Choreographer Spencer Liff discusses storytelling through movement in Falsettos, Spring Awakening

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“Love can tell a million stories” and so can Spencer Liff’s choreography.

Liff has taken part in highly-acclaimed Broadway revivals such as Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Spring Awakening in recent years and is back with this season’s revival of Falsettos, set to play at the Walter Kerr Theatre through January 8.

Liff is also preparing to dive back into the world of Hedwig and the Angry Inch as Euan Morton takes over the title role from Darren Criss on tour.

Between Hedwig rehearsals, Liff caught up with Stage Door Dish to discuss what draws him to new projects, how he became a part of Hedwig and Spring Awakening’s creative teams, and his developing musical Head Over Heels.

I’ve seen all of your Broadway shows, and the way you choreograph is so interesting to me. It’s not traditional Broadway in a lot of ways; it tells the story through movement. As someone who watched So You Think You Can Dance as well, it’s so lovely to see that movement is so vital. Can you talk about that?

For me, choreography has to be storytelling or it doesn’t come to me. I don’t necessarily work with pop artists or music videos, where you’re coming up with interesting steps and that’s your job. I thrive when I’ve got great text in front of me and there’s a reason to have characters move. I’ve been able to pick Broadway shows that require that. Even when I do So You Think You Can Dance, where you’ve got the best dancers in the country, and you’ve got producers telling you ‘You have to put 10 kicks in it and there has to be turns,’ that becomes my assignment. I have to have a story to tell and also make sure I’m showing off their technical abilities. My brain doesn’t actually work if I don’t have characters to get inside and express myself through.

The three different shows you’ve done on Broadway all seem so important. Can you talk about working through these stories and reinventing them?

I didn’t line these up in my head of shows I wanted to do, I just keep picking shows to spend my time on that are incredibly important and relevant, and they all have the theme of being an outsider, living in the fringes of society and trying to find yourself and find acceptance. I’m working on the tour of Hedwig again. Darren Criss is playing it right now in Los Angeles, but this wonderful actor Euan Morton is taking over for him so I have a full schedule of diving back into the Hedwig material. It’s so incredibly poignant at this moment for me as an artist and young person to have an opportunity to express the need for acceptance and love. That’s the theme in Falsettos as well. I’ve been reading my show reports, and the audiences that have seen Falsettos recently have been electric and really needing to get out some of their confusion and frustration by coming to the cathartic experiences, which I suppose is exactly when you do it.

It’s so interesting the way you use lights in ‘Mirror Blue Night’ in Spring Awakening and ‘March of the Falsettos’ in Falsettos. Can you speak to that?

If I ever wanted to do another part of this business, I would be a lighting designer. I am always incredibly fascinated by lights, and I see lights immediately in my head when I’m choreographing. I think that comes from So You Think You Can Dance, where we’re required to direct our segments, and we have to say what everything looks like: the costumes, the hair, the lighting effect, and the camera shots. Because I got my start there, I can immediately see the full picture.  In things like ‘March of the Falsettos’ I knew what the blacklights would look like, and I talked to Jeff Croiter, who is a brilliant lighting designer, and the costume designers. We came up with a plan of what things would be, and I knew their hands would be illuminated, and that was a way to plan choreography, but that was one I didn’t really know until we got onstage and we teched it. I was able to sort of see that what I had in my head looked similar enough and the things I wanted to tweak and change.

‘Mirror Blue Night’ came when Michael [Arden] and I found these cheap, light-up rave finger things, and we thought it was an incredible way to express and highlight the sign language for that show. I’m fascinated by lighting, and I think it makes all the difference in the world of how a show looks and what its mood is. I’ve been lucky to work with some of the best lighting designers in this business. It’s interesting to have to collaborate with all these different designers in a Broadway show when I have something in my head, and then I’m one piece of the puzzle when I step into a show, whereas on So You Think You Can Dance, I get to say what everything looks like and it gets to be exactly what I want. It’s interesting going back and forth and adjusting to the collaboration.

I love that you segued into that, because I want to ask about the directors and creative teams you’ve worked with. These are some really powerful, inspirational people in theatre. What have you learned from them?

I’ve been extremely lucky and they’ve all been different. I got brought onto Hedwig because of my relationship with Neil Patrick Harris. I had met him working on an episode of How I Met Your Mother, probably seven years ago now, but at the time I had been working with him for five years. I had done How I Met Your Mother, all his award show performances, like the Emmys and the Tonys, and any job that came along that he had to dance he ended up hiring me for. Hedwig came along, and thankfully I had been a dancer on Smash with Michael Mayer and had known him from around, but Neil insisted I be brought onto that project. Michael is an incredible director and tastemaker, and his style is getting the best people he can possibly find, putting them in a room together, and allowing them to blossom and flourish and ushering things along the way. Michael and a lot of the Hedwig team and I have a new musical that has had several workshops and we’re hoping will hit Broadway rather soon called Head Over Heels. I’m excited about that. That’s a rock musical using the music of The Go-Go’s and a book by Jeff Whitty based on the 1600s novel Arcadia. That’s my next project.

Michael Arden and I have been friends for years, and when we came up with Spring Awakening, we did it because we were in this desolate land of Los Angeles theatre and were so passionate to want to put on something we care about. We did Spring Awakening for something like $30,000 from Kickstarter in a warehouse in downtown LA. We rehearsed it for three months without getting paid because we needed to do it to express ourselves. It was a project that was solely a passion based project that was never supposed to go anywhere, and everybody thought that way. We cast deaf actors from all over the country through Skype without ever meeting them, and they packed up their lives and moved to Los Angeles just for the chance to perform. That show was lightning in a bottle because we went from a warehouse in Los Angeles to Broadway in a year and a half, which was unheard of, and was a cast of half deaf actors, and Ali [Stroker] in a wheelchair, and all these things people would say, ‘No, that doesn’t work, you can’t make that happen.’ And we did. Michael had never done a Broadway show before, and I was only on my second, so we were figuring it out together, and I know that played into why it was a pure, honest show. It wasn’t a commercial venture, it came from our hearts.

James Lapine saw Spring Awakening, and I woke up to an email one day from him saying he wanted to do Falsettos and wanted to bring in a young, fresh voice from someone that was his age when he originally did it. He asked if I would come onboard, and I fell in love with that material. James Lapine is the best director I’ve worked with in terms of talking to his actors and getting gut-wrenching, incredible performances from his actors. He comes from a place of text, so just getting to sit in the rehearsal room in Lincoln Center and watch him dissect these characters was something that was so good for me. He supported my want to dissect the characters through movement, just as he did through song, and I think that was always first and foremost. The storytelling in Falsettos is incredibly clear and razor-sharp. There’s not a lot of fluff in there because all we wanted to do was drive the story forward.

I can’t believe people question this, but I’ve heard ‘Is Falsettos still relevant?’ Could you answer that question for me? 

Everybody asks me that. Lincoln Center asked me that. Lincoln Center had me watch Falsettos in their archives and come back and tell them my opinion about whether it was. I think it was when we opened, and it is even more so now. The thought of a man leaving his wife for another man was so ahead of its time and incredibly groundbreaking when it came out. That’s not necessarily the case now, but it’s certainly not a totally acceptable fact. The things that are there like the kid and what happens to him in a situation like that – I was a child of divorce, and I relate so much to Jason and what he goes through in that show. Regardless, you’re watching these characters who are trying to balance having a family and following their hearts and finding their way. These are adults that are very flawed, and the millennials in our world, we’re all grappling with what we’re supposed to be and what society expects of us and trying to balance who we want to be and going against the grain. Everybody that’s a gay man that’s my age or younger does not deal with the fight in the same way that people are over 40 do. They don’t know oppression in the same way, and they don’t know what living through AIDS was like. I remember sitting in a room with friends my age and watching The Normal Heart and they all said, ‘That can’t be what it was like. It didn’t really happen like that. Those people are just like us.’ I grew up in the business, so even at seven years old, I was holding a Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS bucket and seeing the male ensemble battling this. I knew that a lot of gay men my age were not and are so incredibly disconnected from that generation that had to suffer through this before us. I personally wanted to bring that to light a little bit and remind us how lucky we are that we have new medications that have almost completely taken away the fear of it. The weight of what it did to the community is still there and we have to pay respect to that. At the end of the day, you’re watching seven people on stage who are all finding love and respect for each other and learning how to live cohesively for the good of all the characters on stage. That is where I think we are as a country.

So many young people are in that theatre that it blows my mind. I see teenage girl Broadway fans who didn’t know this show at all, who are obsessed with Christian Borle or obsessed with Stephanie J. Block from Wicked or whatever reason are discovering this beautiful material. Every time during previews, I would see hordes of these young kids in tears walking up the aisle when the show was done, and I felt a sense of success. We were exposing a different kind of musical theatre to this young generation and I think that’s why all of us wanted to do it.

With your work in particular, all three of your shows have been about people outside the ‘norm’, and they’re the shows people remember for years. Can you talk to the way arts can shape the community and culture?

Broadway goes in and out of being fringe and then has these blockbuster moments. For me as a kid, Rent was the first time I saw Broadway in my generation pierce through the New York crown and really have a huge effect. Now, of course, it’s Hamilton. I have been lucky to keep finding projects I’m incredibly passionate about it. I keep going back to the election, but my first thought Tuesday night was ‘Thank God I have an outlet for whatever we’re about to go through for the next four years.’ I can express myself and turn darkness into something I find beautiful. We are so lucky as a community of people who enjoy taking in art, and particularly people who make art in any capacity. I don’t know how I would survive it. The silver lining of right now is that in these rougher, repressed times, art is at its very best. I’m staying focused at the moment on everything we’re going to see and be part of in the next couple of years.

What can we look out for in Head Over Heels?

I have known of the show for a couple years. It went out of town and played the Oregon Shakespeare Festival two seasons ago, then went through a big creative team change and got handed to Michael Mayer. It’s funny because both Michael and I read the script and wanted to do it a couple years ago and we both got sidetracked by other projects and couldn’t do it, but I remember always loving the show. Then last year, Michael approached me and said, ‘I just took on this new script and I think you would be great at it,’ and when he said it was Head Over Heels I froze in my tracks and told him I had wanted to do it years ago. We both made it a priority and went to Vassar for New York Stage and Film this summer and worked on it intensively for three weeks in the same room that Hamilton started. We did another reading in New York, now we’re having another workshop. It’s a perfect Michael Mayer show because it is juxtaposition marrying basically Shakespeare text. It’s all in verse with this incredible punk rock music from The Go-Go’s. They have so much great music beyond their popular stuff, and it all fits into this story so well. I’m looking forward to it being a show with a contemporary style of dancing that hasn’t been seen on Broadway yet. I’m excited to give the show something dancy-er in New York. All of my TV work is hyper-choreographed dance stuff, and everything I’ve done in New York has been much more sensitive, subtle, and movement based. It’ll be fun to show New York the other side of who I am as a choreographer.

Is there anything else I haven’t asked that you wanted to talk about?

Falsettos isn’t around for that long. We’re only there until January. I know we’re starting to sell well, but I personally really want people to go see that show. I’m extremely proud of it and the actors on that stage. There’s something magical going on in that theatre and it’s a very different piece of art. The time at Spring Awakening was the most important thing I’ve ever done, and that will always have a special place in my heart, but as artists we move on to what’s in front of us, and right now that’s a piece of art I have out there. Thankfully, when you do Broadway, it gets to be seen night after night. I love getting so many emails and texts and tweets from people who have seen the show saying what it means to them. That’s such an incredible gift to get back every night. I really want people who don’t know what that show is and who have never seen it before to take the chance and go see it.

I so badly wanted you to win a Tony last year. I’m so blown away by what you’re accomplishing and the shows you’re able to create.

Thank you. My moment of winning a Tony might come one day. I hope it does. It is hard to remove yourself from the whole community being sucked into that every April. I’ve been nominated for Emmys a couple times, and it’s a fun night, but it’s a steer away from why we do it, and the rest of the year you’re not so focused on that. That was a magical night and experience for me, regardless, because we got 22 Broadway debuts in that show. We’re talking incredible actors who other people are not going to give a chance to. Michael was persistent, even convincing me when we first started that it was possible because when he said, ‘Do you want to do a show with deaf actors?’ I said, ‘That’s not possible, how do you do that?’ We persevered and did step after step and we got those kids on stage at the Tonys and I cried. Of course that was after Orlando that day, so we needed to get it out, but that was the proudest moment of my life watching those kids make it on stage at the Tonys. I knew I was part of that, regardless of nomination or not or winning or not.

Thank you for saying that, though. You can congratulate me if it ever happens. James Lapine told me recently, and I will carry it with me, ‘You will never succeed in something you’re not passionate about.’ I’ve gone to him for advice about what’s next for me. I have been trying to find a dance-dance show, but I can’t do a dance-dance show if it’s not something I really want to do. I keep bringing things to the table and I read them, and it doesn’t make me feel like I have to tell this story. That’s where I’m at. I’ve been lucky to be able to pick things that are so clear in my mind. If I read a script, I instantly see the show, and if I don’t, I don’t do it. When I read Falsettos, the first thing that came to mind was the blocks. I knew that I wanted to play on this 80s step class, marching up and down feel, and it’s so odd that one random abstract thought clicked me into the rest of the show. Then when we were designing the set with David Rockwell, James Lapine told him, ‘I want it to look like an art installation,’ and I said, ‘I know I want blocks at some point.’ David said, ‘I make these blocks. Maybe the whole set can be blocks.’ Next thing you know, we’re designing this piece together based on these little visions we had. If I don’t get those strong things at the beginning of diving into the material, I know it’s not for me.

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About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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