How NBC's Annie Live! Proved That Less Can Be More For TV Musicals
It wasn't a hard knock life watching Annie Live!
Spoilers ahead for NBC’s Annie Live! on December 2.
NBC officially brought live musicals back to television to kick off the holiday season with Annie Live! as an adaptation of the beloved stage production that first hit Broadway in 1977. The three-hour broadcast was full of energy and some songs catchy enough that they’ll probably still be stuck in some heads well into the weekend, but it also wasn’t produced on quite as grand of a scale as other live TV musicals like Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rent, and The Little Mermaid Live!. There was less when it came to Annie Live! and it worked so well that I think other networks and live TV musicals could learn a lesson or two.
Admittedly, I came into Annie Live! as a big fan of stage musicals and having watched many other live TV musical productions, so I didn’t have a totally clean slate. Still, I’d never seen any version of Annie before, so beyond knowing about these orphans having a hard knock life and the sun coming out tomorrow, the story was new to me. So, read on for why I would say that Annie Live! proved that less can be more with live TV musicals.
Annie Live! Didn't Need A Grand Elaborate Set
Annie Live! certainly jumped from setting to setting, ranging from the orphanage to Daddy Warbucks’ home to the streets of New York to even Franklin D. Roosevelt’s White House, but not by building and rebuilding elaborate sets or traveling to different stages. There was no pretense that this wasn’t all happening on a stage with moving set pieces, and there were no huge structures that the actors were climbing on and in between for the dance numbers. This truly felt like a stage production that had been filmed, rather than a production staged for television.
The staircase in Daddy Warbucks’ home was the grandest set piece, and the show honestly didn’t need any more. After all, if viewers can suspend their disbelief to watch a story where the characters burst into song and synchronized dance out of nowhere, they can use their imaginations about the stage. Nothing felt rushed, and nobody sustained any injuries like Brennin Hunt during the dress rehearsal for Rent Live! back in 2019, when he broke his foot and the production had to scramble due to a lack of understudies.
The Focus Was On The Performers And Choreography
This production didn’t go for any grand sweeping shots or jump from set to set, but kept the focus tight on the characters and let the actors’ performances shine through. There were certainly wide angles, particularly during the biggest moments of choreography and dance numbers, and that worked to help build the sense of watching a stage production rather than a movie. And everything was tightly choreographed, under control, and clearly well-rehearsed, to the point that even Sandy the dog hit all of his marks, and the youngsters playing the orphans didn't miss any beats.
I can’t help but compare it to Grease: Live back in 2016, which was honestly a fun performance with an energetic cast and a lot of moving parts. But possibly the most memorable thing about Grease: Live for me is actually a moment from the big closing number, when the cast members were driving carts between the Fox stages while singing in character, and one came dangerously close to tipping over a curb and would have caused quite a pileup if it had flipped. Flubs are always going to happen with live productions, but Annie Live! keeping a smaller and tighter focus meant that everything went quite smoothly.
The Cast Nailed The Characters
Now, I’m not going to say that Annie Live! didn't go for big names to attract viewers, because it’s surely no coincidence that the adult cast was filled out by the likes of Harry Connick Jr. as Daddy Warbucks, Taraji P. Henson as Miss Hannigan, The Masked Singer’s Nicole Scherzinger as Grace Farrell, and Titus Burgess as Rooster Hannigan to add star power around Celina Smith as the young powerhouse playing Annie.
But it didn’t feel like stunt casting or like any of them were cast for their name rather than their talent. I could see any of them playing their roles on a Broadway stage. Frankly, I’d watch a Miss Hannigan sequel if it would feature Taraji P. Henson playing that character again! And to compare Annie: Live to other live TV productions, I can’t help but look to The Little Mermaid Live! from 2019 and Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert in 2018.
The Little Mermaid Live! wasn’t a traditional live TV musical, as it was intercut with the actual animated movie airing on ABC, but I can’t be the only one who remembers John Stamos ad-libbing a line about “Prince Albert” during his number as Chef Louis, when of course the prince from The Little Mermaid is Eric. “Les Poissons” also arguably wasn’t the best fit for his voice. He was fun and funny despite the flub, but it felt like he was cast because he's John Stamos.
And as much as I honestly liked John Legend as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, I’ve also seen other productions and listened to the soundtrack enough times to know that there are some parts of Jesus’ songs that had to be changed to be in Legend’s range. That’s not to say that he didn’t do a great job as Jesus or didn't deserve earning EGOT status, but he seemed to land the lead role because he’s The Voice's John Legend rather than because he had the voice best suited to that character’s songs as originally written. For me, Annie Live! nailed it with the entire cast, and I hope to see young Celina Smith go on to more starring roles.
The Audience Didn't Distract
There was an audience present for the filming of Annie Live! In person, but they weren’t intrusive into the show, which isn’t always the case. Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, for example, played to the crowd much more, as one would expect from a production with “Live in Concert” in the name. (I also appreciated that there was an audience presence at all, especially compared to Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Musical that aired on NBC last year.) An interactive audience makes sense for a show like Jesus Christ Superstar or for Rent, but not so much Annie.
All things considered, NBC pulled off a solid production with Annie Live! It may not go down as the most memorable or spectacular of the live musicals that have aired over the past five years or so, but it found the sweet spot on a small scale to pull off a wonderful pre-holiday musical. Even though it’s not on top of my list of live TV musicals that I’d want to watch again first – that honor probably goes to Jesus Christ Superstar Live – I’m very glad I watched it, and it’ll be interesting to check out the ratings and see how many people also decided to watch the live broadcast.
Networks beginning to shift toward holiday programming means that the end of the 2021 TV season is nearly here, but it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to 2022. Check out our winter and spring premiere schedule for what to watch and when to watch it in the new year. Annie Live! bumped The Blacklist, Law & Order: SVU, and Law & Order: Organized Crime to next week for their winter finales, and the Law & Order crossover is one that fans definitely won’t want to miss.
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Laura turned a lifelong love of television into a valid reason to write and think about TV on a daily basis. She's not a doctor, lawyer, or detective, but watches a lot of them in primetime. Resident of One Chicago, the galaxy far, far away, and Northeast Ohio. Will not time travel, but will sneak references to The X-Files into daily conversation.