Last week, the most unlikely genre of the last decade — the live TV musical — made a kicky, belt-y return to broadcast with NBC’s Annie Live! Of course it was a breakout night for its young stars, including the wonderful Celina Smith, but the show’s stealth MVP was Jacob Keith Watson, a member of the ensemble with a very distinctive beard who stole every scene he popped up in — which was most of them. The veteran Broadway performer isn’t an A-list name like Taraji P. Henson or Harry Connick Jr.(‘s bald cap), but he felt like the glue of the show, regularly materializing with a new costume, a new hat, or a new bit. One moment, he was a singing hot dog cart pusher; the next, an FDR cabinet member issuing policy based on a “Tomorrow” reprise. Watson, and Twitter’s reaction to him, embodied the spirit of what makes these TV musicals so fun. We spoke to him about Annie Live!, fan theories, and of course, that glorious beard.
One of the joys of live TV musicals is sharing the communal viewing experience on Twitter. It became very clear over the course of the night that you were breaking out as a fan favorite. When did you realize the impact you were making?
It was really cool. While you’re doing it, you expect to get texts from friends like, Hey, it’s great, having fun, but then to log onto Twitter during one of my 10-minute breaks and see what was going on was pretty wild. In the past, I’ve watched live musicals and followed along with live tweets, but I never thought I’d be part of that.
Early in the process, we talked about whether or not to shave my beard. But I think people watching at home could follow, like, There’s the beard! That’s what I kept telling my friends and family: If you couldn’t find me, just look for a big red beard running around on stage.
You’ve done a number of Broadway shows before. How does live theater differ from a production like this, where it’s filmed for TV?
The first three to four weeks we rehearsed were like doing a musical. When we moved into the soundstage, it was like being on a TV set, like, Hit your marks, we’re going to get our cameras where we need to get ‘em. When we finally got a live audience — we had a dress rehearsal the night before — it was incredible to feel those two worlds collide: Doing your musical while running around the camera crews that were everywhere.
You demonstrated how hard the work of an ensemble member is: All those costume changes and getting into different characters over the course of the entire show.
That’s what it’s like being in the ensemble, and that’s something I love about the theatrical nature of what we did. They were like, “Yeah, it’s okay that you have a beard and you’re playing 16 different people,” because on a Broadway stage, that is what it would be. And that’s something I find really fun: getting to shift characters and come up with as many little nuances as possible and make it different each time I show up on stage. But if you think that looked hard, imagine those dancers, having to do all the dances and then do costume changes. I could not handle that.
Annie is a family show; it’s often one of the first musicals people take their kid to see. What’s your relationship to it?
I didn’t know the musical at all. Growing up, my mother gave me a copy of the 1982 version when I was in high school. She was like, “I know you like musicals.” I was like, “I like musicals, but not this kind of musical! I like Les Mis!” So I never actually watched it. But when I started rehearsals, I thought, Maybe I should figure out what’s happening in this play. That’s the first time I saw it.
How do you feel about the idea that Annie Live! could become many people’s chosen version, the recording that they come back to?
There’s a lot that speaks to what we’re going through in the universe right now that I wasn’t expecting to find in this piece. I think people who grew up on the show will come to it as an adult and say, “Holy cow. There’s a lot here that I feel deeply about right now. I want to share that with my children.” I hope that becomes a new version for people. We tried to lean into it, but not too much.
There’s the line about Broadway coming back amid hard times. And you don’t shy away from the material about economic uncertainty, like the Hooverville number.
I think our production was the first time “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover” has ever been filmed, which is really neat.
Is there a meme you saw of yourself in Annie Live! that stood out to you?
The ones that talked about how I was Bundles the laundry man the whole time. That was my joke, amongst myself and my friends: that I had my great laundry shop, and then I lost my job and had to work three jobs to stay afloat in this economy. And I worked myself up to be a politician. And then I said, “You know what? I want the simple life.’’ I called Miss Hannigan and got my laundry business going again.
How many roles did you play in total?
Bundles, Hooverville man, Warbucks’s staff, who was named “Moose Pugh” — he was Mrs. Pugh’s son, we made that up. There was hot dog man, there was what I call “luggage cart boy.” Then Cordell Hull, then back to Bundles. Seven.
What are you working on next?
I fly out today to start rehearsals for a new musical by the Avett Brothers. It’s about a whaling ship in the late 1800s. It’s called Swept Away. I actually started my first rehearsal on Friday in the city, the day after Annie Live! I’m looking forward to that.
Are you going to do the Wellerman song from TikTok?
Oh, the sea shanties? It’s not going to be dissimilar to that.