Earlier this year, Ari Groover faced the ultimate Broadway champagne problem: She was offered a contract for both Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and Head Over Heels. She ultimately chose Head Over Heels, and watching her in the show, it's easy to see why she's in such demand: Groover is a consummate storyteller, imbuing Spencer Liff's jaw-droppingly complicated choreography with seemingly endless energy and sly wit.
For the new Broadway season, Ellenore Scott has scored two associate choreographer gigs: For Head Over Heels, which starts previews June 23, Scott is working with choreographer Spencer Liff on an original musical mashing up The Go-Go's punk-rock hits with a narrative based on Sir Philip Sidney's 1590 book, Arcadia. Four days after that show opens, she'll head into rehearsals for this fall's King Kong, collaborating with director/choreographer Drew McOnie and a 20-foot gorilla.
Scott gave us the inside scoop about Head Over Heels, the craziness of her freelance hustle and the most surprising element of working on Broadway.
We're not saying that we called it, but...okay we did. The 2016 Tony Awards were last night, and Hamilton swept up 11 of 13 possible awards, including Best Musical and Best Choreography for Andy Blankenbuehler. The smash hit was nominated for 16 awards, but with multiple nods in some categories.
However, even though it was inarguably Hamilton's night, other dance-heavy shows got to have their say in performances throughout the evening. Here are some of our favorite moments.
The infectious energy brought by On Your Feet! Choreographer Sergio Trujillo had the ensemble moving nonstop to a medley of Gloria Estafan's pop hits that feature in the musical. The dancers were fantastic in the high-speed, Cuban inspired partnering, but a pair of young boys absolutely stole the show with huge smiles that were not at all affected by their absurdly quick footwork. They even managed to get Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda on his feet down in the first row.
Fiddler on the Roof reminding us of why Hofesh Shechter was nominated. If anyone still had doubts about the contemporary choreographer taking on a Broadway show, they were erased last night. The dancing in the wedding celebrations is fantastic—rhythmically surprising, beautifully detailed, exciting to watch and seamlessly fitting into the world of Fiddler.
The entire cast of Shuffle Along showing off their tap skills. Honestly, how can you pick just one favorite moment from this performance? Savion Glover took home a Drama Desk Award for his choreography, and any other year he probably would have snagged the Tony as well. From a line of chorus girls to a series of jaw-dropping soloists to the rest of the ensemble, every single person onstage brought fantastic energy and technical chops to the floor. Do yourself a favor and watch the entire performance.
The cast of Spring Awakening making us wonder why Spencer Liff wasn't nominated for Best Choreography. It takes a considerable amount of skill to sign a song using American Sign Language in a way that reflects not just the words but the meaning and emotion behind them (while being musical, to boot), and the hearing and deaf actors in the cast of Spring Awakening have talent in spades. Major kudos to Liff for integrating choreography and sign language in such a way that the signing was perfectly legible while feeling like a natural extension of the choreography and music.
Hamilton. Really, what else is there to say? It's no secret that we—and pretty much everyone we know—love this musical, even though this live broadcast is probably the closest most of us will get to seeing it. The cast is phenomenal, doing battle with invisible bayonets (they nixed the usual prop guns in light of the events that took place in Orlando yesterday) or falling into formation, changing qualities at the drop of a hat without losing an ounce of the determined conviction that characterizes the show.
If you want to hear from the fantastic ensemble of Hamilton about how they pull it off, grab our June issue!
It's anyone's guess as to what shape next year's biggest Broadway hits will take, but with works as stylistically different and undeniably innovative as these currently calling the Great White Way home, it seems like absolutely anything is possible.
Spencer Liff brought dance-like sign language to Spring Awakening.
Austin P. McKenzie, a hearing actor, in Spring Awakening. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown.
You assume it’s part of rehearsing every single Broadway musical, bar none. But in the two years Spencer Liff spent working on the current reimagining of the Tony-winning Spring Awakening, he never uttered the words “five, six, seven, eight.” He couldn’t—the highly praised revival, which opened in Los Angeles in the fall of 2014 and moved to Broadway this past September, is a production of Deaf West Theatre, and half the actors cannot hear.
Still, this new version of the 2006 musical, adapted from Frank Wedekind’s audacious and controversial 1891 German play about adolescent sexuality and adult angst, features full-out numbers—performers sign Steven Sater’s impassioned lyrics in unison and move around the stage to Duncan Sheik’s catchy rock music in complex patterns, all without counting. They stay together by means of extensive visual and tactile cues devised by Liff and the director, Michael Arden. A hearing actor, for example, might cue a deaf one by nodding his head on a given beat; a subtle pat from a hearing performer can serve the same purpose. There are a myriad such clues, invisible to the audience. It’s all come a long way, Liff says, from the early days in the rehearsal studio, “with the hearing kids on one side and the deaf kids on another and everyone terrified of each other.”
Liff makes no bones about the fact that he was at first among the terrified. “I don’t think anything I had done prepared me for working in this environment,” he says. “I just had to learn so much!” And he had to solve problems he’d never run across before, either as an Astaire Award dancer (Cry-Baby), an Emmy-nominated television choreographer (“So You Think You Can Dance”) or as a Broadway choreographer (he staged Hedwig and the Angry Inch). Although his associate, Alexandria Wailes, could both read lips and sign, he had to learn to communicate with the cast on his own. He had to be certain that the signs used onstage fit the music and looked interesting enough as pure movement for hearing audiences while remaining legible to the deaf. He had to find a visual way to indicate to them that a book scene had transitioned to a sung one. He had to choreograph with and around a performer in a wheelchair. And he had to choreograph with and around the balance problems that often accompany deafness.
Thanks to his dance training, Liff says, he picked up signs quickly, winning the admiration of the American Sign Language team working with him. “It is like steps with your hands,” he says. But translating the show’s book and lyrics was not simply a matter of substituting a sign for a word—not if the show was to retain the poetry and metaphor of Sater’s language. Moreover, Liff says, “there are probably six signs that could have been chosen almost for every given word. And one sign can mean six different things.” He points out that the book scenes use standard, “sort of old-world” signs, while the songs are signed in “more modern, younger, sort of slang signs.”
He was constantly negotiating with the ASL team to see how far he could “push” the signs toward dance. “We couldn’t just turn it all into big ballet arms and turns,” he explains, “because I was working within the confines of an actual language.” The result, beautiful as it is, includes very little in the way of conventional dance footwork. “If I was choreographing a hearing production of Spring Awakening, I wouldn’t put dance steps in the show,” Liff notes. “This show doesn’t call for it. These kids don’t kick and turn. That’s not how they tell their stories.” And, he adds, “I’ve gone to a place where I’m not afraid to be simple. I have seven years on a TV show of the most kicks and turns you could do in 90 seconds. I know I’m capable of that.” When he did opt for moves that “felt more like dance,” he found they looked “very out of place, and they were also very hard for us to do and do together.” Ultimately, he says, the choreography is steeped in the signs, heightened to “look the most like dance they could.”
Michael C. Hall (left) rehearsing with Spencer Liff. Photo by Kyle Froman.
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.”