So who’s the real wiz kid on stage in the Equus revival starring Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe? Spencer Liff, age 23, has already been in three Broadway musicals, had a featured role in a movie, won the Astaire Award as best dancer on Broadway, appeared on a magazine cover and acted opposite Bette Midler. And now he’s the first Gypsy of the Month from a non-musical.
In Equus, Liff plays a horse—no speaking, no singing, no dancing. Not in the traditional sense anyway. The horses do stomp around choreographically after being blinded (their movement was directed by modern dance choreographer Fin Walker); still, it’s an unusual role for Liff, coming mere months after he won the Fred & Adele Astaire Award as Best Male Dancer on Broadway.
Liff, who was in Cry-Baby when he received the Astaire Award, is one of the only ensemble members ever cited for the honor, which usually goes to a lead or featured player. He received the award at a ceremony in June where Tommy Tune was given a Lifetime Achievement Award. “It was a full-circle moment for me,” says Liff, “because Tommy Tune hired me for my first job.”
That had occurred when Liff was 6 years old and cast as youngest Rogers son Freddy in the national tour of The Will Rogers Follies, directed and choreographed by Tune and starring Keith Carradine and Dee Hoty, reprising their Tony-nominated performances from Broadway. At age 8 Liff appeared in the made-for-TV production of Gypsy starring Bette Midler, and at 10 he made his Broadway debut in Susan Stroman’s Big.
A decade would pass before Liff’s next Broadway show, The Wedding Singer. In between, he did commercials, worked on cruise ships and gave both ballet and college a try. And he grew up, which basically necessitated rebuilding his career. After Big, “there wasn’t another Broadway show that came around for me for a very long time,” says Liff, who trained at the School of American Ballet for a couple of years when he was an adolescent. “The closer you get to 18 without being 18, the harder it is to work because there’s so many child labor laws that producers want an 18- or 19-year-old that looks 15, they don’t want a 15-year-old. You get to this point and nobody wants you anymore, and you just have to wait it out.”
He waited it out at sea, performing aboard Royal Caribbean cruise ships for about a year when he was 18. Upon his return to New York, “I put myself back out there and started going to every open call I could. I didn’t have agents anymore, because all the agents I’d had were kid agents. The whole career I’d had since I was 6 years old was not counting for anything. I had to re-establish myself and [get people to] stop thinking of me as a kid and start thinking of me for an adult ensemble. I worked my butt off and was getting so close to things and just being told ‘You’re too young. You look too young.’”
A breakthrough occurred when he was hired as a preproduction dancer for Across the Universe, the Beatles jukebox movie musical that was released last year. Director Julie Taymor spotted him at a test shot and asked him to read for the role of Daniel, high school boyfriend of Evan Rachel Wood’s character, Lucy. He got the part; he’s killed in Vietnam half an hour into the film, but has a few romantic scenes before then and is buried to “Let It Be.”
Bernard Telsey’s office, which had cast Universe, invited him to audition for their upcoming theater assignment, The Wedding Singer. They also hooked him up with a new agent, Lori Swift (formerly a Telsey casting director). The job in Wedding Singer hooked him up with two people who have also become integral to his career: choreographer Rob Ashford, who would subsequently cast him in Cry-Baby, and fellow gypsy Ashley Amber, who’s now Liff’s best friend.