BETHPAGE, N.Y. — From the outside, Gold Coast Studios, a cluster of enormous beige buildings just off the highway in this Long Island hamlet, looks like a nondescript warehouse complex. Step inside, though, and an ersatz New York City full of singing orphans comes to life.
A silver Manhattan skyline fills the background of a brightly lit sound stage, complete with miniature versions of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, and a set of elevated train tracks that rise up and stretch out toward seats that will soon be filled with spectators. The Tony Award-winning choreographer Sergio Trujillo (“Ain’t Too Proud,” “Memphis”) instructs a group of ensemble members — a hot dog vendor and a newspaper boy among them — while nearby, an army of crew members rolls four enormous “marble” pillars into place within Oliver Warbucks’s imposing mansion.
It is here that “Annie Live!” will unfold on Thursday night, with an array of eight cameras capturing the action for broadcast on NBC. (West Coast viewers will watch a delayed airing; the show will be available to stream Friday on Peacock.)
Directed for the stage by Lear deBessonet, the artistic director for City Center’s Encores! series, and for television by Alex Rudzinski, the production is the latest offering within the live TV musical trend NBC kicked off with “The Sound of Music Live!” in 2013. In the time since, NBC and other networks have produced a string of widely watched theatrical spectacles for TV, both beloved (NBC’s “The Wiz Live!” in 2015, Fox’s “Grease Live!” in 2016) and less so (NBC’s “Peter Pan Live!” in 2014), along with several hybrid specials (NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” in 2018) and live-to-tape copycats. (NBC’s most recent TV musical, “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Musical Live!” last year, was prerecorded in London’s Troubadour Theater.)
But while the formula is well-established at this point, the creators see a particular timeliness in this musical’s hopeful message after a rough couple of years and as the Omicron variant renews Covid anxieties.
“What makes this different is that it seems to have come at a right time, where the messages of ‘Annie,’ I think, resonate a lot more,” said Neil Meron, who has produced all of NBC’s recent live musicals, teaming with Robert Greenblatt for this one. “Because it’s all about optimism, and it’s about how one young girl can change things and just open things up again — opening emotions, opening hearts. And I think we crave that now.”
With its diverse cast, including Taraji P. Henson as Miss Agatha Hannigan and Celina Smith in the title role, “Annie” also offers an updated ode to family, couched within a 45-year-old musical.
In 1997, Meron executive produced the made-for-TV movie “Cinderella,” based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and starring Brandy in the title role and Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother. That special was a pop culture landmark, particularly for viewers of color, and Meron hopes “Annie Live!” might mean something similar to a new generation.
“The idea of doing ‘Annie’ right now, with as diverse a cast as we have, I think could even be more resoundingly emotional, especially for the Black community,” he said. “At least I hope so. Because these are classic roles, and they’re being portrayed by the best of the best.”
“We don’t want to hit people over the head with resonance,” he added. “We just are portraying it, and people will take that; people are smart enough to understand what we’re doing without underlining it.”
The “Annie Live!” production, which includes 43 cast members, including a dog named Sandy who, conveniently, will play Sandy the dog, has been in rehearsals since mid-October. (A total of more than 350 people work on the show, including the crew and staff.) When the show goes on Thursday night, it will be before a live audience of just under 500 people — proof of full vaccination is required and audience members will wear masks for the entirety of the show.
(NBC said the entire company was fully vaccinated, including Jane Krakowski, who was originally set to play Lily St. Regis but had to leave the production after getting a breakthrough case of Covid. She was replaced by Megan Hilty.)
“Annie” has never been far from the cultural radar since the musical made its Broadway debut in 1977. (The play was based on Harold Gray’s long-running comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” which debuted in 1924 and was itself inspired by a 19th century poem by James Whitcomb Riley.) John Huston’s 1982 movie adaptation, with Aileen Quinn, Carol Burnett, Ann Reinking and Albert Finney, remains definitive for many. Smith, the current Annie, is partial to the 2014 movie starring Quvenzhané Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) — she hopes to be for other young viewers what Wallis was for her.
“I want to be able to be that role model for young Black girls,” Smith, 12, said in a phone interview. “They can say, ‘Maybe I could do what she’s doing right now; maybe I could act.’ Because you know, we can do whatever we put our minds to.”
In conversation, Smith modulates between professional poise and bursts of preteen laughter. When asked whether her family would be watching from home in Atlanta or among the live audience, Smith giggled. “On set — I mean, I’m a minor.” (She and the production’s other young actors keep up with school work by attending lessons with teachers on set.)
Smith has starred in Tyler Perry’s “Young Dylan,” on Nickelodeon, and in the national theatrical tour of “The Lion King,” and she sees a through line between the plucky characters she has already played and her current one. “They all have so much in common because they’re all so optimistic about everything,” she said. “Annie is like, ‘If this doesn’t happen, I’m just going to try again.’ Again and again and again.”
A similar persistence has characterized NBC’s approach to live musicals since Meron and his producing partner Craig Zadan, who died in 2018, pitched “The Sound of Music Live!” to Greenblatt, then chairman of the network.
Back then, Greenblatt had been looking for ways to put NBC “back on the map,” the former chairman said in a phone interview.
“And lo and behold, ‘Sound of Music’ was that monstrous rating of 18 million people who watched it live,” Greenblatt said. “People don’t watch television live like that unless it’s NBC’s football games or the Olympics, or an occasional big event.”
The ratings for live musicals have not reached that level since, though that hasn’t been from a lack of star power. (Think: John Legend and Sara Bareilles in “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” or Kristin Chenoweth and Ariana Grande in “Hairspray Live!”) In addition to Henson and Smith, the “Annie Live!” main cast includes Harry Connick Jr. as Daddy Warbucks and Nicole Scherzinger, the Pussycat Dolls lead singer, as Grace Farrell. The fact that three women of color play the female leads this year thrills Henson.
“When I went to Howard University, which was an H.B.C.U., we got to play any character,” she said in a phone interview. “That’s how I trained: I was used to playing any character I wanted to.”
Henson studied drama at Howard and has appeared in productions of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “Above the Fold,” among others. “That was before Cookie,” she said, referring to her star turn on the Fox hit “Empire.” “That’s where I thrive: on the stage.”
Scherzinger is similarly returning to her roots: Best known as a pop singer, she attended a performing arts high school, studied theater in college and has performed in a Hollywood Bowl production of “Rent” and in a London-based production of “Cats.”
“Preparing for the stage or West End or Broadway, you have many nights to work through,” she said in a phone interview. “We get this one shot to do it live.”
Both Scherzinger, who is Hawaiian and Filipina, and Henson, who is Black, remarked that, growing up, they either never saw themselves in these roles, or wouldn’t have been able to get them.
Connick wrote new lyrics to accompany a reprise of the song “Maybe” that spoke to the contemporary casting. A couple claiming to be Annie’s biological parents (played by Hilty and Tituss Burgess) arrives to take her away.
“Maybe it’s fair,” Connick sings as Warbucks. “Some would agree. Maybe it’s just the way it should be: A mom and a dad and Annie makes three. I hope you don’t forget about me.”
In a phone interview, Connick said the addition is “a nod to nontraditional families.”
“This would be this single white man with this young Black girl, potentially marrying, in this particular case, this Asian woman that I’m in love with,” he said. “This entire production is a nod to the idea that things can be interpreted just as beautifully in nontraditional ways.”