He Got the Beat: An EXCLUSIVE Q&A with "Head Over Heels" Choreographer Spencer Liff
Last December, Broadway choreographer extraordinaire (and past Dance Spirit cover boy!) Spencer Liff told DS that "My next big project is my favorite thing I've ever done: a punk-rock musical called Head Over Heels, based on the Elizabethan novel Arcadia and set to music by the Go-Go's."
That next big project is finally here: Tomorrow, Head Over Heels lands on the Great White Way for a month of preview performances, ahead of opening night July 26. DS caught up with Liff in between tech rehearsals to talk about girl power, Gwyneth Paltrow (who's a lead producer for HOH, nbd), and why you—yes, you—should probably start preparing for your HOH audition now.
Dance Spirit: How's tech going?
Spencer Liff: It's been kind of an insanely short tech process. [Director] Michael Mayer and I had a day in the theater, the cast started last Friday, and we start previews tomorrow. Luckily, we came off our San Francisco run so recently that everything is still pretty fresh.
DS: Okay, we're trying to picture an Elizabethan story set to '80s rock—on Broadway, no less! What does the dancing in this show look like?
SL: It was a very strong choice to not play on either of our two time periods. Our script is based on an Elizabethan romance novel written in 1585. And obviously, the music of the Go-Go's is incredibly rooted in the '80s. That left 500 years in between, and I wanted the choreography to be the most contemporary piece of the puzzle. It was very important that there be no recognizable or clichéd '80s steps because I did not want to take the audience out of the fairy-tale land we were creating.
As we moved forward, it became clear that this was a very queer musical and I've always been inspired by queer dancing, especially the queer club and street dancing in NYC in the '90s. I'd never really seen that on a Broadway stage. I equate that kind of movement with fabulousness and owning your own self-expression. Those moves found their way into our vocabulary. We have voguing and tutting and all sorts of things that are the closest I get to pulling from any recognizable style. All the numbers are true production numbers: 3–4 minutes long with massive dance breaks.
DS: How did you find your dancers?
SL: It was important to me to get fresh faces and a new energy in the room. This isn't your typical Broadway ensemble, not that there's anything wrong with that, I just wanted something closer to an L.A. dancer, someone closer to the pop/jazz world.
The onstage dancer cast is eight people and we have three dance swings offstage. All of the dancers have to cover the principal roles—which are incredibly difficult. They have to act with this text that's basically Shakespearean, sing the score, and there's no "singer ensemble." So it was a challenge, and we saw well over 600 dancers throughout the process. The audition combo was certainly the hardest one I've ever given as a choreographer. It weeded people out very quickly.
I had a pretty strong sense of what I was looking for, and that was absolute uniqueness and star quality. But it's very exciting because we have many Broadway debuts in the cast, and that brings a level of energy and excitement that I feed off of.
DS: Favorite moment in the show?
SL: That changes all the time! But I can tell you the very first thing I choreographed for the show was this intricate part of the opening number, creating angular lines and rhythm with percussion on a long banquet table. The cast is like a painting of a summer-solstice celebration that comes to life, and that begins our story in the kingdom of Arcadia.
The song, "We Got the Beat," is a metaphor for tradition passed down from generation to generation. It had to feel very cool. So I asked myself, How do I have these people make rhythm that isn't step dancing and that looks like something that I haven't seen before? I had this image of the dancers at a long table and thought, "What if I choreographed the most complicated "La Vie Bohème" from RENT of all time?"
Some of my other favorite moments are tiny little scene transitions that weren't ever there on paper. They're just the things that you find when you realize you need an extra 30 seconds to change scenery. You ask yourself, what can I do to further the plot in that moment and how can I use the dancers? And then you go to the dance arranger, take a piece of music and it gets written on the spot. That's one of the most exciting things about doing a new musical: creating something where there was nothing.
DS: How does the dancing in this show differ from your previous choreographic work?
SL: This is my fourth Broadway show and the first time I've really had a dance ensemble. Hedwig and the Angry Inch was meant to look not choreographed and [Deaf West's Broadway revival of] Spring Awakening was pulling from the gestures of sign language to tell the story. This is the first time I've gotten to play with real dancers and real dance steps.
DS: We have to ask: What's it like working with Gwyneth freaking Paltrow?
SL: She's fab in every way, and I have to admit I still get giddy when she walks in the room because how could you not?! She's been very involved behind the scenes and shows up on all of the important nights when we're already nervous. She's been a champion of the show for several years. It had an original production that wasn't very successful and most people would've scrapped the idea and moved on, but she joined the project and brought on a new creative team. So I'm very grateful she's made this her passion project and has gotten us this far.
DS: The Go-Go's are such a symbol of girl power in rock music. Is girl power a theme in the show?
SL: It's the biggest theme in the show by far. The show celebrates your truest self, and how women really can and should be ruling our world. We have a 5-person band and they're all female, and they always will be all-female. It's the first time there's ever been an all-female band playing a Broadway show.
You get to see the Go-Go's at the end of the show, and it's a nice way of giving homage. Everything I'm drawn to in music—the drums, guitar, and infectiousness—are what drive their songs. You can't help but dance.
DS: Any advice for DS readers dreaming of dancing for you?
SL: I hope the show is successful enough that Dance Spirit readers could come in and audition for it at some point. When kids ask me what to do to get on Broadway, I implore everyone to take acting and singing lessons. All of that betters you as a performer and as a dancer.
This is a show that really celebrates the uniqueness of dancers. Every time I meet a dancer marching to the beat of their own drum, it excites me. I want to remind DS readers that's the thing that'll make you very employable.