Freestyle Love Supreme co-creator Anthony Veneziale has a very specific goal in mind as he steps out on stage each night to perform the improv-driven show. “I’m looking for those ‘oxygen deprivation’ moments — where the audience has a gasp of air,” he says. “The more the audience has those, ‘A-ha! moments,’ the more I know this is the direction that we need to go.”
A recent visit to the latest production, which is currently in previews on Broadway (it runs through January 5th, 2020), illustrated just how good he and the show’s other architects have become at eliciting that effect.
After being ushered through the front doors of the Booth Theatre, you’re asked to put your phone in a Yondr pouch, where you won’t be able to fiddle with it for the next 85 minutes. That’s so you can listen closely to the performers and not be tempted to record the production, no matter how much you may wish to have proof of all the musical and verbal virtuosity on display.
Then, rather than remaining quiet and polite in a dark room with hundreds of other strangers, you’ll be urged to shout out things you dislike, things you love, even potentially share personal stories about regrets and what hijinks you got up to that day. For example, in a segment that offers a “Second Chance,” Veneziale tossed a soft “Catch Box” mic to an audience member, she then detailed a traumatic teenage flub (calling the cops on herself during a 10-day party at her parents’ home in Long Island). The team then reconstructed that moment in their own antic-filled way. Then they flipped it and reversed, recreating the scene again, but not making a crucial mistake, thus offering the audience member a new future.
In this way, the show is improv theater that manages to feel sophisticated and haphazard, hilarious and serious. And it’s something no one ever imagined would end up on Broadway when it was first conceived more than 15 years ago.
Freestyle Love Supreme was created by Veneziale with Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail and debuted in 2003. I first saw it a few years later in New York City at creative incubator Ars Nova, before Miranda and Kail would go on to work together on In the Heights and Hamilton. And it’s the success of that other hip-hop musical a block away that has obviously allowed them to bring Freestyle to this theater.
After years of touring and one-off performances, much of the crew remains the same, along with the addition of two women, all of whom have their own handles: Chris Sullivan (Shockwave), Andrew Bancroft (Jelly Donut), Utkarsh Ambudkar (UTK the Inc), Aneesa Folds (Young Nees), and Kaila Mullady (Kaiser Rözé). They’re backed up by the multi-talented keyboardists Arthur (“the Geniuses”) Lewis and Ian Weinberger.
A hit Off-Broadway production earlier this year proved that fans were willing to show up night after night to participate in what used to be relegated to theater-dork basement games. Much of that success can be attributed to Veneziale’s ability to whip the audience into a frenzy and have them participate in the alchemical process of transforming their words into mini-musical moments that will never exist again.
“I think of them like the Harlem Globetrotters,” says Kail of the crew of performers, likening directing Freestyle to coaching a basketball or soccer team. “They can take anything that comes at them. But it’s Anthony’s gift as an interlocutor; he’s a true master of ceremonies. I’ve never seen anybody better at engaging an audience.”
As the MC, Veneziale (Two-Touch) functions as the “cog” between the audience and the rest of the rotating cast of core members. He starts by letting everyone “see all the strings,” explaining how it will function, with the first sequences designed to let people participate at a slower pace — about 80 BPMs — before it ramps up. “People still don’t believe all this is being made up on the spot,” he says. “Afterward, I’ll still have people ask which parts were improvised and which were scripted. It’s the biggest compliment.”
Veneziale cites the Roots as a huge influence on the Freestyle crew as they take audiences through the history of hip-hop, but he says jazz plays just as big a role. (The show and group’s name is an homage to John Coltrane’s 1965 album, A Love Supreme.)
“It’s this concept of jazz and the concept of riffing,” he explains. “In some ways, we are using the English language as our instruments and we just happen to be playing that instrument with our voices as opposed to the trumpet or the saxophone. But sometimes you may think, ‘Hey that was an R&B song — or an emo-pop song.’”
But it’s the later segment called “True,” after the crowd is warmed up, when things can get truly deep. Christopher Jackson (C-Jack) — one of the founding members, who will also be joining many of the performances as a special guest, along with Miranda (Lin-Man) , Daveed Diggs (Mr. Diggs), and James Monroe Igleheart (J-Soul) — says it’s his favorite part of each performance.
“Because even now I’m still learning things about the guys — every single time that we do it,” he explains. “You basically have 15 seconds to build a narrative around a word or phrase. And suddenly I’m having a memory of something that happened from my childhood that I had thought about in 25 years and I’m always learning about the others’ journeys, even after knowing some of them for so long.”
During the first preview performance on Friday, September 13th, Veneziale elicits a series of potential prompts from the audience but settles on “Equality for All” as the inspiration for the four performers to riff during “True.”
Arthur the Geniuses began crooning in his wonderful falsetto, setting up a moving R&B tune, while Shockwave tapped out a beat on an African drum. Young Nees rapped about growing up in Queens and searching for fairness and respect as a black woman. When it moved on to J-Soul (Igleheart), he surprised everyone by steering it away from a tale of misfortune, instead sharing a childhood story about playing with a friend’s Transformers and his own (inferior) GoBots and then feeling judged. “Equality for all … toys!” he proclaimed. Although the comic bit seemed to undermine the seriousness of the topic, it also reinforced how versatile the show’s format is, able to incorporate a story that many in the crowd could relate to and those microagressions that can inevitably scar a young person.
That left Jelly Donut as the last to take up the challenge by acknowledging the elephant in the room: what it means for a white boy to rap like this onstage. He challenged the perception that he’s appropriating a “black art” by giving a rapid-fire history lesson of the origins of hip-hop and its birth in the Bronx, citing Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc and many others. The audience erupted with supportive cheers. His rap felt honest and vulnerable, and he kept the crowd on the edge of their seats to see how he’d thread this difficult needle — acknowledging his debt to generations of African Americans for what their creativity and sacrifice gifted him — in an improvised moment that would have left others floundering.
This is the reason why people come back for Freestyle Love Supreme: to witness a fleeting moment of authenticity, to experience an ephemeral glimpse of honesty that can feel dangerous and nearly take your breath away.
“Each night it takes us to places that we didn’t know we were going to go,” Veneziale says. “These moments could be absolutely serious or profound or gut wrenchingly tearful or hilarious or embarrassing. The thing that’s most important is that we all say to each other: ‘Go for it. We’ve got your back. I can’t wait to hear how you attack this word this time.’”