Photo credit: Kristyn Burtt/Dance Network
Choreographer Spencer Liff has had a busy few years working on Broadway with Falsettos, Head Over Heels, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Spring Awakening. That experience has him ready to spread his wings to the next stage of his career as the director and choreographer for La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts' production of Singin' In the Rain this spring.
Dance Network spent an afternoon with Liff as he auditioned dancers alongside casting director Julia Flores. It was an eye-opening experience to sit on the other side of the table watching the range of emotions as performers succeeded, failed and improved throughout the day. It makes you appreciate the process of booking the job even more.
That day, the female dancers were auditioning for nine available spots for women in the show. At this particular call, there were 28 performers dress in character shoes, skirts and period hair dancing their hearts out to "All I Do Is Dream of You" from the show. The dancing is one key component, but there is more to a musical than just that skill.
Liff talked about the industry needing strong triple threat performers — acting, singing and dancing — but there is still some leeway if the singing isn't a dancer's strongest suit. However, there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle to make that happen.
"I'm in the fortunate position of being both the director and the choreographer. Usually, there are three people who have a stake in the claim," he explained. "The director will trump everybody because he needs people who can act. And then the music director needs not only good singers, but also every part covered. He has to have a certain number of good sopranos, altos, tenors and bass. So he's looking to make sure that he's got two or three people that can sing every part in the harmony. The choreographer usually becomes the third tier. If I had my heart set on one or two people who are tone deaf, I could get them if there's a great dance feature in the show."
This journey for Liff may seem like it has come quickly given the fact that he's only 34 years old, but he's put in the time and the work to get to this place. He references So You Think You Can Dance as a major tool to refining his work as a director.
"On So You Think You Can Dance, we really get to be our own directors because we have a say in their costumes, the lights, their makeup and hair, camera shots and the music edit," Liff shared. "You have a producer [executive producer Jeff Thacker] to inject an opinion in all that, but Jeff is really good at looking at your concept, approving them and then letting you do your thing. That's why there are so many different creative voices on the show and we don't all feel pushed into one category."
In order for theatres to see him as more than just a choreographer, he had to start turning down a few opportunities at regional houses who offered him a job.
"My manager, Victoria Morris, has represented me since I was nine years old. She's been in my life as an agent for a long time. At 22 years old, when I was in Equus she asked, 'What do you want to do next?' And I said, 'Choreograph.' She called Jeff Thacker and got me in the door at So You Think You Can Dance," he revealed. "She's always a step or two ahead of me and this is what you really want in a team member. In the last few years, she told me, 'You're going to start directing and we're no longer choreographing anywhere regionally.' "
Liff is following in the footsteps of musical theatre legends like Michael Bennett, Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse, who started their careers as dancers and choreographers and then naturally transitioned to directors. Besides looking at those who came before him, Liff is also looking to his contemporaries for guidance as well.
"Kathleen Marshall, Casey Nicholaw and Warren Carlyle are all people who are doing both and I look at them because I have assisted them at some point in their careers," he said. "I think in terms of doing musicals, a choreographer's brain understands the big picture of how the entire evening should flow. So the overall feel of it is going to be much more cohesive and they are all masters at doing that with their shows."
With Singin' In the Rain opening on April 19, Liff has only two weeks to rehearse the show along with three-day technical rehearsal. It's a big show to do, especially when you add the element of rain to the production. However, he's taking it all in stride.
"I'm very compartmentalized. I think I'm much calmer — oddly enough — because I'm doing all of it. There's nothing that's going to spin out of my control or have a choice that's made that I don't agree with," Liff summed up. "I made a really conscious choice to hold off on the directing for as long as I could. And now I'm just really ready to be doing it."
'Singin' in the Rain' runs April 19-May 12, 2019 at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in La Mirada, California.
Don't miss Dance Network's 'To The Pointe' interview with Spencer Liff: