question of timing that now seemed the right time for them, too.”

The Tony-winning musical “Annie,” which is inspired by the classic comic strip that first appeared in 1924, debuted on Broadway in 1977 and had an initial run of more than four years. The production has been adapted multiple times in film format, including Meron’s TV movie, as well as the iconic 1982 film and the 2014 modern-day version starring Jamie Foxx as Daddy Warbucks.

Photo by: Paul Gilmore/NBC

“So for several years, ‘Annie’ was not really on the table to even do. So we’re thrilled that we could do it now,” Greenblatt said. “One of the reasons we love doing ‘Annie’ now is because it’s the eternal, optimistic musical. And we’re in it a moment of a pandemic and there’s political divisiveness in the country. And we are just happy to be doing a show about hope and optimism and looking to the future and the brightness of tomorrow. And it just thematically feels really perfect for this moment.”

Greenblatt and Meron’s “Annie Live!” stars newcomer Celina Smith in the lead role of Annie alongside Taraji P. Henson as Miss Hannigan, Harry Connick Jr. as Daddy Warbucks, Nicole Scherzinger as Grace, Tituss Burgess as Rooster and Megan Hilty (who took over the role from Jane Krakowski after she contracted a breakthrough COVID case) as Lily St. Regis.

Meron says that NBC’s “Annie Live!” is “unique” in that while the films have “veered off of the original road map of the book that was done on Broadway,” this show is going to be “classic ‘Annie.'” That means “including songs that were never, never captured on film or recorded in any other version.”

See more from TheWrap’s Q&A with Greenblatt and Meron about “Annie Live!” below. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

TheWrap: What does it feel like to finally be back doing not just broadcast TV’s first live musical since ABC’s “The Little Mermaid” aired before the pandemic in November 2019, but NBC’s first since “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 2018?

Bob Greenblatt: We love doing these live musicals. Neal and I, along with Craig Zadan, pioneered this crazy idea back with “The Sound of Music,” and this will be our sixth live musical together. I, of course, was on the other side of the table at the network for all those years, but I’m so happy to be doing this with Neil. Yes, the world is very different. We are certainly very aware of the issues surrounding COVID, and we’re being super careful every step of the way to make sure that everybody’s healthy. But aside from that, it’s kind of business as usual, back to what we love doing. We’re putting on a massive production, which first has to be staged like a Broadway show and then we film it in front of a live audience. So it’s an enormous undertaking, but we feel like we have a good groove going, now that we have five of these already under our belt.

One of your initially cast stars Jane Krakowski had to be replaced a few weeks out by Megan Hilty after Krakowski (who is fully vaccinated) was diagnosed with a breakthrough case of COVID-19. What was your plan going into this, knowing that someone contracting COVID and having to drop out is a real possibility for all projects nowadays?

Neil Meron: Like the other NBC live musicals, we have always had understudies. So we do have understudies for all of the key roles. When it came to Jane, Jane was out of the country when she contracted COVID, so she wasn’t part of our family yet. So it didn’t impact the group on the ground here. But when it happened, just the first thought we had with Megan because she is part of our family, she can jump in at a moment’s notice. She’s the personification of everything that’s great about show business. So it was a great call to make. And, as expected — which is why we love her — she said yes immediately and was on a plane two days later.

BG: We’re all still figuring out what COVID means to these kinds of productions. And we’ve been very careful and we’re following all the strict rules and everybody’s rehearsing all day long and were masked and were tested and all those things. But we didn’t think, when we put this together and sold the show about eight months ago to NBC — or maybe nine months ago, now — we actually thought, like the whole world did, a year from then, it’ll be way past COVID and it’ll be in the rearview mirror. And we kind of thought this summer we were heading in that direction, but then realized that it was very much still be with us. I don’t think we expected our audience would be masked for a live musical, much less our cast masked every day of rehearsal. But you just kind of roll with the new plan and everybody’s been so cooperative and working so hard. It’s just kind of a part of our daily lives now. And we have seven more days to go and we’re praying no one else has to bow out. Every day, it’s a risk and we have been super careful. But we had enough time on the Megan front where we could actually get somebody in as opposed to just turn to our understudies, which we would do a day or two before the show. It’s just the world we now live in.

What similarities and differences can viewers expect to see between “Annie Live!” and the original Broadway show, or the film adaptations?

BG: I think people know the ’82 film, and maybe even Neil and Craig’s film from 1999, better than the Broadway production. I mean, we’ve all seen this show on stage, but I think the movie is really indelible in people’s minds. And in our production, which again goes back to Broadway, it ends at Christmas time and there’s a big Christmas finale. There’s a song called, “We’d Like To Thank You, Herbert Hoover,” which has never been done in the film versions from the Broadway production, which underscores the depression that the country was in, and we feel like it’s again relevant to some of the issues that we’re going through in this country. And there’s songs that are in the film versions that are not in the Broadway and vice versa. So it will be “Annie” that everybody knows, but there are some things that aren’t as familiar.

NM: We’ve made some nods to the ’82 film as well, musically, but keeping within the structure of the Broadway musical.

Annie Live! - Season 2021
Photo by: Paul Gilmore/NBC

TheWrap: Your Annie is newcomer Celina Smith, whom you found through a nationwide search. Why did you decide to go that route, rather than cast a known child actor?

NM: There really is no star child that we could think of and we have a history of discovering some young women, as we did with “The Wiz Live!,” where we found Shanice Williams. And “Hairspray Live!” with Maddie Baillio, where we opened it up to nationwide search for the key role that’s at the center of the piece. So it made sense to do it for “Annie” as well.

TheWrap: With “Annie” finally added to your lives, what do you have in mind for your next live-TV musical?

NM: Bob and I have always talked. We always bat titles around, back and forth and back and forth. But the truth of the matter is, I think they kind of live based upon how the previous one is received. And if this is received well, then that gives us license to do another one.

BG: We’re always thinking, what’s our next one, what’s our next one? And we have to convince the networks of doing them. And I will say, when we took “Annie” around, we didn’t just go to NBC and say we’re doing it there. We actually went to all four of the broadcast networks just to see, because it had been three years since the last one, just to see what’s the appetite out there. And I was no longer at NBC, so I wasn’t even sure how enthusiastic they would be. All four networks wanted to do “Annie,” which kind of blew me away. Now part of that is, I think that show, everyone knows it and everyone loves it. So it’s always tricky to find the right show. But I was really heartened to hear that all four networks wanted to do it. So I guess it’s really up to us to figure out, depending on how ‘Annie’ is received, well, what other titles are there that we think could be big, broad hits. And I think the networks are open, if we can find the right shows, which, is not easy, by the way. There’s only a few of these big blockbusters, but I think there’s an open door if ‘Annie’ comes out well.

TheWrap: So what do you think happens to the modern-era of live-TV musicals when we run out of those “big blockbusters”? Would you remake one you’ve already done?

NM: There are titles that we’ve batted around. It’s not endless. There are a couple, without going back to the well that we already have dipped to.

BG: I don’t think we would remake one of our live musicals, but there’s a handful of shows out there that we’re still excited about, and I think we can put spin on them in unique ways for certain networks who might want to do something specific with us. I can point to “Jesus Christ Superstar” as not being one of the obvious titles that we had been thinking about because it’s not your typical family holiday musical. And we specifically engineered that for a different holiday, the Easter holiday. And it’s a religious rock musical. I think there’s a way to do some of these things in unique ways for certain networks. And different networks like different things and have different audiences. So something that may be right for Fox, may not be right for ABC. So there’s enough for us to play with. We couldn’t do this three or five times a year. We’d be out of them quickly. But one every year or two, I think we can keep that ball rolling.

Along with Greenblatt and Meron, “Annie Live!” will be executive produced by Alex Rudzinsky, with Lear deBessonet and Rudzinski sharing directing duties. Choreography will be led by Sergio Trujillo; Jason Sherwood will oversee production design; Stephen Oremus will orchestrate the music direction; and Emilio Sosa will lead costume design.

The live event is being produced by Chloe Productions and will be shot in front of a masked and fully-vaccinated audience at Gold Coast Studios in Long Island, New York.

“Annie Live!” premieres Thursday at 8/7c on NBC.