A Musical Master of the House


Musicals like "Legally Blonde" don't just need lawyers to show all the right moves on putting together a success.

They need a dance captain.

Enter, stage right, Spencer Howard, J.D. — Jewish dancer — to show them the steps.

Howard has his own Riff on success: After graduating from New York University just two years ago, the theater newbie found himself on the side of the angels, landing the role of Riff in a succession of productions of "West Side Story."

From there, the story of his tour from West Side to all parts of the nation takes a turn that even surprised the dancer.

In a backstabbing business such as theater, sometimes colleagues do have your back, after all. One of his friends and fellow actors on "WSS" "threw his back out lifting me in a scene towards the end of the production — and he had just gotten the role of dance captain for the tour of 'Legally Blonde,' " recalls Howard.

Stand by for irony: "I got a call one day to try out, among 30 others, for the same part."

Jewish guilt — major Jewish guilt, says Howard — had his number. "Okay, I figured I would try out; what are the odds? But I did have this Jewish guilt because it was for the part" his friend had to back out of.

"I got the part."

And his friend? Parted ways? No way: "He called me to wish me success. And, yes, he's still my friend."

And Howard's got a leg to stand on as a welcome addition to the tour, which has stopped off in Philadelphia for performances through Dec. 7 at the Academy of Music.

The movie-based musical has a case of "Blonde" ambition: Two of the show's dancers, who approached MTV's reality series, "Legally Blonde the Musical: The Search for Elle Woods," saying "I can do that," have done just that, winning spots with the tour.

A Jewish Jim Carrey?

And there they are, filling dance shoes on stage at the footlights under the watchful eye of Howard. But then Howard's always had his eye on performance, even at an affectionately described batty Bar Mitzvah, "basically a performance; I took to the dance floor doing the 'Cuban Pete' number from 'The Mask.' "

No disguising his inspiration — his father, a respected lawyer who would do community theater at the drop of a five-six-seven-eight, dancing and feted for his footwork.

The twist: It proved a straight guy, he says, could enjoy what some think is a gay-oriented profession. "I have great memories of watching him as role model, a straight man performing in musicals, seeing any stigma of a guy doing it disappear."

It's so clear this "blurring of the lines of who's gay, who's straight — who cares?" recalls Howard, whose onstage theatrical muse was the musical "Les Miserables."

Happy memories there, with the performer — also taking on swing roles in "Legally Blonde" — recalling "the most impact it had was from the [comical] number 'Master of the House' — which shows how I enjoy the funny-character path."

And that "Master of the House" has helped make him master of his own, which is, right now, the Academy of Music, where his part as dance captain has others watching his feet and not their backs.


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