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You won't see Neil Patrick Harris doing kick ball changes in the current Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but all his movements---from how he sits on a stool to how he holds a microphone---have been meticulously planned with Spencer Liff.
And if it all looks spontaneous, then Liff has gotten what he wanted. After all, the show doubles as a rock concert, and Hedwig (Harris)---a transgender, East German emigre---is the punk-goddess star. As she teases the audience, belts out anthems with her band, and shares the sordid stories of her past, it wouldn't make sense for her to seem completely polished. What kind of rock icon has every step planned in advance?
That's why Liff is credited with "musical staging" and not choreography. "We decided to go with that title specifically for this show because I wanted everything to have a very organic, rough-around-the-edges feel," he says
As he bounds around the stage, for instance, Harris gestures so much with the microphone cord that he sometimes gets tangled in it. There's never any real danger, but the illusion is part of the experience."There is something that I think is fun for the audience, watching the danger factor," Liff says. "It's funny because he gets angry at the microphone, and when you see him fighting with the cord, those are actually cool rock and roll moments. Not everything is going to go perfect for him, so when that happens with this kind of show, it just makes it all the better."
Liff also worked with the musicians who appear as Hedwig's band. Before performances began, they played small New York clubs under the name Tits of Clay---a reference to a lyric in the show---and learned to get comfortable as an ensemble. Watching those gigs, Liff learned their individual physical styles and pulled some of those movements into Hedwig.
Meanwhile, the majority of his work with Harris started long before rehearsals. The pair regularly met at a dance studio while they were both in Los Angeles, where Liff was choreographing for So You Think You Can Dance and Harris was finishing up How I Met Your Mother. "Neil is actually a very masculine man and has never ventured or discovered his feminine side," Liff says, which is why they needed to develop a Hedwig-esque movement style.
They started simply. For the first month or two, Liff didn't play Stephen Trask's Hedwig score, but instead had Harris dance to songs by Britney Spears, Beyoncé, and David Bowie. They would explore positions to make his body look more feminine, and no matter what, Harris wore some form of costume. "We would turn the lights really low in a dance studio, and he would put on heels and a wig, and I would put on heels and a wig so he didn't feel self-conscious," Liff says. "We would just dance. It was very freeing."
By the time they came to New York---where they only had two weeks of official rehearsal---they were ready to work with director Michael Mayer on creating this production. Given that time crunch, it helped that Liff has also worked with Harris on award shows and as a choreographer on How I Met Your Mother. "There wasn't really time for somebody to discover his physicality," he says. "It was easy for me. We've done everything from Bollywood dancing to hip-hop to tap, so it was a shortcut to being able to accomplish this."
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci
Photo by Joan Marcus