The Master of Hands and Heels

Spencer Liff

A New York subway is not most people’s idea of refuge, but for the past month it was just that for Spencer Liff. Five times a day he shuttled between Times Square, where rehearsals were underway for Deaf West’s Broadway revival of Spring Awakening (which he choreographed), and Astoria, where he’s filming the first season of Neil Patrick Harris’ primetime variety show Best Time Ever (as both choreographer and producer).

“I just take a few deep breaths, listen to music and transition in and out,” Liff says of the commute. He spoke with Out during a rare hour outdoors in Bryant Park last week, a few days after Spring Awakening’s well-received opening.

From a scheduling perspective, the simultaneous projects were a nightmare, according to Liff. From a career perspective, they were a boon. From a personal perspective, they were a blast. “I’m having the time of my life,” he says. “I fucking love having to be creative.”

Spring Awakening, returning a mere eight years after the original, dropped onto the fall Broadway season like rain from a cloudless sky. Its unlikely origin tale involves a two-week workshop two years ago in Los Angeles, rehearsals in “warehouses that smelled like cat pee,” a premiere last year in a 99-seat theater followed by a stellar L.A. Times review, an unexpected transfer to a splashy Beverly Hills performing arts center, and then the surprise invitation to spend 18 weeks on Broadway. Liff got the call about the Broadway run two days after he committed to Best Time Ever.

It wasn’t Liff’s Broadway debut – that happened when he was 10 and appeared in the musical Big. His big break came three years earlier, at his first audition, when he scored a role in The Will Rogers Follies and spent a year touring the show (with mom in tow). Liff has been a performer his whole life – no wonder his favorite musical is Gypsy. “It reminds me of my childhood,” he says, quickly clarifying that his mother was no Mama Rose. “But I was definitely the Baby June of my family.”

That was Phase I of Liff’s career. Phase II began at sea, where Liff danced on a cruise ship for about a year before returning to Broadway as a dancer, notably in The Wedding Singer and then Cry Baby, which earned him a Fred Astaire Award for best male dancer. Those shows also introduced him to his mentor and role model, the choreographer-director Rob Ashford. 

“He always forwarded the plot with his dances,” Liff says of Ashford. “That’s exactly the kind of choreographer I wanted to be, always telling stories.”

Spring Awakening

Pictured: Austin P. McKenzie and the cast of 'Spring Awakening' | Photo by Joan Marcus

Spring Awakening has allowed him to do that in an unconventional way. For nearly 25 years, Deaf West Theatre has smashed theater barriers with critically acclaimed productions starring both deaf and hearing actors. Michael Arden, who starred in the troupe’s last Broadway appearance (Big River in 2003), directed Spring Awakening and brought Liff on to choreograph.

Initially, it wasn’t as high profile a project as, say, choreographing for So You Think You Can Dance, which Liff has done for the past seven seasons (earning two Emmy nominations for Best Choreography), a gig that has made him a celebrity in the commercial dance world. But the bite-sized competitive routines on SYTYCD require polished perfection; Spring Awakening, in contrast, offered a space to experiment.

“I walked in terrified every day because it was insane trying to communicate with the cast,” Liff recalls of the initial workshop and the challenges of working with deaf non-dancers. But he found moments of magic in that process. “When things would click for 10 seconds, I would get chills and have to hold back tears. I knew I was instantly hooked.”

Spring Awakening is a tragic Bildungsroman set in late 19th-century Germany, a rock opera of teenage angst told through alternatively enraged and lovely tunes by Duncan Sheik. Arden and Liff’s staging turns it into a poignant piece of physical theater, where the body literally speaks. (In many ways, it’s more organic and effective than Bill T. Jones’ sometimes jarring post-modernist gestures were in the original.)

Stripped of the normal tools he generally uses to choreograph — such as musical cues — Liff found inspiration in limitations. “What the signing offered was a total break from reality,” he says. “I could do anything with these kids and create anything on stage using their bodies.” He adds, “I don’t want to do another show where I don’t have that freedom.”

Spring Awakening arrived on Broadway just as the successful revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch ended its nearly year-and-a-half-run. Liff was brought on that project by star Neil Patrick Harris, a fan of SYTYCD who had previously tapped Liff to choreograph dance numbers for his sitcom, How I Met Your Mother. In a sense, the show actually required an anti-choreographer.

“You’re not supposed to think that there’s a choreographer there,” Liff points out. “Hedwig choreographed her own moves.”

So the challenge was in crafting Harris’ physical performance. “We started, just he and I, with heels, alone in a dance studio,” he recalls. “We would listen to Beyoncé and Britney and Tina Turner and make fools of ourselves. There was no judgment.” He tailored the moves for subsequent Hedwigs as well, helping Andrew Rannells find his ugly side and channeling Darren Criss’ youthful energy. For John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig’s creator, there were no improvements to be made. “John just is Hedwig,” Liff says.

The creative partnership with Harris returned to television with Best Time Ever, which premiered in mid-September. The format of the show takes an anything-goes approach to entertainment, meaning Liff may choreograph back up dancers for Cee Lo Green one day and convince Harris to attempt a back-flip on a pogo stick the next, all in the pressure cooker of live TV.

“Neil and I work very well together,” Liff says. “We’re incredibly similar in our perfectionism and our need to conquer everything very quickly.”

Liff certainly seems to be doing that with his choreography, with two Broadway shows under his belt by age 30, a host of TV credits to his name, and an upcoming film, Speech & Debate, adapted from playwright Stephen Karam's Off-Broadway hit play. So for the foreseeable future, Liff will likely continue shuttling back and forth between simultaneous projects, stealing moments of refuge whenever and wherever he can.

Spring Awakening is currently playing a limited engagement through Sunday, January 24, 2016, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th Street. 

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