Freestyle Love Supreme is not so much Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway follow-up to Hamilton as it is a subsidiary of Lin-Manuel Inc. The hip-hop improv group that Miranda co-founded 16 years ago with fellow Wesleyan University alumni would certainly not be performing its spontaneous raps on Broadway at up to $199 a ticket were it not for Miranda’s fame and the promise of his name.
Indeed, one could argue that the show is above all a triumph of marketing. It is able to use the draw not just of Miranda but several other Hamilton-created stars as potential performers in the show, although their appearances are intermittent and “unannounced.”
The show is so much closer to comedy club than Broadway fare that it includes a performance Monday nights at 10 p.m.
That’s the show I attended this week, and, unlike the official press nights earlier this month, it had none of the Hamilton wattage. Even the main MC duties were undertaken by regular cast member Andrew Bancroft, rather than Anthony Veneziale, the usual main MC. (Veneziale is the true mastermind behind the troupe and the show; according to the credits, Veneziale is the only person to have “conceived” the show, while it was “created” by him, Miranda, and Tommy Kail, the Hamilton helmer who also directs this production.)
And yet, even on a late Monday night performance, it is easy to appreciate this show — if you understand what it is and you don’t mind the Broadway prices for it (or are lucky enough to win the $35 digital lottery.) In any case, it is hard not to be dazzled by the verbal dexterity of the cast as they create a series of rapped improvisations, in response to solicited suggestions from the audience. The rap songs — some so elaborate that they’re more like rap scenarios — are accompanied by spontaneous musical compositions by two keyboardists (Arthur Lewis and, on my night, Ian Weinberger) with a beat and sundry instrumental impersonations by human beatboxer Chris Sullivan. The music, it’s important to note, is not incidental, but central to the show, which helps explain the inclusion in the cast of powerhouse singer Aneesa Folds, who didn’t go to Wesleyan (but did attend Freestyle Love Supreme Academy)
The audience suggestions make this 85-minute show different at every performance, but the type of suggestions requested determine its structure, which is more or less the same from night to night: For the first improvised rap, the MC requests a verb (on this particular night, out of the many shouted out, he picked “drag.”); for the next improv, something you dislike (he ignored the many shouts of “Trump” and chose three including “the A train” and “bad weed”); for the third improv, he requests a personal story about something an audience member regrets and wishes he or she could redo; next, something we can’t do without (“teeth”); and, finally, an individual volunteer is brought up to the stage and interviewed at length about how he or she spent today.
Freestyle Love Supreme is, nearly by definition, hit-or-miss. It’s clear that the most frequent miss is that last improv. I could tell this because, in asking for a volunteer, Bancroft listed five criteria – e.g. the volunteer had to be somebody of voting age who’s interacted with at least three to five people today (“and not just in your mind”), and who is not celebrating their birthday today. (“We tried that. For some reason, it doesn’t work.”) The volunteer they chose met all the criteria (and sounded as if he had a fairly interesting life) but it still didn’t quite work for me – 20 minutes of interview felt too long for the ten-minute hip hop musical that it produced.
The memory relived, by contrast, was a highlight. A man named Colin in the mezzanine explained (after Bancroft threw him a microphone embedded in a cloth cube) that when he was five years old he was abandoned by his family at Sea World in Aurora, Ohio.
“My name is Colin/I’ve been five since I’ve been alive,” Wayne Brady, the “guest MC” began, and what followed was a hilarious re-enactment, which featured impersonations of his parents and younger brother, and Utkarsh Ambudkar as a rapping sea creature, talking to “Colin” while they floated together in an imaginary aquarium.
Brady was a worthy guest, despite his lack of Hamiltonian credentials (a familiar face on TV, he’s a Broadway veteran of the musicals Chicago and Kinky Boots.) His most memorable rap was a long, supposedly true personal story about how his effort to seduce an attractive woman was derailed by his allergic reaction to her cat – his final verse rhymed “smitten” with “kitten.”
Freestyling – the practice (art form?) of making up rhymes in a rap rhythm on the spot – has been around for some three decades. I should be nobody’s go-to judge of the quality of the freestyling in Freestyle Love Supreme, and much of it went by too quickly for me to transcribe so that you can judge for yourselves. But there is an argument to be made that it resists critical evaluation; even a neurological argument: Veneziale has reportedly been working with a doctor to monitor brain waves with an fMRI machine during the act of freestyling. The freestyling heats up the part of the brain responsible for “your creative flow,” Venziale has said, while at the same time the part of the brain cools where your “monitoring-critic voice” is located. (For fans of neurology: the former is the medial prefrontal cortex, the latter the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.)
My critical voice definitely cooled. That I suspect is part of the show’s appeal. Freestyle Love Supreme is designed to feel good-natured and informal, like friends sitting around a dorm room at Wesleyan, even though there are 766 of us and we’re at the Booth Theater, down the block from a Harold Pinter play and across the street from a big jukebox musical.
Bancroft actually talked at length at one point in the show about the history of the Booth Theater, in a jokey manner – how it was named after the brother of Lincoln’s assassin, how it was the site of The Elephant Man in 2014, starring Bradley Cooper “working hard to prove he could be unattractive” – a line of patter that made me wonder how honest he had been when he began the night by proclaiming: “This show is completely made up. I have no idea what I’m going to do right now.”
It is no intended insult to observe that Bancroft could be the host of a game show like Jeopardy. He comes off as smart, personable, willing to make gentle fun of audience members, but always careful to do so with respect and apparent affection. He also seems to have a knack for reading people quickly (like Derren Brown?), and for seeming edgy while avoiding audience suggestions that could give offense. This seemed mostly about politics, but when somebody offered “masturbation” as something he couldn’t live without, Bancroft cracked “thanks for keeping it real, mezzanine,” and then picked something else. I focus on Bancroft here, because he was the main MC that night, but all the cast members establish a palpable goodwill. That goodwill goes a long way. If the show isn’t always a consummate entertainment, the performers are always impressive…and also fun. And if the performers are often more fun than funny, they are certainly never at a loss for words.