Sunday, 24 April 2016

Interview: Broadway's Spencer Liff, choreographer of Falsettos & Spring Awakening

Spencer Liff is one of Broadway’s leading choreographers.

Later this year he will choreograph the Broadway revival of Falsettos starring Christian Borle, Stephanie J Block and Andrew Rannells having recently choreographed the Broadway revivals of Spring Awakening and Hedwig And The Angry Inch.

Spencer has earned two Emmy Nominations for Outstanding Choreography for his work on the Fox TV series So You Think You Can Dance, where he has been a resident choreographer for the past 7 seasons. 

His other recent TV credits include Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris (choreographer & co-producer), Dancing with the Stars, How I Met Your Mother, Parks and Recreation, Mike and Molly, 2 Broke Girls, Happyland, The Latin Grammy Awards and The Emmy Awards. His film credits include the upcoming feature film Speech & Debate adapted from the Roundabout Theater play written by Steven Karam.

As a performer, Spencer earned his Equity card at the age of 7 in the first National Tour of The Will Rogers Follies directed by Tommy Tune. He made his Broadway debut in Big-The Musical, followed by The Wedding Singer, Cry-baby, Equus, and 9 to 5. Spencer won the 2008 Fred Astaire Award as Best Male Dancer on Broadway for his role in Cry-baby for which he was also associate choreographer and dance captain. 

Spencer can be seen in the NBC TV series SMASH whilst his film credits include Hairspray (Mikey), Across The Universe (Daniel), the recent remake of Footloose and the TV movie Gypsy with Bette Midler. 

During my recent trip to New York, I sat down with Spencer; we spoke about the buzz around Falsettos’ return to Broadway, the pressure of staging a revival, his journey with Spring Awakening and his ridiculously busy schedule… 

Everyone is so excited about Falsettos coming back to Broadway! How long has the show been on your radar?
I knew the show because I was a kid actor, and right after Falsettos was on Broadway I got to New York. I sang the songs as a kid, but had never seen a production and in my mind it wasn’t really a big dance show. I woke up to an email from James Lapine (co-writer/director) one morning in November… I was like ‘that’s weird’. I opened it, and he said he had seen Spring Awakening the previous night and would love to meet with me.

I was in LA, so we skyped. He loves to know everything about somebody so he asked me everything in the world about growing up – nothing really about theatre, just personal stuff. We skyped again about a week later, and at the end of the conversation he said, “I want to redo Falsettos and I want you to choreograph it”. I was floored! I said, “Listen, I don’t know the show well enough at all. I want to listen to it and think about it, because I don’t want to say yes to a show if I can’t do a really interesting, good job on it.” 

Christian Borle, Stephanie J Block and Andrew Rannells

Did you go away and do some research?
I got both the albums, and it started sparking imagery in my head. If that happens then I know I’m fine to do something. I wrote back to say I was interested, flew to New York to meet everyone and I actually went to Lincoln Center and watched the original production because they have the archives. Falsettos is my third Broadway revival, and for Hedwig and Spring Awakening I never went back to look at the originals. I wouldn’t have… but James wanted me to see what they did… and I wasn’t going to say no” [laughs]. I was surprised by how much choreography there actually was in the show. I’m very interested in putting my own stamp on the movement that lives in this world… and finding what is contemporary movement and brings the piece into my generation of what we’re used to seeing. 

One of the things James said to me that was really interesting is that I’m the age he and William Finn were when they wrote it… so he was interested in seeing what a 30 year old now would make of it, and that made me realise that he was interested in my brain. I’m excited! This is the fun part where there’s nothing on the page and we can make it anything we want.

Are people who know the show going to be surprised?
Well I know it’s going to look extremely different. When the show was done originally it was innovative for its time in that it was a very simple show, there was nothing else around like it, the topic was really taboo… everything was on wheels and the actors pushed things around for each other. We’re more used to that now, but it hadn’t really been seen before. So now we have to discover how to be ahead of the time that we’re in. It’s not going to look the same – it will look simplistic but we will have a big enough budget to have a lot of bells and whistles in it whilst still making it about the actors and story. People are fond of Falsettos, you meet people who say it was a life changing show for them so there’s a little bit of pressure. I felt the same thing with Hedwig – so many people had special memories of the show, it changed the course of a lot of people’s lives. 

Taking on a revival must be scary, there’s always more expectation!
I have to shut out all of the pressure because you have to trust yourself as an artist and do what you want to do with it. I’ve oddly done three revivals where all of the writers are still alive! A lot of the time when you do a revival the writers have passed away, if you do a Rodgers and Hammerstein you’re not worried about they’re going to say [laughs]! With Falsettos in particular, the entire team are still involved and I’m the newbie in the room. You have to trust yourself and your instincts. People are going to have preconceived memories and you can’t change that.

People are freaking about our cast because we’ve gone for true, legitimate Broadway stars and not… I hate the term stunt casting, but you know what I mean. Because we’re a co-production with Lincoln Center we don’t have to worry about being a commercial run. We were able to cast people who would be incredible in their roles, and that doesn’t happen very often… and it happens that we’ve cast people who are loved in the Broadway community. 

We need to discuss Spring Awakening. When you started working on the show in LA at the 99 seat Rosenthal Theater, what would you have said if someone told you the production would end up on Broadway?
I mean… I wouldn’t have believed it. It originally started when we did a workshop three years ago. I was friends with Michael Arden (director) in New York, and we both moved to LA at the same time. We had both been working on TV shows and were dying to do theatre again. He had worked with Deaf West before, and told me it was going to be really weird and scary and you’re going to have no idea what you’re doing. But I wanted to do it, so I walked into a room full of deaf actors who were staring at me and I didn’t know where to begin. Michael and I decided to start off seeing if we could match rhythms… we would stomp our feet and they would copy the rhythm. We did all sorts of exercises to strengthen our visual connection. Deaf West have all sorts of lighting tricks and things that helped.

Every day at the end of rehearsal I wanted to cry because I was so overwhelmed and I didn’t know how it was going to happen – it was so slow, it would take an hour to get everybody to stand at the same time. I didn’t know any sign language when I started so I couldn’t speak for myself, I couldn’t communicate time with the cast so there was a lot of things to learn. There were moments where they would do something perfectly in unison and I would get chills… and when I look back I knew we had something special. 

It was in the summer during the middle of So You Think You Can Dance, so I was waking up to go on camera at 6am to shoot So You Think which is a stressful enough job. Then coming into rehearsal for Spring Awakening after I was brain fried. I was going from working with the best dancers in the country on So You Think to Spring Awakening where no one was a dancer and half of them didn’t even have the advantage of being able to hear music. It was polar extremes! I could have said, “Michael I can’t do this right now” but I knew I was getting over boundaries in my head about what I thought was possible. If I’d walked away I would have had a lifetime of regret! 

When we did the first preview in the 99 seat theatre I watched people being floored – I definitely knew we had something special. We had a rave from The Times and all of a sudden our entire run was sold out. We extended until the space kicked us out. Then we went to the Wallis which is this huge, stunningly high tech theatre in LA. We had to re-work the show and that was scary because we didn’t want to mess it up. 

Then when did you find out it was coming to Broadway?
Then the show closed and I had just come to New York and signed my contract to be a producer and choreograph Neil Patrick Harris' TV show Best Time Ever (based on Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway). Two days later Michael called and said “We just got offered a Broadway house”. I remember jumping up and down and being so excited – I thought he meant in the spring. He was like, “No, we start rehearsal in three weeks”. My heart sank because I thought I couldn’t do it because I was under contract for Best Time Ever and had been negotiating that show for like three months [laughs]. I took a deep breath and Michael was like, “We can do this, it’s the same show we did before and we just have to tweak it”. I drew a line between the soundstage in Queens and our theatre on 47th Street, looked at the subway and found the perfect middle point. I decided that’s where I was going to live so got an apartment that was exactly between the two jobs. 

Every morning I would wake up and think, “Where am I going this morning?” [laughs]. The first preview of Spring Awakening was the day after the first live episode of Neil’s show. It was crazy! I would go back and forth between the theatre and Queens up to five times a day. I’ve never been more focused or razor sharp in my life. I was still going to the gym – sometimes twice a day! I don’t know how I did it. I loved our Spring Awakening cast so much; words cannot describe how special those people are, how much of a family we became and how proud of them I was.

Spring Awakening
I think Michael and I were scared that New York were going to judge us tougher than LA. At first we had a hard time selling tickets because it was only here a couple of years ago, but then word of mouth got around that what we had done was drastically different. Once Christmas hit we were sold out for the rest of the run!

I’m sending you to a desert island and you can take three musical theatre songs with you. What are you going to take and why?
Ok… ‘You Gotta Get A Gimmick’ from Gypsy because hands down it’s my favourite number of all time. I don’t know why?! It’s three old strippers [laughs], but I love that number! I would probably take something from Cats because I f*****g love Cats! I would take the opening so I could dance around to that on my desert island. Finally… I need a good female power ballad because I love those. I need to choose the perfect one! I love Slide Show… I might have to go for ‘I Will Never Leave You’, but you need someone with you so you can do it as a duet! I couldn’t sing it with a palm tree [laughs]. ‘On My Own’ from Les Mis would be a good one to take to a desert island! I could sing that forever. Les Mis is one of the best scores of all time. 

What it’s like to have so much support behind you from the Broadway community?
We’re so lucky to do what we do! I grew up in this world, I’ve been working since I was six years old so I’ve never known anything outside of it. I love being bicoastal at the moment and having two separate lives. I have my apartment and friends there, and usually I’m not anywhere for more than three months. I love New York, I lived here for seventeen years, but I can’t take it for more than a couple of months at a time now. I need to go back to LA… but after a couple of months of being back in LA I get bored. I try really hard to be a nice, lovely person to work with because I’ve worked with some a******s before [laughs], nobody wants to work in that environment! We’re doing what we love so it’s important to respect everyone around you, respect the art and respect why we’re all doing this… and in turn you’ll get a lot of love back.

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Falsettos begins previews at the Walter Kerr Theatre on 29th September 2016.
Visit Spencer's website,

Photo Credit 3&4: Luke Fontana
Photo Credit 5: Joan Marcus

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