Interview: Spencer Liff's Passionate About REEFER MADNESS: THE MUSICAL & Playing It Forward

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the original Reefer Madness, a new revised version Reefer Madness the Musical will open May 30, 2024 at The Whitney

By: May. 21, 2024
Interview: Spencer Liff's Passionate About REEFER MADNESS: THE MUSICAL & Playing It Forward
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Interview: Spencer Liff's Passionate About REEFER MADNESS: THE MUSICAL & Playing It Forward

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the original Reefer Madness, a new revised version Reefer Madness the Musical will open May 30, 2024 at The Whitney. I talked to director/choreographer Spencer Liff during the early days of rehearsals, so casting hadn’t been finalized. Members of the original creative team reuniting to produce are: actors Kristen Bell, Christian Campbell and Alan Cumming, creators Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, Andy Fickman, who directed 2005's Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical, and America Olivo Campbell.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Spencer!

So, how did your casting go?

It was long but fantastic. We saw a ton of really, really great performers, a lot of which I knew and some new faces which is cool.

Nowadays it's very common to do self-tapes. We got 2,500 submissions for the show, which is insane. I don't think I've ever had that many auditions come in.

We have casting who goes through a lot of those. And then we looked through a ton, hundreds, and then selected our final callbacks and did two very long 10-hour days of final callback for principals and ensemble and everybody. So now we're in the final process. of locking in all the deals because we start rehearsal very soon.

What cosmic forces first brought you into the Reefer Madness universe?

I had known Christian Campbell, who is the original star of the movie and now owns the rights to the show and the license. We had known each other through the years, and they did a workshop of this back in 2019 in New York City. It was to work on a new version of the show. They made a lot of changes, and we did a full three-week workshop at 42 in New York.

I was just choreographing at the time. I was only in the choreographer seat for that workshop and it went very well and afterwards they decided they wanted to bring it to L.A. I had directed a few shows already and they asked if when it came to L.A. I wanted to step into the director's seat as well. Of course, I very much wanted to, and we had a scheduled opening of I believe April of 2020, which got cancelled for obvious reasons. And that was one of the many sad projects that I had that was lined up that year that went away in an instant. So then the show had to sit dormant for a couple of years while they figured things out and repositioned. Then we all went off into other projects and we looked at the calendar and realized that this now is the 25th anniversary of when the production first played in Los Angeles, and it seemed like the right time to try to bring it back. We started looking at venues and that's how we landed here. So I've been around the project now since 2019, but I had been a fan of the project since I was a teenager. I very much have seen the movie musical version of the million times and know that the album, all the versions of the album's very, very closely and have always been a fan of music and have known Dan Studney who is one of the writers. I've known him for many, many years as well. So it all felt very natural for him to step onto the project.

Was it a no-brainer to take on directing besides choreographing?

Yeah, I've been heading in that direction for a while. I directed several productions, both internationally and in L.A., leading up to the pandemic. Everything I had lined up in 2020 and beyond was all directing and so I had a lot of momentum building for that and it's hard sometimes to move from the choreographer lane into the director side. Lots of people do it but not everyone is good at it and you know, people are cautious of if you are going to be a good director or not. So I had to do a lot of little shows and work my way up.

But I've known since I was a little kid that I was going to be a director and choreographer ever since I worked with Tommy Tune as a young child. I knew I wanted to grow up and be like that. So I've been on this journey for a while and now I'm happy that you know all my projects ahead of me now are at least in the theater world are all directing and choreography. So that's where I plan to stay from here on out.

Do you see similarities between choreographing and directing? They both lead the performers.

They are very similar in a lot of ways. I think the most important thing about being a director simply is leading a room and being able to get everyone to get in, you know, to do the same show, to have the same vision, to work towards the same goal. Choreographers are very used to commanding the Room and commanding everyone's attention and getting everybody to complete their vision. Directing is just the one piece of the puzzle that choreographers don't deal with, how to work intimately with actors and how to speak the language that actors understand. But most of the choreographers always come from a place of storytelling in their choreography. I talked to my dancers like they’re actors. I talked to my lead principals when they're doing my movement and make sure they know why they're doing it and what it means their character and if they're doing a step what it's getting them and what the audience is learning from it. I think all of those things prepared me to be able to speak the same language to the actors, but just based on lines and blocking as opposed to dance steps.

When you’re hired just as a choreographer (i.e. Head Over Heels, So You Think You Can Dance), is it easy for you to not wear your director’s hat?

It depends on the job. I've been very lucky that most of the shows I've done has had fantastic directors that I very much look up to and that are very welcoming to the lines being blurred in terms of what I do and what they do. And you know why I would still say yes to choreographing to some A-list directors that I want to keep working with because it's just an incredible experience to learn from them. So if I'm in the room with James Lupine or Michael Mayer, I'm in just a learning phase. I'm there to do my job but I want to be in the room as much as I can and keep my mouth shut and listen to how they again how they talk to actors. You mentioned So You Can Dance? That was actually the job that set me up most to be a director because we far from just choreograph on that show. You have to pick your story, your song, your costumes, your hair, makeup, your lighting, your camera shots. You literally have to be in charge of every single thing. So that was my very first really big job as choreographer. And what it did was make me think so much farther beyond what the steps are. And so when it came time for me to have to make those decisions as a director for the show, I had already been doing it for 10 years on TV, and felt very comfortable saying I like that color dress and I want a different color lipstick and I want the hair like this and you know those details I'd already gotten used to deciding upon.

Will Whitney audiences be hearing the songs from The Movie Musical, including Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy’s Emmy-winning song Mary Jane/Mary Lane? Or new songs added?

They will be hearing that song. I can safely say there are some new songs that are in the show that were part of our workshop back in 2019. We put several new songs in the show in the workshop, we’ve take some of them out. But at the moment there are two new fabulous songs that I think are some of the best now in the score that were added and there are some songs that were in the original production that no longer exist. We're very much treating this as a revision and revival. It is now cut down to one act. So it is shorter. It is condensed in places. Even that being said there is additional material that's been added. There's so many versions of the script and there's been a lot of versions of it over the years. This is now you know just another phase in that chain of development and involvement of the show.  So yes, in short, there's some new music. They will be hearing the music from the movie and the rest will be decided upon in rehearsal.

There were 18 songs in The Movie Musical. How many numbers are you choreographing in Reefer Madness?

If I was actually trying to think to count. I will say everything is a little TBD still because we've got more on the page now than we want in the show. There's going to be some cuts in rehearsal. Because I come from the choreography background, this will certainly be the heaviest dance version of the show. I'm looking at adding several new dance moments that have not existed before and doing a little plot telling within movement, which is something I'm excited to add to the show. But it is fully staged. Every song that's in the show, more or less will have some staging. It's a big dance show on paper when I look at it, you know many of these numbers really call for a variety of styles of choreography and some exciting moments. I all I can say is that it will be more dance than ever than has ever been seen before.

Has Christian who played Jimmy Harper in The Movie Musical or any of the other producers involved with The Movie Musical given you any tips or hints for your directing choices?

(Laughs) They all have in the best of ways. They've been around the show for 25 years. So I am very smart to listen to him and the writers who of course premiered the show and worked on it many times over the years. You learn the do's and don'ts and the pitfalls of your show along the way and they're all incredibly respectful and exciting to see what I bring to the table, but they're a very wide and amazing support group and net for me to fall on and lean into when I need advice about how to make certain moments work and how to cover the cast with blood on stage and do it every night safely. I mean lots of things that they've figured out along the way. That they are very happy to guide me on.

You have choreographed a number of shows in Los Angeles. Is there anyone in the cast or creatives of Reefer Madness that you’ve worked with before?

There is indeed and I'm excited about that. You always bring the people along with you if you can that you like and that you've worked with before. And again, all of our deals are not quite done, so I'm not going to spill the beans but there will be people on stage that if you've seen any past productions I've done, and you will recognize.

Besides dancing prowess, what do you look for in your auditioning?

I look for a dancer that is incredibly confident in their body, that is calm in the room, that I can tell is able to copy and emulate my body and my style. I dance everything in my audition, so it's very clear how I want to dance. And I appreciate a dancer who can mimic what I do and then still bring their own flavor and personality to it. My audition combos I put lots of tricky moments of musicality and some tricky footwork and just little tests along the way. Musicality is incredibly important to me. I want to know if they're listening to the beats, if they can hear what I'm choreographing to, if they can feel that in their body. So those are all things I look for, I need for performance. I usually give an acting challenge or enacting moments to be played in the audition. It doesn't matter how good their technique is, if they can't immediately perform and take in what I'm saying, then it's really not going to work in a musical theater show.

And then simply beyond that, looking great and being in an outfit that you feel sexy and confident in and that you know, is appealing to look at and that lets the room know that you know. That you can command the presence of being onstage, all those things are very easy to tell on the vibe of a person immediately when you see them in a room.

Interview: Spencer Liff's Passionate About REEFER MADNESS: THE MUSICAL & Playing It Forward What advice would you give to a dancer auditioning for you?

I would say not just for me, but for anybody. Look up their body of work. See what they've done before. See if there's anything you can watch online of them to just know what their style is. A lot of choreographers have a similar movement and aesthetic. You can look at the dancers that they've hired before and get a sense of what they're drawn to. And then do your research on the project. So you can come in the room looking like you belong in the show in the era of the show. If I'm auditioning for Head Over Heels and I'm saying it's an 80s, punk rock kind of vibe, you need to come in and present that. Or if you're auditioning for a 1930s musical, you need to do that. No matter what anybody says. If you present yourself to feel like you could belong in the show and I don't mean a costume, but just the essence of it. It helps everybody in the room see you in that show. So anyway, that all comes in doing your research and knowing who you're going in for and that's all you can do.

Sounds like research is your main advice.

Yeah. Educate yourself.

Are you excited that DRAG: The Musical you choreographed is going to New York?

I am, I am. I directed and choreographed that one. That will be the first big show that I've been director of that will go to New York. And that announcement will come soon, hoping very soon, but we've got lots of wheels in motion and I'm very proud of that show. And we're just continuing to work on it and that's getting new music as well and all sorts of script changes as we move forward. But I love that show and I can't wait for New York audiences to get to see it.

Opening night of DRAG, I noticed you dancing backup during one of DRAG’s numbers. Were you replacing someone out? Or do you just have to put your dancing shoes on?

I was not replacing anybody. I jumped up on stage because I wanted to. L.A. is all about testing and what the number is. I think in New York, I'm hoping to have maybe some additional ensemble members, but I wanted that number to feel a little bit fuller and to have more dancers in it. And I think because Alaska who wrote the show was in it, and Tomas wrote the show and played guitar, it was very natural for me to be like, ‘Alright, I'm gonna get up there and do a number with you guys.’ It felt like it was a family putting on that show. I won't continue to do that in New York. But it was a fun, a fun way for me to get to be part of the performance here. And, you know, I still can perform if I want to. It's nice to dust off my dancing shoes every now and then.

Do you prefer to choreograph for a camera or live on stage?

Yeah, I would say if I had to pick, I do prefer to choreograph on camera because you can use the camera as a character. You can do really dynamic cool things. And it's funny, I love the day that Drag closed, I flew to Chicago and choreographed a movie. It was very complicated camera shots and all Steadicam shots. It was funny to do the two so closely together. When you choreograph on stage, your job is to try to get the audience to look exactly where you want them to and to hone in on focus. But the reality is somebody can look anywhere they want, and you have to make sure the whole stage looks good. And yes, when it's on camera, you have an immense amount of control of telling the viewer exactly what you want them to see and at what angle you want them to look at it and that that is very artistically fulfilling.

So then as the choreographer on camera, you get to direct the cameraman?

When I do something on film and almost everyone who choreographs film does this. I filmed exactly what I want on my iPhone, which is thankfully fantastic. Nowadays I film every single shot the way I want it filmed and from what angle and then I cut it together. You know some of those recently on iMovie. I cut it all together and you can show that to the DP or the director and work with the director to say, ‘Okay, this is my original vision’ and the director will say, ‘All right, we got to figure out how to take two shots out of there because we don't have enough time to film it or I've got a jib only for this day.’ It's a negotiation process because you can't get on set and just put cameras on dancing and film it. You won't get what you want. You need to know exactly what your plan A is of filming. And then once you get the shots that you think you want, then you can go wide or close ups or you can play around a little bit if you have to time to get extra coverage. But like I said, I usually know exactly what I want and I love Steadicam shots and I love to do really long, sweeping Steadicam shots and that requires a ton of preparation in terms of where the dancers are gonna go and how it's all going to work.

It sounds like your third career will be camera man.

(Laughs) No, I think it'll eventually be directing on film, which is hopefully coming soon. But again, every time I'm on a film set, I take every chance I can to watch the directors and watch the DPS in the Ads. There's so much that goes on.

That is not just about directing. It's scheduling and timing and how you're going to get all the coverage you need in a very short amount of time. It's a very, big puzzle piece. It's very, very different than doing stuff on stage.

What’s in the future for Spencer Liff?

I've got my years filled up with fun projects. I still spend a lot of time teaching for an organization called Broadway Dreams Foundation, which is an incredible non-profit that funds and teaches young kids all over the country who don't have access financially to arts education, programming and training. We go all over the country. We do week-long intensives with these kids. More than 60% of them are on full 100% scholarship. From that we actually find the best kids that are in the country, and we bring them to New York. I’ll direct a big talent showcase in November. I've been doing this for 10 years now. Huge casting directors, directors, agents, producers, come in watch these kids and they pick them, and they get pulled into shows right away. We actually just had one of our students last week take over the lead role in MJ on Broadway. But we have students that are in every single production of Hamilton. They're in I would say five or six new Broadway productions opening this year. That's a passion project of mine. It's called Broadway Dreams Foundation. And I spend a lot of time with them. This is a very, very important piece of the puzzle for me. I have so many young kids that have now grown up to be my associates. My assistant on Reefer Madness was a student I found in Broadway Dreams Foundation. My associate choreographer on Drag I found in Broadway Dreams. Finding the kids when they're teenagers and if I see something great in them, you can really mentor them for years and then give them their start. In Head Over Heels, my last Broadway show, I had three students that were in that show. I get very proud that we're able to provide that kind of training and life change for some kids that might not have otherwise.

Beyond that, I have a couple of new projects that I had been writing/developing, one of them with Tomas Costanza, who I wrote Drag with. We have a new score that we're developing right now.

I've got a couple TV things that I've been working on. TV movie things that I've been also writing so I am in the next phase of life. It's moving in and beyond choreographer, it's going into the writer and producer world of things and sort of creating dream, dream projects that I've had in my head for a while that it’s time to get them up on their feet and out into the world.

Thank you again, Spencer! I look forward to experiencing your Madness.

Yes, you've got to come. The space was where Rock of Ages originally started. It used to be called King King, and now it's this kind of club venue that's been sitting rather empty for the past couple of years. It has a theatrical past, which I like. It's just a very, very cool blank space that we're setting this thing in 360 and in the round completely immersive. The show will be happening on four stages around the audience. So totally new staging of it, and I'm excited to bring more theater to Hollywood Boulevard. Right down the street from the Pantages and across from the Bourbon Room. It's like there's a little theatre district that's going up in there now.

Good to chat.

I'll see you on your opening.

For tickets for Reefer Madness through July 21, 2024; click on the button below:


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