NBC announced today that it would air Annie Live! during the coming holiday season.
Oscar and Emmy winner, Neil Meron, producer of every musical that has aired on NBC since The Sound of Music Live! premiered in 2013, will executive produce the event with Robert Greenblatt. Lear DeBessonet will direct the show and Alex Rudzinski will act as “live technical director” and executive producer. Chloe Productions will produce the special.
It’s notable that Greenblatt is involved with Annie Live!
Greenblatt is a modern legend in the entertainment industry, having begun his career as one of the key architects of the FOX Network in the 1990s. He went on to run Showtime, NBC and WarnerMedia, with stops along the way, producing (with David Janollari) Six Feet Under, an instant HBO classic, as well as many other beloved film, TV and Broadway titles.
When Greenblatt was recruited to run NBC’s programming as its chairman in 2011, the network was in bad shape. It trailed all three of the other major networks and was due for a major overhaul.
To everyone’s surprise, one of Greenblatt’s early initiatives was to bring back the live musical to broadcast television.
Live theater and musicals had been a staple during the infancy of television, reaching their zenith of popularity in the 1950s and petering out in the 1960s as live, scripted content gave way to other forms of live entertainment: sports, awards shows and the dawn of reality competitions.
From the 1970s onward, if you were a fan of musicals you’d have to wait for them to be adapted into feature films, which happened very rarely and with mixed box-office success.
Otherwise, your only option would be to travel to New York to catch a Broadway show, or wait until the local community theater produced chestnuts like My Fair Lady, Oklahoma! or other classics from Broadway’s Golden Age.
Greenblatt bet that the right musical production could still work on TV, and he chose The Sound of Music Live! as his experiment.
Everyone was skeptical about a live musical connecting in the modern era, but Greenblatt’s instincts paid off. The special sang to an astounding 18 million-plus viewers on December 5th, 2013 and delivered the highest ratings for NBC on a Thursday night since 2004.
After that success, Greenblatt continued to green-light musicals nearly annually throughout his many years running the network, and as he left NBC, he not only returned the “Peacock” to its number one status, but he had introduced other musically-oriented content as well, chief among them, the mega-hit music competition show, The Voice.
Annie Live! will be Greenblatt’s first production since leaving WarnerMedia’s executive suites last year. Our lightly condensed interview follows:
“From my years at various networks, I know how hard it is to find big, family musicals. There aren’t that many. The show is set in 1932, not long into the Roosevelt administration. The country was rebuilding. People compare the time of the musical to the challenges we’re facing today. It’s a show about optimism and hope and the power of this little girl to change the world. It’s a perfect show for our time.
What’s your relationship with this musical?
I was lucky enough to see Annie not long after it debuted on Broadway in 1978, on my very first trip to NYC. I was 18, coming in from Rockford, Illinois and we bought tickets to see several shows: Annie, Sweeney Todd, Dream Girls, They’re Playing Our Song, Dracula… It was the trip of a lifetime.
How long have you and Neil Meron known each other?
Neil and Craig (Craig Zadan, who passed away in 2018) were very successful, very talented film producers (among many titles, Zadan and Meron produced the Oscar-winning film, Chicago) I was at the FOX network. We’d always been looking for something to do together. We developed the original musical Smash when I was running Showtime, which I ultimately bought and produced at NBC. Smash was a drama series about the making of a Broadway musical, inspired by the life of Marilyn Monroe…which ironically, we’re now developing as a Broadway musical!
How often do things go straight to Broadway, versus getting a run somewhere else?
Nearly every show goes out of town first because you want to bring the best version to Broadway. That said, during the pandemic, we’ve been trying new and innovative ways to hone productions so that we may not necessarily have to spend the time and money working and reworking shows in various cities, before taking them to New York. I predict once things return to full tilt on Broadway later this year, we’ll look at every way we do business there differently.
The casts of your musicals got more and more star-filled as years went by at NBC. Any cast announcements you’d like to make?
Not yet. We have some big, very exciting ideas to share but it’s too premature to discuss them at the moment. One thing I can say with absolute certainty: we will have a very diverse cast.
The 1982 adaptation was directed by John Huston (of all people) – – how did you pick Lear DeBessonet to direct?
Lear is a tremendous force on the theater scene. She’s been doing amazing work at The Public Theater. It was her original idea to do Annie Live! I was at Warner’s when she originally pitched it. There was no appropriate platform for me to do it with her there, so it sat on Lear’s shelf. After I left Warner’s, Lear contacted me and we decided to take it out to the broadcasters. All four networks wanted to do it, which kind of surprised me, quite frankly.
Why were you surprised?
Even though I know shows like these don’t come along often, they can be very expensive and there is some risk involved…not to mention: they’re three hours long! That’s an entire night of TV. That said, as we were taking it around, one thing was abundantly clear: all of the networks simply love Annie.
Do you have plans to take more musicals to the market soon?
None at the moment. But one never knows…!
What do you think the future is for live musicals on TV?
There’s a big appetite for these things, if you can find the right title. Lear only reconnected with me with the project a few months ago. We secured the rights, set the meetings and took it out. It all came together in a matter of months. I just love that the form is still alive, and that people are still so excited about it.”