NBC is getting a New Deal for Christmas, as it gets back into the live TV musical business with “Annie Live!” Set to air during the holidays, “Annie” also represents a homecoming of sorts for producers Bob Greenblatt and Neil Meron.
Greenblatt, of course, is the former NBC Entertainment chairman who found success in bringing live musicals to the network, starting with “The Sound of Music Live!” in 2013. Meron and the late Craig Zadan were the producers behind that special, which was a tremendous hit — averaging 21.8 million viewers in live+3 ratings. It spawned follow-up events including “Peter Pan Live!” in 2014, “The Wiz Live!” in 2015, “Hairspray Live!” in 2016 and “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” on Easter in 2018.
“Annie Live!” landed at NBC after being shopped to all four major broadcast networks. “NBC is where we started these live musicals and I still have so much affection for it,” Greenblatt said. “I’m also so gratified to be working with this creative team, a group of people who are the best at what they do.”
Joining the production team with Greenblatt and Meron is Alex Rudzinski as live TV director and executive producer, roles he also held on “Hairspray Live!” and “Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert.” Obie Award winner Lear deBessonet, the artistic director for New York’s revival series Encores and creator of the Public Works program at the Public Theatre, will direct the performance.
Tony winner (“Ain’t Too Proud”) and Olivier winner (“Memphis”) Sergio Trujillo will choreograph the production. Paul Tazewell will design the costumes and Jason Sherwood will handle the scenery. Tazewell won an Emmy award for “The Wiz Live!” and most recently designed costumes for Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake; Emmy winner Sherwood’s production design credits include “Rent: Live” and the 2020 Oscars.
Also joining the team is music supervisor and orchestrator Stephen Oremus (“The Wiz Live!”), who will head the music department for “Annie Live!” Chloe Productions is the producer of the live event.
“As we look to drive big live audiences for NBC, we could think of no better way than to bring back the network’s holiday musical tradition,” said Susan Rovner, Chairman, Entertainment Content, NBCUniversal Television and Streaming. “And there are no better partners to do this with than the incredible Neil Meron and Bob Greenblatt, who oversaw every live musical during the years he ran NBC. Under their leadership, ’Annie Live’ will bring a fresh perspective to this timeless classic, coupling a dynamic first-class creative team with casting choices that will ensure this is a must-watch event for the whole family.”
Greenblatt credited Rovner “and her new team because they share our belief in the power of broadcast television to bring families together for events like these.” When he left NBC in 2018, it meant the driving force behind the network’s musical ambitions was no longer there. (NBC did air “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Musical!” in 2020, but Meron and Greenblatt were not involved and it wasn’t a live event.) NBC’s success in the space later inspired several entries at Fox: “Grease: Live” (2016), “A Christmas Story Live” (2017) and “Rent Live” (2019). Also in 2019, ABC produced “The Little Mermaid Live.”
Besides his time as an exec, most recently as WarnerMedia Entertainment chairman, Greenblatt is also a TV producer (“Six Feet Under”) and Broadway producer, having developed the musical stage adaptation of “9 to 5.”
Greenblatt said he believed the story of “Annie,” about a young girl who brings people together to change her world and the world around her, is just as timely today, especially after the hard-knock year we’ve just been through.
“Even though it was written 40 years ago, ironically in the aftermath of the Nixon administration and the Vietnam war, I think people are looking for hope after a time of so much division and the isolation of the pandemic,” he said. “We really hope that this musical about a hopelessly optimistic young girl who finds a new family while the country looks forward to FDR’s New Deal will be the feel-good show people are looking for.”
Along with the late Zadan, Meron has been a prolific musical producer, winning the Oscar for “Chicago,” as well as the Emmy for “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.” Other credits include the Bette Midler starrer “Gypsy” and ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney” presentation of “Cinderella” with Whitney Houston and Brandy.
Also for “Wonderful World of Disney,” Meron and Zadan produced a 1999 version of “Annie” from director Rob Marshall. Kathy Bates, Alan Cumming, Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Victor Garber and Andrea McArdle starred in that version, which was a hit (averaging 26.3 million viewers).
“There are few musicals like ‘Annie’ where you know the words to every song and the overriding message, especially in the trying times we live in, is optimism,” Meron said. “The song ‘Tomorrow’ means more than ever now, and it’s not lost on us that even Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal are impacted by this little orphan who simply believes in the goodness of everyone.”
“Annie” the musical first hit Broadway in 1977, featuring music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin and book by Thomas Meehan. It won seven Tony Awards that year, including best musical, and spawned the 1982 film starring Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Ann Reinking, Tim Curry, Bernadette Peters and Aileen Quinn. (A modern-day update, starring Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Cameron Diaz and Quvenzhané Wallis, was released in 2014.)
Songs such as “Tomorrow,” “It’s A Hard-Knock Life,” “Maybe,” “Little Girls,” “Easy Street,” and “NYC” are still familiar to audiences today, thanks to the enduring legacy of “Annie,” which has been licensed and performed in 50 countries and translated into 8 languages.
On Broadway, “Annie” was revived in 1997 and again in 2012. The original 1977 title character was played by Andrea McArdle; others who played “Annie” over the years included Sarah Jessica Parker. The musical was inspired by the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” created by Harold Gray in 1924.
By Michael Schneider // Variety