Man on a Mission: Spencer Liff is taking Broadway by storm

October 14, 2010

Spencer Liff explodes onto the stage in Cry-Baby as the quintessential ’50s “bad boy.” Biceps decorated with a broken-heart tattoo. Grinding hips. A curled-lip sneer worthy of Elvis. But in the show’s final number, when he’s no longer playing a member of the Drape gang or an escaped convict, Spencer’s face relaxes into an easy, joyful smile that lets you know he isn’t really a bad guy—he just plays one on Broadway.

Spencer’s dancing is a mix of raw athleticism, spot-on technique and heartfelt emotion. He lives his character, and clearly loves his work. And for good reason: Not only is Spencer a featured dancer in what is an unusually well-rounded ensemble, but he’s also Cry-Baby’s dance captain and an assistant choreographer.

How did this 23-year-old land such an amazing gig? To start with, Spencer’s been in the biz since he was 6, when he got a part in the first national tour of The Will Rogers Follies. He went on to live and work in L.A. and NYC, studying at Steps and Broadway Dance Center as well as the EDGE. He even studied at the School of American Ballet for two years.

After graduating from high school at 15 (he was home-schooled his entire life), Spencer studied at NYC’s New School University and danced on cruise ships before scoring featured roles in the film Across the Universe and the Broadway musical The Wedding Singer. During his stint in The Wedding Singer, he landed another hot movie role, as one of the council kids in Hairspray. He took a break from Broadway for filming, returning for Wedding Singer’s final month.

It was on The Wedding Singer that Spencer made a vital professional contact: choreographer Rob Ashford. “We worked well together,” Spencer says, “so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask if I could assist him in Cry-Baby]’s auditions, and for the workshop.” He’s been a pivotal part of Cry-Baby ever since.

“Rob sees the big picture, so it’s up to the assistants to think about how to fix problems before they happen,” Spencer explains. “We’d have a step and Rob would say, ‘Okay, I want to reverse every other line.’ So instantly I had to think of a ‘cheat,’ of a way to get everyone apart and back together. I know there’s a lot of me in the show.” Among Spencer’s favorite moments is a trio of sexy duets meant to cover the scene change from Turkey Point into the Glade. “I remember very clearly the day I had the idea of doing a handstand down behind the rocks,” he says. (You’ll know this standout sequence when you see it!)

Now that the choreography is set, Spencer’s job as dance captain is to make sure it stays set. It’s not easy: “If there’s a dance number, I’m in it! I spend a good portion of the show taking mental notes while I’m performing,” he says.

Spencer’s skills, both onstage and behind-the-scenes, have impressed his mentor since day one. “As a dancer, he can do anything you dream up,” Ashford says. “The other thing that sets him above the rest is the way he acts through his dancing—not just performance energy, but storytelling through every move. In Cry-Baby, he embodies the Drapes in his physicality. Also, he’s a genuine creator; he has a very choreographic mind. I thought it’d be nice to give him a chance to express that.”

There’s no doubt that Spencer is most at home onstage. “I dance and perform because it’s the only time that I feel like I can be myself,” he says. “It’s ironic, because when you’re onstage you aren’t being yourself, but the world completely shuts out and you can just live for what’s going on right then. When I step on a stage, it’s like finding true peace. Every moment that I’m offstage is just waiting to get back on to perform.”