Excerpts from Broadway World article:
GYPSY OF THE MONTH: SPENCER LIFF of 'Equus'...
by Adrienne Onofri
November 8, 2008
So who’s the real wiz kid on stage in the Equus revival starring Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe? Spencer Liff, age 23, has already been in three Broadway musicals, had a featured role in a movie, won the Astaire Award as best dancer on Broadway, appeared on a magazine cover and acted opposite Bette Midler. And now he’s the first Gypsy of the Month from a non-musical.
In Equus, Liff plays a horse—no speaking, no singing, no dancing. Not in the traditional sense anyway. The horses do stomp around choreographically after being blinded (their movement was directed by modern dance choreographer Fin Walker); still, it’s an unusual role for Liff, coming mere months after he won the Fred & Adele Astaire Award as Best Male Dancer on Broadway.
Liff, who was in Cry-Baby when he received the Astaire Award, is one of the only ensemble members ever cited for the honor, which usually goes to a lead or featured player. He received the award at a ceremony in June where Tommy Tune was given a Lifetime Achievement Award. “It was a full-circle moment for me,” says Liff, “because Tommy Tune hired me for my first job.”
That had occurred when Liff was 7 years old and cast as the youngest Rogers' son Freddy in the national tour of The Will Rogers Follies, directed and choreographed by Tune and starring Keith Carradine and Dee Hoty, reprising their Tony-nominated performances from Broadway. At age 8 Liff appeared in the made-for-TV production of Gypsy starring Bette Midler, and at 10 he made his Broadway debut in Susan Stroman’s Big.
A decade would pass before Liff’s next Broadway show, The Wedding Singer. In between, he did commercials, worked on cruise ships and gave both ballet and college a try. And he grew up, which basically necessitated rebuilding his career. After Big, “there wasn’t another Broadway show that came around for me for a very long time,” says Liff, who trained at the School of American Ballet for a couple of years when he was an adolescent. “The closer you get to 18 without being 18, the harder it is to work because there’s so many child labor laws that producers want an 18- or 19-year-old that looks 15, they don’t want a 15-year-old. You get to this point and nobody wants you anymore, and you just have to wait it out.”
He waited it out at sea, performing aboard Royal Caribbean cruise ships for about a year when he was 18. Upon his return to New York, “I put myself back out there and started going to every open call I could. I didn’t have agents anymore, because all the agents I’d had were kid agents. The whole career I’d had since I was 7 years old was not counting for anything. I had to re-establish myself and [get people to] stop thinking of me as a kid and start thinking of me for an adult ensemble. I worked my butt off and was getting so close to things and just being told ‘You’re too young. You look too young.’”
A breakthrough occurred when he was hired as a preproduction dancer for Across the Universe, the Beatles jukebox movie musical that was released last year. Director Julie Taymor spotted him at a test shot and asked him to read for the role of Daniel, high school boyfriend of Evan Rachel Wood’s character, Lucy. He got the part; he’s killed in Vietnam half an hour into the film, but has a few romantic scenes before then and is buried to “Let It Be.”
Bernard Telsey’s office, which had cast Universe, invited him to audition for their upcoming theater assignment, The Wedding Singer. They also hooked him up with a new agent. The job in Wedding Singer hooked him up with two people who have also become integral to his career: choreographer Rob Ashford, who would subsequently cast him in Cry-Baby, and fellow gypsy Ashley Amber, who’s now Liff’s best friend.
“I knew from the moment I worked with Rob that he was the guy I wanted to learn from,” says Liff, who has harbored dreams of choreographing ever since childhood, when he not only “would always make up dances for myself to do” but also “used to gather groups of kids from the neighborhood and boss them around and make them do anything I could choreograph.”
Liff was the groom in Wedding Singer’s opening number, “It’s Your Wedding Day,” and Amber played his bride. “We clicked instantly,” Liff says. “She was also my dance partner in Cry-Baby. Rob knows we come as a package deal now.” The high-spirited “Wedding Day” was performed on the Tonys and Today and at various other special appearances, garnering Liff a lot of attention. Liff took a leave from Wedding Singer for several months to film Hairspray, in which he portrays one of “the nicest kids in town” who dance on The Corny Collins Show. He was brought into the Hairspray movie by producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who came to see Wedding Singer and remembered Liff from the Gypsy film they’d produced almost 15 years earlier.
He would gain even more exposure from his often-shirtless role in Cry-Baby, even though the show was panned by critics and closed after just two months. Liff and the other two main male dancers, Marty Lawson and Charlie Sutton, posed in skimpy swimsuits for HX magazine (“We were promised board shorts, but there was only Speedos when we showed up”) and were featured with Cry-Baby star James Snyder in Out magazine’s Hot List this summer. Liff also appeared with In the Heights ensemble member Afra Hines on the cover of Dance Spirit magazine’s Broadway-themed July/August ’08 issue. And he alone made it onto New York magazine’s pop-culture Approval Matrix for “the hottest abs on Broadway!” (He fell into the lowbrow/brilliant vector of the matrix.)
His performance in Cry-Baby, which included the athletic license-plates-on-the-feet prisoner dance that was done on the Tonys, also earned him the Astaire Award—the same year Ashford won for Best Broadway Choreographer. Liff had assisted Ashford on Cry-Baby and was going to be both assistant director and assistant choreographer on Ashford’s next Broadway production, Brigadoon. Several workshops were done, and a spring 2009 opening announced for the revival, but it was shelved prior to its Boston tryout.
Liff was already involved in Brigadoon when he auditioned for Equus. “My heart was still in Brigadoon, but I realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in this play, to work with these incredible actors and to do something that was very, very out of my comfort zone,” he says. Liff found out Brigadoon was postponed just as Equus rehearsals were getting under way.
He also found himself working for another choreographer he adored. Liff says he “fell in love” with Fin Walker during the rigorous Equus auditions, which entailed “almost two hours of improvising and just pushing yourself to the physical limit.” Before having the prospective horses dance, Walker gave them words—some horse-related like “kick,” others more abstract like “smooth”—that they had to interpret with their body. “We spent a good two weeks at the beginning in rehearsal, as we had at the auditions, improvising,” Liff explains. “It was fantastic, ’cause Fin didn’t sit there and say ‘Dance for me.’ She’d put herself in the rotation. I’m sure a lot of us started copying her movement, because she moves in such a unique way and she’s fascinating to watch. We started very, very free, where you can move everything, and then we’d do it with our hands behind our back, and then we’d put on the shoes and see what we could do.”
Not too much, it turned out. “When we first put them on, we were like Bambi learning to walk,” Liff says of the platform “hooves” the horse actors wear. “That first day, all of us took a spill. You can’t just stand and relax in them—the way that the weight is, you’d fall backward. You have to push into the ground, you have to lean forward just slightly to balance. That took some getting used to. Now, we don’t feel them at all.”
Born in Phoenix, Liff left his native state when he joined the Will Rogers tour. His mother and older brother accompanied him on the road, and after the tour they settled in Los Angeles. They relocated to NYC when he was cast in Big. Liff did commercials on both coasts—for, among other things, Rice-a-Roni, McDonald’s and Mattel.
Liff’s parents divorced when he was little, but both parents nurtured his passion for performing. “My father’s always loved theater, and he wanted to expose me to it at a very young age. We saw theater in Arizona, and when I was 4 my dad took me to New York to see Broadway shows. We saw Cats—and that was it: I went back home and would not stop dancing around the house. I begged my mother to put me in dance class, which she did.”
“I watched musical movies and loved White Christmas and Singin’ in the Rain,” Liff recalls. “I thought the Chorus Line movie was fantastic. I watched it every day.” The movie gave him his first audition song, “I Can Do That,” which he performed—complete with back handspring—on the stage of Broadway’s Palace Theatre at the open call for Will Rogers Follies kids.
A few years later, he played the part of an auditioning child in Gypsy, with Bette Midler on stage beside him. “She scared the crap out of me,” he confesses. “She came on that set and you knew she was there. She was in Mama Rose mode, so I think that heightened it.”
His own mother was no Mama Rose. “When I was about 15, my mom was ready to have her own life back,” he says. She no longer wanted to live in NYC, so once adults she knew and trusted agreed to be his guardians, she left. Liff was finishing high school at the time—he was able to graduate at 15 since he’d been home-schooled by his mother (who’d been teaching middle-school science when they lived in Arizona).
He enrolled in Manhattan’s New School university, but quit after taking writing and other liberal arts classes for a year. “I had never been in a classroom before, so going into college was a little jarring for me,” he says. Since he was already a professional, he didn’t see any point in majoring in performance, and eventually he realized he didn’t really want “to spend four of my prime dancing years studying something that was a backup plan and then come back to something that I knew in my heart was what I was gonna do.”
After his stint in college, Liff took the job with Royal Caribbean Cruises. “I got an insane amount of training from them,” he says. “It was the hardest I’ve danced in my life. They were revues, so you end up dancing 15, 20 styles in a night. It makes you very versatile because you have to do everything, including run off stage, strap a harness on and get flown in the air for an aerial number—all on a moving ship.”
Prior to Equus, the only non-musicals Liff had been in were workshop productions in L.A. and off-off-Broadway plays at Access Theater and Ensemble Studio Theatre when he was a kid. He’s the only horse in the show—besides Lorenzo Pisoni (who also has a speaking role as a human)—with past Broadway credits; the other horse portrayers have worked mostly in modern dance. Liff is the dance captain for Equus, just as he was for Cry-Baby.
While Equus has been running, Liff has assisted choreographer Warren Carlyle in his preparations for the City Center Encores! production of On the Town, running Nov. 19-23. On a night off last month, he performed in the opener of the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” benefit concert for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which celebrated the Elton John album’s 35th anniversary and was headlined by Sir Elton himself. Liff was one of the dancers in an 11-minute dream ballet set to the album’s first track, “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” (sung in the concert by Patrick Wilson).
Though Liff’s been in show business practically his entire life, many of his closest friends are not—and “the most important thing to me is Sunday brunches with my friends,” he says. “I have a very tight core group of friends that I’ve grown up in the city with, and I am the king of brunch on the Upper West Side. I know every spot.”