Director Thomas Kail has a very simple reason for staging “Freestyle Love Supreme.” “We wanted to let people in on the secret,” he said.
That secret — an improvised hip-hop comedy show conceived by Anthony Veneziale, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail in the basement of the Drama Book Shop during early rehearsals for Miranda’s “In The Heights”— is what’s sated Miranda and his creative team since the earliest days of his work in New York.
“This is always the thing that’s fed the other things,” Miranda told Variety at the Broadway opening of “Freestyle Love Supreme” on Wednesday night. “I freestyle with my friends, and I want to go home and write. I freestyle with my friends, and then I want to go do my real work. Neither of those shows [“In The Heights” or “Hamilton”] could exist without this happening first.”
“Freestyle Love Supreme” is as much a thoughtfully conceived yet improvised hip-hop musical as it is a fun game played between Miranda and his friends, beginning as a way to pass time on rehearsal breaks. Veneziale, Kail and Miranda performed the improv show at a few small theaters in New York in the early 2000s, with a run at Ars Nova off-Broadway in 2005. As Miranda and his creative team moved on to produce other, groundbreaking hip-hop musicals, “FLS” receded to the back burner, likely because a 75-minute improv show sung in freestyle rap wasn’t the kind of thing anyone could imagine on Broadway.
But now, a combination of the uniquely entertaining experience of watching freestyle rap comedy, the post-“Hamilton” elbow-room afforded to Miranda and (presumably) the novelty of witnessing an essential piece of his creative story has landed “Freestyle Love Supreme” a Broadway theater.
“Anything that breaks the mold is good, because Broadway is 30-some odd theaters? And we get to decide what it is,” Miranda told Variety. “And, somehow, it’s not even weird that we’re here. It’s like ‘Oh, it’s an improvised hip-hop show. I’ve seen hip-hop shows on Broadway before.’ That was not necessarily the case before ‘In The Heights,’” Miranda said. “When ‘In The Heights’ came out, it was a lot of explaining to do in interviews. It wasn’t ‘Oh, it’s Lin and they’re doing a hip-hop show.’ I’m proud that the tent is a little wider on Broadway because of those shows.”
Each night, cast members — including founding FLS members Veneziale, Chris Sullivan and Utkarsh Ambudkar, as well as the occasional drop-in from “FLS” alums Wayne Brady, Daveed Diggs and Christopher Jackson — play improv games with the audience, structuring a musical around their suggestions, using freestyle rap as prose. Each night the show is singular and conceived entirely anew.
“Who would think, ‘Let’s fund a show where we have absolutely no idea what it’s going to be every night.’ Who would do that?” asked “Hamilton” star Renée Elise Goldsberry on the red carpet. “And you’d only do that if you know and understand the brilliance of the people that created ‘Hamilton.’”
“Broadway is big enough for so many different genres, so many different kinds of talent. And, actually, I think it’s really the bellwether for where we’re going culturally,” she continued, adding, “Broadway shouldn’t be only what we were. That’s what ‘Hamilton’ said, and that’s what Lin is always going to do. He can’t help it.”
For Diggs — who, along with Jackson, Brady, Miranda and James Monroe Igleheart, performed alongside “Freestyle Love Supreme’s” nightly cast for opening night — the show “felt exactly the same to me” as it did 12 years ago, when he first joined the “FLS” troupe.
“The real secret sauce of the show is that it’s an honest experience, happening in the moment, between whoever is onstage with each other, sharing all of that with the audience,” Diggs said. “Tommy [Kail] always described the show as one that opens door for a lot of people. It opens doors for audiences to experience something new. It also opens doors for particular kinds of artists who may not recognize that there is a place for them in this community.”
Inside the opening night performance, director Kail affirmed Diggs’ sentiment as the curtain dropped and the creative team joined the cast onstage to thank the gathered audience.
“We tried to take the things that we loved about hip-hop, all the things we loved about improv, and all the things we loved about musical theater and see if we can find a way to intersect them,” he told the crowd. “And so, in doing this, we found a platform where all the things that make you strange in the world, make you beautiful here.”
“We found an audience of people who got caught up in the spirit, the spirit of possibility, of what’s possible when you can take all the things they say you can’t do or shouldn’t do, and you let those things flow,” he added. “We’re trying to take the stage that is Broadway and open it a bit wider, and invite as many people in as possible.”
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