Photo courtesy of Spencer Liff
Choreographer Spencer Liff is living his lifelong dream. A childhood of professional dancing primed him for choreographing Emmy-nominated routines for So You Think You Can Dance. That led him to staging musical numbers for How I Met Your Mother and Parks and Recreation, as well as, the Emmys and the Oscars. And then it was time for the Great White Way with Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Spring Awakening. Currently he’s choreographing Neil Patrick Harris’ Best Time Ever on NBC. And now he's doing not one, but two, holiday pantos with the Lythgoe family — A Snow White Christmas and Peter Pan and Tinker Bell — A Pirates Christmas.
It all started when Spencer was just a four-year-old boy and his father took him to his first Broadway show, Cats. In a recent one-on-one interview, he recalled the magical moment, “I watched that show and that made me fall in love with wanting to dance and wanting to be in theater.”
His first professional dancing job was in the National Touring Company of The Will Rogers Follies under the legendary director/choreographer Tommy Tune. At seven years old, his career was off and running. He learned under the best like Ann Reinking and Chet Walker and performed until he was in his early twenties. But he retired from dancing early to follow his true passion — choreography. He stated, “That was the end goal.”
He compared the two, “Dancing is just a complete escape to another world. I become a different person when I dance and you can definitely just get lost in yourself.” But he continued, “The first time that I saw my own work done, something that came solely from my imagination — where I picked the costumes and the hair and the make-up — that was my first season of So You Think You Can Dance. That was the first time that I was seeing work that I had come up with on TV. And that was such a thrilling feeling.”
He says the biggest challenge he has faced in his career so far has been being vulnerable on SYTYCD. Viewers watch while the dancers are critiqued but don’t put a lot of thought into the fact that the choreographers are being exposed as well. He says of putting his work out there each week to be judged, “It is everything that’s taught me who I am as a choreographer and who I am working in this business… The pressure and all the things I’ve learned on So You Think You Can Dance about how to get it done and trust yourself, all that’s carried over to the rest of my career now. And will for the rest of my life.”
His work on SYTYCD also led to two very important connections in his career — Nigel Lythgoe and Neil Patrick Harris. Spencer explained, “I knew Nigel and I knew his son Kris and [his wife] Becky. But also Kris and Becky are very good friends with Neil Patrick Harris who I have worked with for years.”
So all those roads led to Spencer taking on the job as choreographer for several Lythgoe Family Productions pantos starting with Snow White in 2012 starring NPH as the Magic Mirror. A panto is a British Christmastime production which typically uses popular music, topical humor and broad slapstick staging all to give a modern twist on a classic fairy tale. It is especially demanding on a choreographer who needs to bring out every tool is his bag of tricks.
Spencer explains, “The dance is there to serve as something incredible to look at. It’s a lot of entertainment and a lot of different styles within one show, which you normally wouldn’t do. In a Broadway piece you’re in one era and one style. We get to mix it up. We get to hire really talented, versatile dancers. Most of them come from So You Think You Can Dance and I think we get to dance a lot harder and in a more impressive way than I do in a lot of things.”
As a young boy Spencer spent time with his mother in London and recalled seeing pantos there. He fell in love with the idea of how engaged the kids were in seeing the shows. He pointed out, “What a lot of American audiences didn’t know, they had never been to a show where they can talk back and boo and hiss and be involved in it.” Kids are encouraged to participate in the show and some are even brought on stage for various bits.
Spencer noted, “I am extremely proud of [the shows] for the same reason that when I saw ‘Cats’ when I was a young kid and it instantly got me into the theater world. To see how many young kids are coming to see these pantos that have never seen theater before, it gives me chills to think about giving anybody that first experience.” He added, “So I think that’s why we’re still cranking them out and making them better every year because there’s a responsibility there to provide theater to the younger generation.”
Jetting back to L.A. from New York after simultaneously working on Spring Awakenings and Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris, Spencer barely had time to catch his breath before diving in to the pantos. Choreographing two shows at the same time certainly has its logistical challenges but Spencer reflected, “I’m stressed and trying to juggle a million things but really, when I go to work, all I’m doing is my dream. It makes it pretty easy.”
A Snow White Christmas is being performed from December 2-27, 2015 at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna, CA 92651. For more info visit www.lagunaplayhouse.com.
Peter Pan and Tinker Bell – A Pirates Christmas is being performed from December 9, 2015 – January 3, 2016 at The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. For more info visit www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.