Network television has a bit of a spotty history when it comes to the modern era of live TV muscals, but NBC is hauling out major fanfare to herald the arrival of Annie Live! The beloved story of a plucky orphan girl who ends up getting adopted by the richest man in Depression-era New York is getting a 2021 update, which will be presented live for your holiday-season viewing pleasure. Of course, adapting Annie for a new audience is by no means a rare occasion in Hollywood. After its initial Broadway run, the show was adapted into a feature film directed by John Huston, then later as an ABC TV movie starring Kathy Bates, and most recently as a re-imagined feature film from director Will Gluck and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna. And that's not even getting into the numerous Broadway revivals.
Before the orphans start singing about their hard-knock lives in this latest incarnation, here's a look at who's set to step into each of the show's iconic roles, and where you may have seen them before:
When NBC announced Annie would be its next live musical last spring, they also announced a nationwide talent search for the girl who would play the title role. This was similar to how they cast the Dorothy role in The Wiz Live! and the Tracy Turnblad role in Hairspray Live!. That nationwide search landed on Celina Smith, who will now play the role made famous on stage by Andrea McArdle (Sarah Jessica Parker also famously played the part on Broadway) and in film by, among others, Quvenzhane Wallis. Smith, a 13 year-old Atlanta native, previously played Rebecca Wilson in a recurring role on Nickelodeon's Young Dylan, for which she won a Young Artist Academy Award earlier this year. She also starred as Young Nala in the national touring company of Disney's The Lion King.
Oscar- and Emmy-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson steps into the celebrated role of the vile and fed-up Miss Hannigan, who so shoddily lords over the orphanage where Annie lives, forever lamenting her life taking care of little girls. On stage, Dorothy Loudon won a Tony Award for her performance in the role, and on film this has traditionally been the big-ticket casting for the show. Carol Burnett memorably played Miss Hannigan in the Huston film, Kathy Bates filled those furious shoes in the ABC version, and Cameron Diaz offered a different take on the character in the 2014 Annie. Henson is a tremendously gifted actress whose great dramatic performances in shows and films like Empire and Hidden Figures shouldn't obscure her gift for comedy or music (she got one of her first breakthrough roles in 2005's Hustle and Flow).
The eternally handsome crooner has been a staple in your mom's CD collection ever since he sang the great American songbook on the soundtrack for When Harry Met Sally. He branched out into acting in the 1990s, with roles in movies like Independence Day, Copycat, Hope Floats, and a recurring role on TV's Will & Grace. He was also briefly an American Idol judge. Now he'll be playing Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks, the famously wealthy (and famously bald) millionaire who takes a shine to Annie and wants to adopt her. (Not to wory, he hasn't lost his hair or shaved it off; Connick is sporting a bald cap for this production.) The actors who've played this role over the years have included the late Albert Finney, the great Victor Garber, and the Oscar-winning Jamie Foxx (although his character was named Benjamin Stacks).
Pop star, X-Factor judge, and guesser of celebrity identities on The Masked Singer, Nicole Scherzinger was discovered on the reality show Popstars en route to forming the band Eden's Crush. She was the lead vocalist for The Pussycat Dolls, an offshoot of a Las Vegas burlesque show that ended up scoring four Top 10 songs. She went on to get raves for playing Grizabella in Cats on stage. And now she'll be belting her little heart out as Grace Farrell, Warbucks' wonderfully kind assistant. Grace has previously been taken on by actresses with phenomenal talent, from the great dancer Ann Reinking to the peerless Audra McDonald to Rose Byrne, giving what was probably the best performance in the misbegotten 2014 Annie.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt made Tituss Burgess a bona fide TV star (and multiple Emmy nominee), but he was a Broadway star before that, having played Sebastian the Crab in Broadway's The Little Mermaid, and Nicely-Nicely Johnson in the revival of Guys & Dolls. A role on 30 Rock as Angie Jordan's stylist D'Fwan led to him being cast as Titus Andromedon on Kimmy Schmidt. On Annie, he'll be playing Miss Hannigan's no-good con artist of a brother, Rooster, stepping in the shoes of actors like Tim Curry and Alan Cumming.
The role of Lily St. Regis — Rooster's dim-witted girlfriend and criminal accomplice — was originally set to be played in Annie Live! by Jane Krakowski, promising viewers a delicious reunion of 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt co-stars. Unfortunately, Krakowski tested positive for COVID-19 last month and had to bow out of the show, so stepping into the role instead is Megan Hilty. Hilty has starred in Broadway shows like 9 to 5: The Musical and Noises Off, for which she earned a Tony nomination, but she's best known to TV audiences for her role as Ivy Lynn on NBC's fervently remembered musical drama Smash.
Annie takes place during the Great Depression, and there's actually quite a bit of story dedicated to an offscreen FDR. He eventually shows up, though, and in Annie Live! he'll be portrayed by veteran actor Alan Toy. Like FDR, Toy himself is a polio survivor. He's previously shared the screen with Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator and Tom Cruise in Born on the 4th of July, although he may be best remembered for playing psychology professor Patrick Finley on Beverly Hills, 90210, who turned out to be something of a cult leader.
Annie Live! airs on NBC Thursday, December 2nd at 8:00 PM ET.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.