Annie: It's The Hard Knock Life, From Script To Stage debuts tonight on PBS at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets. You should check local listings.
“I’m a theater kid,” says Emily Rosenfeld in the opening minutes of It’s The Hard Knock Life, explaining with the patience of a girl who doesn’t know yet that she grew up in the era of Glee, “That means I like to sing, dance, and act.” As her mother voiceovers about Emily’s talent, Emily plays guitar for two sisters. The girls couldn’t care less; she finishes to no applause. It feels, just for a moment, like something from a Christopher Guest mockumentary of the child-star circuit.
But Emily’s going to be on Broadway, and she’s only beginning to see what a tough room looks like.
Scope is defining in a documentary. Some try to encompass, making grand statements about their subject’s place in the arts and the world. In the case of Annie, it’s certainly possible; an adaptation of the comic strip that followed a plucky Depression-era orphan and the lonely billionaire who adopts her, Annie was first staged in the recession of 1977. It then ran a series of blockbuster seasons, spawned a movie, and survived attempts at a sequel. Jay-Z used “A Hard Knock Life” in his Ghetto Anthem. As a boomingly successful musical with particular relevance in times of turmoil when people are just wishing for a scrappy youngster to sing about better days on the horizon, it’s no accident that this most recent revival comes on the heels of financial collapses and a surge of distrust in the system all the way to the top (Roosevelt himself makes a deus ex machina appearance in the musical).
The other option is to iris in, looking for resonance in the minutiae: production of a musical as artistic and social microcosm. That would also have worked: we’re in an era with an insatiable appetite for behind-the-scenes dish, and we’re in our own pop-culture-wide revival of show tunes as faux-earnest prime-time gold, child beauty pageants as schadenfreude, and a dance show that single-handedly revived an Emmy category, and just began its tenth season of interrogating young people about their perceptions of their ability to dance. Arts documentaries are, as a happy result, finding wider audiences in recent years. Watching the inevitable tribulations of the enormous machine of a Broadway musical would have satisfied.
But It’s The Hard Knock Life, From Script To Stage succeeds by going narrower still, even promising its specificity in an intertitle: This is the story of a classic show being reimagined, eight little girls, and one catchy song.” And even with those restrictions, this charming documentary looks for its drama in the wings: their Annie, Lilla Crawford, hardly appears. Instead, we follow the orphans with echoes of A Chorus Line, from casting through rehearsals, costuming, and staging of “It’s a Hard Knock Life” prior to opening night.
Emily, eight years old and so new to showbiz that her mother started professional voice lessons only after she landed the part of Molly, is as close as this documentary comes to a heroine. But there are other preternaturally mature performers who stand out, particularly twelve-year-old Georgi James (“If any pink crosses that line, there will be consequences”) and nine-year-old Junah Jang, so wry she should probably just have a documentary crew follow her around forever. (“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”).
In the era of Toddlers & Tiaras, it’s easy to think of these kids as monsters of accidental self-awareness just waiting to happen, but the focus here is on the children as professionals. Sure, there are plenty of bon mots (Emily states with authority that Georgi likes the band “ACD…I don’t know what that is”) and shots of the girls cheek-by-jowl in the dressing room, but the only interpersonal conflict we see is when someone flubs a line. To underscore this, their work is intercut with the development of the stage design, costume design, and choreography–they’re a necessary part of a larger whole–and as Emily attends dance classes and Pilates, her mother explains without any stage-mom vehemence that it’s to prepare her for the show’s ten-hour days.
Part of the charm of It’s The Hard Knock Life is that the kids really are, to the degree you can be when you’re literally nine, professional; goofy like kids can be, and imperfect as newcomers are, but resolute in that way young girls can be when they’ve made up their minds to succeed in the world and have been led to a proving ground. This isn’t a musical number; it’s a test with one hell of a final. (Given the fantastic buildup, it’s a shame we never see the girls backstage after their Broadway debut; they’re debriefed in interviews with a sort of instant nostalgia, but the absence of their first flush of success is perhaps the one missing note.)
And though they have their struggles, it’s only the adults who have moments of doubt – there are detours with set designer David Korins, who has the particular parental experience of hearing his daughter say witheringly of the set, “It’s definitely cool, but…”Most troubled is choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, whose struggles with the titular ensemble number are the major source of tension: between homage and reinvention, ambition and naturalism, and occasionally between dancers and the furniture. (Mere days before the premiere, Blankenbuehler is adjusting the girls’ stage business with a parent’s carefully-measured Frustration Voice.)
Of course everyone will figure it out just in time for the big show; this is Broadway, after all. But it avoids feeling manufactured, in general, the camera is more interested in the process of a low-drama bunch just getting the work done; they’re sympathetic but not sappy observations of theater people; admittedly insecure, loving what they do, trying their best.
It’s all part and parcel of the film’s light touch: paralleling without force, focused without being myopic, hinting at the wider scope only in the glimpses that affect them. Showbiz, it suggests, is equal parts sweat and magic, and It’s The Hard Knock Life deftly captures the work, the stumbles, and the joy that goes into that single magic moment.