Annie Live!
Annie Live!

Megan Hilty, Nicole Scherzinger on the Joyful Surprises in Annie Live!

Playing the titular role in Annie marks a pivotal career point in a young actress’ career. Celina Smith says she’s still “peeing in her pants” to this day that the part is hers.

“I feel like I just had 20 Red Bulls,” she said with so much excitement over Zoom, it’s clear her delivery of Annie’s signature phrase “Leapin’ Lizards” will be met with just as much enthusiasm when Annie Live! airs on NBC on December 2 at 8:00 PM ET.

Annie, written by James Whitcomb Riley with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin, and book by Thomas Meehan, is based on the Harold Gray comic strip Little Orphan Annie. The original Broadway production premiered in 1977 and ran for nearly six years, and won seven Tony Awards, including for Best Musical.

The upcoming live television production of the musical will star Celina Smith as the 11-year-old orphan Annie. “I’m just trying to hold it in. I’m just so excited for you guys to finally see it because it’s such an amazing performance,” the 12-year-old, who was offered the role following a nationwide casting search, added.

Annie Live! also stars Harry Connick Jr. as Daddy Warbucks and Nicole Scherzinger as Grace Farrell, perhaps most well known as the lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls. Playing Warbucks’ secretary Grace is a role she says she’s been ready for her entire life. She began her singing career playing a handful of ingenues in musicals including Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls. More recently, she starred as Grizabella in a 2014 West End revival of Cats. “This is exactly where I’m supposed to be,” said Scherzinger of the opportunity.

Harry Connick Jr. as Daddy Warbucks, Celina Smith as Annie, Nicole Scherzinger as Grace Farrell, Tituss Burgess as Rooster Hannigan, Sandy as Sandy the dog, Taraji P. Henson as Miss Hannigan for <i>Annie Live!</i>. Photo by Paul Gilmore for NBC.
Harry Connick Jr. as Daddy Warbucks, Celina Smith as Annie, Nicole Scherzinger as Grace Farrell, Tituss Burgess as Rooster Hannigan, Sandy as Sandy the dog, Taraji P. Henson as Miss Hannigan for Annie Live!. Photo by Paul Gilmore for NBC.

Rounding out the leading roles are Taraji P. Henson (Empire) as Miss Hannigan, the orphanage proprietor; Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) as her brother Rooster and Megan Hilty (Smash) as his girlfriend Lily St. Regis. Hilty joins late into rehearsals, stepping in for Jane Krakowski who is recovering from a breakthrough case of COVID-19.

“I just feel so terrible for Jane,” Hilty told Broadway Direct. “This show is so wonderful so my heart goes out to her constantly. At the same time, I’m thrilled to be here. Very conflicting emotions have been happening this whole time.” Hilty found out she was offered the role after wrapping up her concert series at Feinstein’s 54/Below. “I just spent a week in Manhattan. I’d gotten home, squeezed my kids and then I got the phone call,” she said.

Hilty had previously worked with producers Robert Greenblatt and Neil Meron on two seasons of NBC’s Smash, a TV show about the making of a Broadway show. And playing Lily St. Regis, a role Bernadette Peters made iconic in the 1982 film adaptation, might also be too meta for Hilty, since Peters also played her character’s mother on Smash.

“I’m dancing! I’m actually dancing,” Hilty said giddily about her big number “Easy Street” with Burgess and Henson. “To sing with them is such a dream. We recorded together yesterday, and I was like, ‘Oh, please don’t let this end. This is so much fun.’”

“I heard you guys in the recording studio while I was eating lunch,” Celina chimed in. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’”

What will be a delightful surprise in this televised event will be the addition of “We Got Annie,” a number that only appeared on film and not in the stage version.

Scherzinger will perform Sergio Trujillo’s choreography in tribute to Ann Reinking. Reinking, who played Grace in the movie, passed away in 2020 at 71. “God rest her soul. There was never one like her before and never again after, right? I cannot fill in Ann Reinking’s shoes.” Scherzinger said softly then adding, “Ann brought her own cheerfulness and care to the role. I guess that’s how I’m honoring her by doing the same and bringing as much grace as I can to the character because she had so much grace when she danced.”

Another splashy production number “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” is also expected to wow audiences. “[Trujillo] put fire into these performances but kept it so authentic to that time with the choreography,” Scherzinger teased of her other big song. “The style he brings is out of this world.”

“Tomorrow,” of course, has forever been the showstopper in Annie. A song about hope and resilience is something Celina says she needed this year.

Sandy the dog, Celina Smith, Harry Connick Jr.
Sandy as Sandy the dog, Celina Smith as Annie, and Harry Connick Jr. as Daddy Warbucks for Annie Live!. Photo by Paul Gilmore for NBC.

“It’s been such a rough year for everybody: me, my mom, [and] my whole family,” she said. “It’s therapeutic for me because it spreads the message of whatever you put your mind to, you can do.”

Adding, “I want it to feel like a big hug for people because this musical is so therapeutic.”