TheBacklot Interview: Spencer Liff On “Hedwig,” “SYTYCD” and…Single?

Spencer Liff

If there were any questions or doubts as to whether today’s Broadway audience would take to a revival of John Cameron Mitchell’s landmark musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, those early reservations were laid to rest this morning when the show, starring Neil Patrick Harris, garnered 8 Tony Award nominations.

Besides a Best Actor in a Musical nod for NPH, the show also received nods for Best Revival of a Musical, Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical (Lena Hall), Best Director (Michael Mayer) and nods for Best Scenic Design, Best Costume Design, Best Lighting Design and Best Sound Design.

And who helped Harris find his footing in the high heels he wears as the transgender titular character? None other than one of our favorites, choreographer Spencer Liff, who talked to TheBacklot recently about shaping the musical, the early reception during previews and (now that the show has opened and is off and running), whether we can expect to see him back on the upcoming season of Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance.

And, of course, we may have asked about whether he’s available, too.

TheBacklot: So much time goes into putting a show like this together. Can you put into words how you feel, like, seeing all this happen at this point?

Spencer Liff: I announced this project, I’m thinking, about June or July last year so it’s been a long time coming. We bought Neil a pair of heels and me a matching pair of heels back in October and we just started going in the studio with mic stands and microphones and started just getting really used to walking in heels and being a woman. Watching lots of videos, everything from Britney Spears to like how Tyra Banks walks.

Months and months of that, but the actual rehearsal time here in New York has been so incredibly short because of his How I Met Your Mother schedule. And the entire family – David and the kids – had to move here from LA and then we started rehearsal. We only had two weeks of actual rehearsal and then five days of tests before our first preview.

Wow! That’s very short!

SL: That’s less than half of the time you normally get for a show. So we had a long time leading up to it and then only had two weeks to kind of grow this massive show at so many levels up. And it was a miracle that we got it done and got it staged and lit and the technical elements all there. And then we had probably the best previews I’ve ever experienced in my life.

With the hard-core die-hard, the Hed Heads. People that bought their tickets the second they were on sale and the people that the show has meant a lot to. I think there was a lot of people making sure we didn’t ruin their beloved show, but yet Neil, just from the first second, won them over and it was quite an extraordinary evening.

Related: TheBacklot’s review of Hedwig on Broadway

I’ll be out there soon and plan on seeing it before anything else!

SL: This is probably the most challenging role for a man I’ve ever seen on Broadway. It is a true triple threat role because not only do you have to act, but you really do have to be able to have impeccable comedic timing and play the most heart wrenching scenes and then scream your face off when you sing and doing it all in heels. We are very lucky to have Neil to rely on. [The part] requires a sort of star-quality showmanship that not everybody has.

Michael Mayer, Neil Patrick Harris, Spencer LiffDirector Michael Mayer, star Neil Patrick Harris and Liff at Hedwig’s premiere. (Getty)

How much did you go back and look at either old productions, the film or even shows like Kinky Boots where there are a lot of men in high heels?

SL: I had to make a very conscious decision early on that I wasn’t going to look at anything from the stage production ever. There are tons of bootlegs that exist from the show. I was offered them by many people. I didn’t want to see a single moment of that only because I was afraid of copying what they had. I went back and I watched the movie because I sort of just love the movie and it’s so different from the show that I let myself do that.

I know what Neil’s body does well and I also know that there’s only so much you can do with a microphone, there’s only so many tricks and there’s only so many little things you can accomplish. And if I arrive with the same kind of mood that they did in the original production, if I came to those ideas in my own route and in my own organic way, then that’s fine.

What about the fact that this is 2014 as opposed to when Hedwig opened? Did you look at just the change in time at all?

SL: The show has to take place in the now time. So we’ve set now. We’ve made light of why she’s on Broadway. We have a big beautiful set and there’s a reason as to what that set is. And so John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen [Trask] came back in and rewrote a lot of the book to make it relevant, took out a lot of the jokes that were of that time and replaced them with things that are now. So it did get updated in many ways.

I think that the core of the show is as relevant as today as it was at the time, so the sentiment is still there. But it’s an interesting thought that we certainly talked about. You can’t do this show the way that it’s supposed to be done for that much longer because of the pure age of Hedwig. She was a certain age when the wall went down. She was a certain age and there are markers you can’t change in history when it was. So Neil is a much older Hedwig, 15 years older, than John was at the time. So they’ll have to figure out at some point. It’s someone the show can no longer play in the relevant space and time. But we’re still able to do that now. And Neil is sort of playing the age that he is. So, which, he just turned 40.

And how are you juggling everything? I know the So You Think You Can Dance train is about to start again. Are you going to be involved at all or you going to be too busy this year?

SL: [They had] asked if I could come out and do Vegas Week, which [was] smack-dab in the middle of our previews…but I certainly will be back for Season 11. I’m excited about what’s coming, but it will be a full year for me. I couldn’t be more excited that my first show on Broadway will be Hedwig, but it is definitely out of the box for me. It’s not a super dancey show. I’m really going to places and having to hold back myself from over-choreographing, but it will be nice to come back and do a big dance show after this.

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Liff revealed he will be a part of Season 11 of So You Think You Can Dance. Whew!

I think Hedwig is a really great calling card for you, this being such a big show.

SL: It is. I’ve worked with Michael Mayer as an actor, we did a couple episodes of Smash together and of course I’ve known him for years. But he is the best director with choreographers. He really knows how to kind of hone in and get on the same page. I think he probably has more choreographers under him being successful at winning Tonys than anybody else. But more importantly my mentor/choreographer guide is Rob Ashford. I was Rob’s associate for years as I kind of was getting in the world and Michael Mayer gave Rob Ashford his first show, Thoroughly Modern Millie, so I feel like I’m following in the legacy of Michael Mayer now giving me my first show. So it’s that kind of an honor and a privilege.

What’s going on in the romance department, Spencer? Anything to talk about?

SL: Nothing so exciting. It’s kind of hard when you’re back and forth [between coasts]. I’ve officially moved to Los Angeles and I’ve had a fantastic time there. I think the dating thing is actually a little better in LA than it is in New York even though everyone will tell you differently. I think I was just sick of New York guys. But no, it’s been great and I’ve had the time of my life there. But of course now I’m here for two months, and then I’ll be back and forth all summer so, as always, my love department is kind of hold for the work. Still, I’m only 29. I have time still.

To see Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, visit the website for tickets. You can also follow Spencer Liff on Twitter and Instagram.