When you leave Head Over Heels on Broadway, choreographer Spencer Liff wants you to feel like you were at the best party you’ve ever been to, which is why the finale set to The Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat” is a raucous celebration, complete with gold-glittered drumsticks.
Away from the Hudson Theatre, where Head Over Heels officially opened July 26, and inside the studios at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Liff taught us the step-by-step “We Got the Beat” choreography his complete company performs eight times a week. Watch the video and follow along at home.
Liff broke big—literally—when he made his Broadway debut at the age of ten in Susan Stroman’s musical adaptation of Big. Liff injected his singular energy into onstage performances in The Wedding Singer (if you haven’t seen that Tony performance, here you go—Liff plays the groom), Cry-Baby (ditto), and 9 to 5 before transitioning to choreography.
Never one to do anything small, the nation learned Liff’s name when he began choreographing for Fox’s hit reality dance competition So You Think You Can Dance, earning two Emmy nominations for his work. It took a call from Tony-winning director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening) to bring Liff’s choreography to Broadway in his 2014 revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch starring Neil Patrick Harris. (Liff later was nominated for a Drama Desk for his choreography of the Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening and went on to choreograph Falsettos on Broadway.) Now, Mayer has brought Liff back for his most athletic show yet: Head Over Heels. “I’m excited for everyone to really see what I can do,” says Liff of his “danciest” piece to date.
When Liff first read the script to the musical with a score entirely of songs by The Go-Go’s, he knew he had to work on it. A mash-up of styles—1980s music and 1580s prose—Liff combined contemporary, kinetic movement with inspirational images of the 1500s. “I went on this big museum tour of Europe to a lot of cities and took pictures of my favorite pieces of Renaissance art,” says Liff. “If you are an art aficionado you will catch several paintings in the show I make reference to.
“The very first picture you see in the show is ‘The Last Supper’ and that sparked the idea that the opening number was at this festival,” says Liff. “I had this idea of these long oak tables that everyone was around and then I would take that Last Supper and flip it on its head and make it this big queer extravaganza.”
Extravaganza seems the only word appropriate to describe a show that combines mile-high kicks with vogueing, pas de deux lifts with hard-hitting pop, prop work with shadow screens.
“It gives each number an identity,” he says of his penchant for props. “If you’re looking at choreographing a two-and-a-half-hour piece, you can only do so much with bodies.
“If you give me any prop and I can turn it into a dance number, and that comes from Susan Stroman who is the master of props.”
Liff proudly acknowledges influence from the likes of Tony winners Stroman and Rob Ashford in honing his own style and process. “It’s all about assembling your bag of tricks,” he says.
Meticulous and driven, Liff constantly re-evaluates his own work. “I tape everything,” he says. “I’m responsible for making your eye see one thing. I want you focused in the center or focused on a lead character. So when I watch the show, I’m looking where I hope the audience looks and it’s not until I can go back and look at video and study and replay and replay and I watch every single ensemble member.”
The ensemble of eight in Head Over Heels is one fierce storytelling entity. “That is the thing I am more proud about than anything,” the choreographer says of his army of eight core dancers. “I knew I could make this the kind of show where people would equally talk about how brilliant Bonnie [Milligan] was and all of our leads, but they would also say, 'And that ensemble was unbelievable!'”
Hear more from Liff and the company of Head Over Heels from the Opening Night Red Carpet:
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.