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Masks, Vax Cards and an Army of Orphans: Behind the Scenes of NBC’s ‘Annie Live!’ Dress Rehearsal

ANNIE LIVE! -- Season: 2021 --
Paul Gilmore/NBC

For audience members checking in at the final dress rehearsal of NBC’s “Annie Live!” on Dec. 1, there was an additional stop along the usual security gauntlet. Between the airport-style metal detectors and the YONDR phone sequestration, everyone was required to show ID and proof of vaccination and was given a color-coordinated mask to wear throughout the show.

Producing a live musical for television is always a massively intricate endeavor, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic added yet another layer of complexity. Every time the army of black-clad crew members swarmed the stage during the rehearsal’s commercial breaks, their masks were a constant reminder of the safety procedures to which the entire cast and crew had adhered for the many weeks that the live event has been in production.

“We’re observing all these protocols and being very, very careful,” said Robert Greenblatt, the former NBC exec who is producing “Annie Live!” “In rehearsals, the cast is singing and dancing and huffing and puffing in masks all day long.”

Speaking in an interview a few days before the rehearsal, he added ruefully, “When we set this show up at NBC nine months ago, we thought COVID would be so far in the rearview mirror.”

If anyone has a handle on the complexities of live TV musicals, it’s Greenblatt, the former chairman of NBC Entertainment who launched the network’s live musical tradition with “The Sound of Music” in 2013. Now he’s co-producing “Annie Live!” with Neil Meron, who, with his late partner Craig Zadan, brought a string of live musicals to Greenblatt’s NBC including “Sound of Music,” “Peter Pan” (2014), “The Wiz” (2015), “Hairspray” (2016) and, most recently, “Jesus Christ Superstar” (2018).

For “Annie Live!,” the pandemic was another variable for which producers had to prepare. After all, now it’s not just an injury (like the broken foot suffered by an actor in Fox’s “Rent Live” in 2019) that might disrupt things; a breakthrough infection could also throw a wrench in the works.

“This is a live broadcast. We can’t shut down and delay,” Greenblatt said. “If someone gets it, they’re out of the show.”

But both he and Meron have also been Broadway producers, so the concept of understudies isn’t foreign to them. “We’ve had understudies since ‘The Sound of Music,’” Meron said. “It’s part of the DNA of what we’ve done for this network. They’re always there, and they learn their lines and are ready to go on, God forbid.”

The pandemic had already prompted a casting switch when Jane Krakowski, set to play Lily St. Regis, tested positive in the weeks prior to rehearsal. Megan Hilty (“Smash”) stepped in to appear alongside Taraji P. Henson, Harry Connick Jr., Nicole Scherzinger, Tituss Burgess and Celina Smith as Annie.

Preparations for “Annie Live!,” broadcast live from Gold Coast Studios in Bethpage, Long Island, have been underway since August, with cast members in rehearsals for more than a month before the airdate. Scherzinger, the singer-dancer-actor who is also a judge on Fox’s “The Masked Singer,” described six weeks of long rehearsals bolstered by regular training and physical therapy for a torn hamstring.

“I tell you what, these live TV musicals are no joke!” she said in an interview a few days before the dress rehearsal. Unlike a stage musical like “Cats,” in which Scherzinger appeared on the West End, there are no preview performances to help work out the kinks before opening night. “You get one shot, and you’ve invited the entire country to your opening night,” she said.

However, the dress rehearsal was filmed, just in case.

None of the live musicals, at NBC or another network, has matched the ratings or viewership of the show that launched the trend. After “The Sound of Music” drew 18.5 million viewers in 2013, “The Wiz” (2015) pulled in 11.5 million viewers while “Peter Pan” (2014), “Hairspray” (2016) and “Jesus Christ Superstar” (2018) hit between 9 million and 10 million each. (Fox’s most watched live musical, “Grease,” came in at 12.2 million in 2016.)

That’s still enough to turn the heads of executives looking to steer audiences back to broadcast TV with event programming. “After a few years of no live musicals, I wasn’t sure what the reception would be, but when we took this family show around town, and all four networks said they’d love to do this,” Greenblatt said.

In addition to the TV viewers, the “Annie Live!” cast performs for a live audience of about 350, seated along one curving side of the production’s large, circular playing area. The production’s 360-degree filming means that sometimes the live crowds have views obstructed by set elements or camera equipment.

Instead, though, they catch glimpses of moments the TV audience will never see. At the dress rehearsal, live audiences had a view of the wink and the fist-bump shared by Scherzinger and Smith before one of their entrances and watched Henson realize with a laugh that she’d set up for her next scene in the wrong spot and had to rush over to her place at the last minute. Broadway fans could also take note of Bill Berloni, Broadway’s go-to guy for stage dogs, shepherding the pup who plays Sandy between scenes, or spot Tony-winning choreographer Sergio Trujillo dashing across the stage now and then.

During commercial breaks, Connick couldn’t get enough of bantering with the audience. After a song with Smith, he turned to the crowd and explained, “I just said to her, ‘Celina, I got emotional. I almost cried during that song.’ She said, ‘I almost sneezed.’”

Amid the usual controlled chaos inherent to producing both musical theater and live TV, the dress rehearsal went smoothly with no major mishaps. But looking ahead to the big night, there are still things that make the collaborators nervous.

For Greenblatt, it’s the tech elements. “There are lots of complicated set changes which no one at home will notice, because many of them will take place during commercial breaks,” he said. “It’s a lot of major choreography going on  back there. That gives me a little bit of pause.”

Meron, meanwhile, is keeping his fingers crossed for a moment that comes early in the show: Smith’s performance of the musical’s anthem, “Tomorrow.” “That is the iconic moment of the show and if Celina puts that across in the way we know she will, you can kind of wipe the sweat off your brow,” he said.

The nail-biter for Scherzinger is living up to a Broadway legend with her character’s big dance number, “We Got Annie.” That song from the 1982 movie version, originally sung and danced on by the late stage legend Ann Reinking (“Chicago”), has never been a part of any other “Annie” adaptation for the screen.

“Growing up, Ann Reinking was one of my inspirations, and she’s the only other person who’s ever done ‘We Got Annie,’” Scherzinger said. “I want to do her proud and pay homage to her in the right way. I want to rise to the occasion.”

During the dress rehearsal, the live audience glimpsed Scherzinger cross herself just before cameras started rolling and she and her fellow cast members launched into the showstopper. It went off without a hitch.

“Annie Live!” airs Dec. 2 at 8 p.m. on NBC.