BWW Interviews: Choreographer Spencer Liff Talks HEDWIG, DWTS & New Season of SYTYCD
Spencer Liff joins forces once again with his longtime friend and colleague Neil Patrick Harris choreographing the revival of Broadway's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which officially opened on April 22nd at the Belasco Theatre.
No stranger to the limelight, Liff has created a name for himself in both the theatrical and televised world. Emmy nominated in 2012 for his work on Fox's So You Think You Can Dance, his recent work includes choreography for the Oscars, Neil's Puppet Dreams, How I Met Your Mother, Dancing with the Stars, Parks and Recreation,and Hairspray. So You Think You Can Dance welcomes him back for the 6th consecutive season this summer.
Today, the multi-talented dancer speaks exclusively to BWW about the uniqueness of choreographing a show like 'Hedwig', his longtime relationship with Neil Patrick Harris and what's ahead for the new season of 'So You Think You Can Dance.'
Why and when did you decide to transition from Broadway dancer to choreographer? Would you ever consider returning to the performance aspect of theater?
I've wanted to be a choreographer since I was a little boy. My first job was with Tommy Tune in The Will Rogers Follies when I was 7 years old. I looked up to him so much and knew that's what I wanted to do with my life. I'd watch the chorus girls dancing from the wings and imagine how I'd choreograph the number.
I enjoyed a fantastic career as a performer, and loved being on stage. After submitting an audition reel, I was hired on SYTYCD as a choreographer at 24 yrs old. That opened a lot of doors for me, and I was happily onto the next chapter of my career. I think if the right show comes along, a big dance show, I'll take another bow on Broadway.
How do you even begin choreographing a unique show like Hedwig?
Hedwig was a lot of research at first. Hours of watching rock videos with Michael Mayer. Making sure I understood what the world was, because we wanted it to feel completely authentic. It was all new to me and I was fascinated. Then Neil and I started at the very beginning, which was walking in heels. We began working 9 months ago in LA. We both put on heels and got some microphones and stands and built a repertoire of moves. "Wouldn't it be awesome to do this?" And a microphone accidentally flies across the room and crashes to the floor "maybe not..." "Hey try this out, that's cool and I've never seen it before".
Rehearsal had that sort of dynamic. We experimented with so many things in previews. I made sure he felt free to express himself and try new moves as the character emerged. It was far less about the steps and all about discovering the physicality of his unique Hedwig. Eventually we honed in on the good stuff and that's what you see now. It was a unique process for a unique show, but I can't imagine doing it another way.
You have a long standing relationship and friendship with Neil Patrick Harris. Where did the two of you
meet and why is the chemistry so great between the two of you?
Neil and I met at the opening night of "Promises, Promises" in NYC four years ago. He came over to introduce himself and said he was a huge fan of SYTYCD and liked my work on the show. There was a dance scene coming up on HIMYM and he asked if I would choreograph it. The number turned out great and he just kept hiring me to do other projects with him. We are both perfectionists and will work until we drop. There was a trust built because we get each other but can also bitch and argue and still be friends when rehearsals over. He's pretty much the best, a super hero in many ways and I'm lucky to have him in my life.
Can you talk a bit about how all the different aspects of a production; lighting, set design, costumes andchoreography are interrelated? Is it difficult to coordinate all these different visions?
The design team was so cohesive on this show and I think it is really apparent in the finished product. Conversations started last year. I wanted Hedwig to be able to climb up the set and swing around on poles, Julian Crouch built that for me. Arianne had all these great quick change ideas that we had to make work without Neil ever leaving the stage. Mike Potter told us all the wigs could be magnetized for quick switch outs during "wig in a box". Kevin Adams, who had lit the very first productions of Hedwig was like a guru on this project. He made everything we all did look better than anyone could have imagined. We all just loved this show so much, there was so much passion in the room. It was never about our individual element, always the whole picture. An amazing boiling pot of creativity.
You will soon begin your 6th season on So You Think You Can Dance? Do you already have songs in mind that you want to use for this year's competition?
Hard to believe it's gone by so quick. I hear songs all the time that I keep in my back pocket for the show. I get inspired by the most random things and then grab my phone and make a note of it so I don't forget. At the beginning of the season I pull all those ideas out and see what I've got. It's getting harder and harder for the choreographers to top ourselves and come up with ideas that haven't been used in previous seasons. It's stressful and challenging and I'm addicted to the rush of it.
You often use Broadway show tunes for your routines on the show. Do the contestants typically approach this musical genre positively?
I've tried really hard to offer the contestants "broadway" that doesn't include cheesy smiles, bowler hats, and jazz hands. That's what most of them expect when they walk in the room. Also, they are usually unfamiliar with even the really popular songs and shows. My mind is blown when I say something is from West Side Story and they hesitantly respond "oh I think I've heard of that". I look at it as a chance to educate these young dancers, and those watching the show as well. I try to give them interesting characters to play and teach them that acting is half of dancing. Most of them get into it in the end.
What are some of the differences between choreographing for TV versus the stage?
It's all about the cameras. I absolutely love choreographing for tv because I can make your eye look at exactly what I see in my mind. I'm always thinking in camera shots when I choreograph. Sometimes an entire dance is born because I visualize one shot while listening to a piece of music, I get so excited by it that I make a whole dance around it. On the stage you have to paint a much bigger picture and accept that the audience can look at anything they want at anytime. It's a different challenge to draw focus to the right moments.
Regarding your experience with Dancing With the Stars, do you think it is fair when contestants have a dance background, for example, this season's Gold Medal-winning ice dancers Meryl and Charlie?
Meryl and Charlie just performed the greatest ice dance routine of all time and won the gold medal. They've spent years working on ballroom holds and lines, and know how to partner and lift and have extension. So is that an unfair advantage over someone who's never danced, I think everyone would agree that's a yes. However being good is only part of winning that show. The audience watches DWTS to see a transformation and journey. Watching someone start at zero and get good through hard work and practice resonates universally in all of us that have dreams of trying new things. "If they can do that, it's not too late for me!" A lot of people vote for the under dog and Meryl and Charlie don't offer that.
Which choreographers have served as some of your greatest influences?
Hermes Pan, Gower Champion, Michael Kidd, and Jack Cole for their work in the golden age of film musicals. I watched these movies obsessively as a kid! Gene Kelly for dancing like a guy. Robbins and all the west side boys for seamlessly transitioning from pedestrian movement into ballet. Fosse for the subtlety. And today Steven Hoggett is where it's at. Daring to be different and do his own thing, which is all brilliant.
Would you say you have a signature style, and if so, how would you describe it?
I don't think I want a signature style, at least not yet. I'm purposely choosing projects that are miles away from each other because I'm discovering myself as a choreographer. I certainly have an aesthetic I'm drawn to. I like my men athletic and masculine, I like my women leggy and smoldering, and I want it all to be on the classy side of edgy, cool, and sexy. Story telling will always be my main focus, because steps will come and go.
About Spencer Liff:
Theatre veteran Spencer Liff began his Broadway career at the age of nine and has continued to grow from dancer to choreographer over the years. His theatre choreography credits include, Gypsy of the Yearstarring Daniel Radcliff, The Wedding Singer for Musical Theatre West, the upcoming A Snow White Christmas for the Lythgoe Family Productions' Panto series, and two brand new shows for the Disney Fantasy; A Fantasty Come True and An Unforgettable Journey. As a featured performer he has been seen on Broadway in 9 to 5,Equus, Cry-baby (which he won the 2008 Astaire Award for best Male Dancer on Broadway) and The Wedding Singer. He has danced in episodes of NBC's SMASH as well as in the film 'Across the Universe.'
Liff has danced for two presidents of the United States and has performed on The Academy Awards, The Grammys, The Tonys, and The Kennedy Center Honors.
Photo credit: Angelo Kritikos
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
SYTYCD photo courtesy of FOX