New Lead, New Moves: Tailoring Hedwig's Choreography to Michael C. Hall

December 31, 2014

To some choreographers, revising a show that’s already opened to raves—not to mention four Tonys—would seem a superfluous chore. But Spencer Liff was happy to be back in New York this fall for a week to rework his Hedwig and the Angry Inch choreography for Michael C. Hall (of “Dexter” fame), who was following on the (high) heels of Neil Patrick Harris and Andrew Rannells in the title role.

“I never feel finished with anything I do,” says the busy, Los Angeles–based Liff. But he won’t start from scratch. “The show has been teched and has been lit, and Hedwig has to go where Neil was,” Liff says. “But I very much tailor-made that show for Neil and his body.” Having previously worked with Harris on televised awards ceremonies and How I Met Your Mother, Liff says, “I knew what he could do inside and out, and that is very different from what Andrew Rannells is good at and what Michael C. Hall is good at.” The show may look like a spontaneous burst of rock energy, but “every single thing that Hedwig does is planned,” Liff continues. “I think it’s necessary for all the Hedwigs to have some ownership over the choreography and feel that it is really made for them. Putting someone in and telling them to do exactly what was originally done is going to hurt the finished product.”

Of course, all the Hedwigs have to be high-voltage actor-singers good at sending mixed messages—the transgender Hedwig, after all, jumps from punk to glam rock, from male to female and from East Berlin to heartland America. In the Michael Mayer revival of the 1998 show by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, Hedwig really does jump, and dive to the floor, and clamber through the audience. The original choreography took advantage of Harris’ flexible upper body—“He’s almost a contortionist when it comes to using his arms and shoulders,” Liff notes. “He does a lot of yoga, so he can do strange things with his arms behind his back and through his legs and such—I certainly can’t do them, nor can other people. But Neil would tell you himself, he’s not a dancer-dancer. So even doing grapevines and such is frustrating for him.”

By contrast, Andrew Rannells, who’s danced in Broadway musicals like Hairspray and The Book of Mormon, was comfortable doing traditional steps. “The harder part for him was making it not look like a polished Broadway performer,” Liff says. “Hedwig certainly shouldn’t look like a dancer. And you have to believe she choreographed the show by herself—she can’t afford a choreographer.” Her moves are modeled on videos of rock stars like Tina Turner, David Bowie and Mick Jagger, Liff explains. “I watched them as if I was Hedwig, idolizing those people and putting those moves on my own body.”

Michael C. Hall, Liff says, “is incredibly raw, in the best ways, with his movement. He has a kind of Iggy Pop, decrepit-looking quality, which you cannot actually teach anyone.” What Liff is trying to teach is “some of the smoother, more feminine qualities.” Meanwhile, he’s added “interesting rolling-around-on-the-floor moves.” And, he says, “We’re playing with mic tricks, because he really likes those.” What Hall didn’t realize is that they look more impromptu than they are. “Everywhere that mic cord has to be is specifically planned,” Liff notes. “You have to grab the mic with your left hand on this count and then pull the right cord around your body, because you have to step over it here or you’ll get tangled.”

Like Harris and Rannells before him, and all the performers who will succeed him, Hall needs to find the stamina to keep Hedwig moving at full throttle for nearly 95 minutes. “And they are doing this in heels,” Liff says, “which changes your center of gravity—and how much energy it takes just to stand.”

From Backstage

Associate choreographer:
Paul McGill. “He’s been in many a Broadway show [Bullets Over Broadway, Memphis]. He’s in charge of running understudy rehearsals when I’m away,” says Liff.

Rehearsal warm-up:
“I warmed up Neil with thumb rollers and little Yamuna foot balls, because he was spending eight hours a day in rehearsals in stiletto boots, which are not comfortable to dance in.”

Backstage amenities:
“Hedwig has a dressing room for herself, a huge private makeup and wig room for herself, and then a physical therapy room with a mat on the floor and yoga balls and all that.”