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Jenny Dalzell on Thursday, Jun 27, 2013
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“Well, I’m 8 years old, and I’m a theater kid. That means I like to sing, dance, and act.” Make sure you’re reading that quote with a high-pitched, adorable voice—the voice of Emily Rosenfeld, who plays Molly in the revival of Annie, and who walks with a miniature stuffed beagle, Riley, down the streets of Manhattan. “I just got her like two weeks ago. We’re really good friends. I feel like she helps me.”
Emily is part of the central cast and creative team followed in a new PBS documentary, “Annie: It’s the Hard Knock Life, From Script to Stage.” Airing this Friday at 9pm, it’s a truly fascinating “making-of” of a Broadway musical, shown through the lens of its signature number. This is the real-life version of SMASH, minus the soap-opera romances and back-stabbing.
Along with Emily, we meet the other orphans, the costume designer, set designer, lyricist, writer, and the choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler. And unlike in the Tony Awards broadcast, the choreographer is definitely not left out of the mix. Instead, he’s leading us through the journey.
After a montage of miniature set desgins and fabric swatches, a door opens on the kids’ auditions. They’re not the diva, Broadway children one might expect. Sure, they’re precocious (says 8-year-old Junah: “When it was my turn I was like, Oh gosh, oh gosh. I knew that even if my career doesn’t go well as an actress, I always have the academic side of me, but this has always been my real dream.”) but also endearing. PBS asked the parents to tape their kids’ reactions to getting the job. In one instance, Junah’s mom, who says she's filming her piano lesson for grandma, reveals the news. Junah doesn't believe it. And watching the others bounce, scream, and cry with joy, it’s clear that they’re real kids who didn’t expect to get it. Andy B. says it all: “These kids are kids.”
The orphans of Annie. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy WNET
There are a some moments that this is especially clear. While playing the board game "Apples to Apples" in a rehearsal break, they’re interrupted by a coordinator reminding them to use the restroom now, before their next session. And when they hear the orchestra for the first time, their eyes widen and mouths gape in awe. Of course, the orphans’ asides to the camera are always telling: “Sometimes there’s a little…kerfuffles, but we all get along,” Emily notes.
We do see later, however, that working with real kids has its challenges. Four days to open, they’re forgetting their marks and cues, and Blankenbuehler’s frustration is mounting. “It was like talking to zombies, in a way,” he says. “No surprise that a 7- or 8-year-old’s mind is going to wander. If it were a cast of adults I’d tell them, ‘You’re not doing well enough, you’re letting me down.’ But you can’t say that to an 8-year-old, because they’re not failing. Their learning curve is different.”
Clips of Blankenbuehler working out the choreography (and choreography kinks) are thankfully plentiful. (Watch a preview here.) He had a similar process to Matilda’s choreographer Peter Darling, who said that he first built material on adults, then taught the kids. In this doc, we see the difficulties that come with children’s limitations. And without giving too much away, one of Blankenbuehler's most vexing struggles is figuring out if he keeps the mops-and-buckets shtick from the original, 35-year-old number, or reinvent it? His solution, as you’ll see, nails it.
The documentary closes with opening night, and disappointingly, we only see pieces of the finished number. It’s very cinematic—live theater spliced with clips from earlier in the film—and goosebumps do rise. But after watching the choreography being developed for an hour, you really want to see it in its entirety.
“Annie: It’s the Hard Knock Life, From Script to Stage” premieres Friday, June 28 at 9pm. Check your local listings. Don’t miss it. Tweet along with the show: #AnniePBS and visit www.pbs.org/annie for a behind-the-scenes of the behind-the-scenes. It's even a cool website.