'Annie Live!' : How the NBC Production Starring Harry Connick Jr., Taraji P. Henson Was Pulled Off

Annie Live! premiered Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC

annie live!
Photo: Paul Gilmore/NBC

Annie has been a beloved Broadway musical since the curtain first when up in 1977 — and the 1982 film adaptation, featuring Aileen Quinn as the title character, became a classic. So when NBC decided to tell the tale for Annie Live!, it was a considerable task.

And you can bet your bottom dollar a lot of work went into making Thursday night's production — starring newcomer Celina Smith as well as Harry Connick Jr., Taraji P. Henson, Nicole Scherzinger, Tituss Burgess and Megan Hilty — a success.

Based on the Little Orphan Annie comic strip, Annie follows an orphaned tween who is given the opportunity to spend a brief stint residing at billionaire Oliver Warbucks' lavish home during the Great Depression era. The optimistic message is something that has carried on into the Broadway musical and its subsequent film adaptations, which features hits including "Tomorrow" and "It's the Hard-Knock Life."

Ahead of premiere day, PEOPLE was invited to attend a private dress rehearsal at Gold Coast Studios in Bethpage, New York, and see how the live production came together.

ANNIE LIVE! -- Season: 2021 -- Pictured: (l-r) Celina Smith as Annie, Sandy as Sandy the dog -- (Photo by: Paul Gilmore/NBC)
Paul Gilmore/NBC

On the walk toward the stage, set pieces waiting to be used for later in the production were seen all over the premises. Once inside the rehearsal studio, it was impossible to miss the massive Annie Live! sign positioned high above the audience members' seats. That very sign made a cameo during the opening number.

The dress rehearsal began with a group of child actresses playing the orphans, rushing the stage for the opening number. The group was made up of children of varied ability, including one who used a wheelchair throughout the first dance. As seen in the live show, Smith underwent a quick wardrobe change thereafter before taking her place to perform "Maybe."

Smith then showed off her vocal talents in "Maybe" before rejoining the orphans inside their shared bedroom. After she sang, crew members quietly removed a set piece that was used during the ballad scene moments earlier.

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annie live!
Paul Gilmore/NBC

It's no secret the cast had to learn the necessary lines and choreography for the musical, but crew members also had to perfect a routine of their own. Throughout the rehearsal, they seamlessly moved set pieces around — even in the middle of a scene. Pauses for commercial breaks allowed them to complete the larger stage preparations.

Another cast member who needed to learn the choreography was Macy, a.k.a. the dog who played Sandy. The furry animal had two handlers instructing her from the side of the stage, sometimes moving around the crew to do so.

And with this show being live on Thursday, the cast and crew performed Wednesday's rehearsal as if it was the actual show.

Cameras were rolling throughout the entire run-through as a precaution in case there is a major malfunction during the live show. (Previously, 2019's Rent: Live had to use the dress rehearsal footage after star Brennin Hunt broke his foot.)

Because of that, cameramen also needed to hit their mark as they carefully ran around to get the necessary shots. Additionally, time checks were announced on multiple occasions during commercial break pauses.

ANNIE LIVE! -- Season: 2021 -- Pictured: (l-r) Sandy as Sandy the dog, Celina Smith as Annie, Harry Connick, Jr. as Daddy Warbucks -- (Photo by: Paul Gilmore/NBC)
Paul Gilmore/NBC

Between takes, many praised Scherzinger, 43, who thanked her admirers at one point and joked to Connick: "You're not the only one who gets compliments, Harry!"

Many of Scherzinger's costumes throughout the play appeared to pay homage to what Ann Reinking wore in the 1982 film.

Connick, 54, was particularly chatty between takes. If he wasn't marveling at how "miraculous" the crew staff was, he was raving about his castmates.

annie live!
Paul Gilmore/NBC

"She's one of the most brilliant kids I ever met," the singer and actor said of Smith.

Connick additionally shared some behind-the-scenes tidbits, including how he told NBC he'd only join the production if he could play the piano live (which he did).

He also told Smith that when he performed "Something Was Missing" that evening, he "almost cried" because he thought he saw her getting emotional as well. However, Smith later told him she "almost sneezed."

Annie Live! aired Thursday (8 p.m. ET) on NBC.

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