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Lin-Manuel Miranda on bringing Freestyle Love Supreme to TV

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Evan Agostini/Invision for Pivot/AP Images

Lin-Manuel Miranda now has what he considers a “superpower” thanks to his years rapping with his hip-hop improv group Freestyle Love Supreme. That “superpower,” an ability to rhyme with ease on a deadline, has not only affected his own work for the stage, it’s also one of the reasons he was tapped  to compose closing raps for two of Neil Patrick Harris’s Tony hosting stints. And now that superpower, along with the others who possess it, has a platform: a Freestyle Love Supreme TV show premieres on Pivot tonight.

EW chatted with Miranda—best known as the star, composer and lyricist behind In the Heights, who rapped when he won the Tony for Best Original Score—about bringing Freestyle Love Supreme to the small screen.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did the show come about?

Miranda: This is the brainchild of Anthony Veneziale, who is in the show. It happened very organically. He and I started freestyling together when I was still working on In The Heights in the basement of The Drama Book Shop. That’s how we got to know each other. He wasn’t an actor in the show, he wasn’t the director of the break, but on every break he would pop into the room and be like, “let’s freestyle.” So we would do that for fun and he just kept saying, “We’ve got to do this in front of people.” He had this very strong training in improv and background in comedy. I’m a songwriter. So it was very nerve-wracking and then we started doing it at the PIT, the People’s Improv Theater, and we roped in our friends and the ones who could hang stayed, like Arthur [Lewis] I’ve known since third grade. I went to college with Bill [Sherman]. Shockwave [Christopher Sullivan], our beatboxer found us. He saw us doing a show, and as soon as he found us, it was like suddenly we had our spine because when you have a beatboxer who is as comedically gifted and as musically gifted as Shockwave you can speed up tempo, you can slow down. He knows exactly what to do when. When we started it was Anthony and I rapping over pre-recorded beats about whoever was in the room. It was very much like the Steamboat Willie version of Freestyle Love Supreme before it became Mickey Mouse. We started finding the personnel. Chris Jackson, of course, was in In the Heights with me so that’s how he found the group, he brought James Iglehart, who just won a Tony for Aladdin. So as we began to form Tommy Kail, who directed In the Heights, helped us shape the skill set, which is making up these raps and taking whatever the audience throws at us and making stuff out of it and forming it into an evening, finding ways to do a long form improv structure using the skill set.

How did you get the show on Pivot? 

It’s kind of exciting because we’ve been on the music slash comedy scene for a really long time. The challenge has always been, well, they’re amazing live, but how on earth do you translate that to TV? The TV creates a divide. We went down the road with Adult Swim to do a scripted pilot, and it was very funny. It was a different thing. What we really tried to do with Pivot was translate the live experience the best we can. We shot like two weeks straight of live shows, just in front of audiences who had never seen it before. We found stuff onstage, like we do, that’s all unscripted, every live element is unscripted. One of the things that helps the audience realize it’s unscripted is just tons of long takes and split screens. You see lots of reactions. It’s not one of these shows that’s chopped up and edited. You see our thought process as the words are coming out of our mouth. You see the audience reacting without cutting away. Then we have these unscripted elements that we shot on the streets of New York City, where we’d have like a situation but none of it’s scripted. It’s just us being thrown against each other. Or we went to Columbus Circle and rapped for like four hours and picked up stuff from that. Or I went out into the park and just talked to people.

You all have all these other projects, when do you find time to get together and practice, and how do you think you have grown and developed? Is it just something you get better at?

Yeah, it is, and also doing it with the same group of people. Freestyle is probably now the longest creative relationship I have had in my life. We’ve been together 11 years, some of us are newer to the group than others, but there is that thing of we know our strengths, we know each other’s thought patterns at this point. It’s like we’re a seven-person married couple. In terms of the time aspect, it’s true, we’re totally scattered. UTK [Utkarsh Ambudkar] and Anthony live on the West Coast, the rest of us live in New York. James is doing eight shows a week. But we all just cleared out August and September. We filmed at a breakneck pace. There was no time to script anything. We were filming like an episode a day. So we made 10 episodes of TV, and I think they are the truest representation of us both on and offstage that we are ever going to get to see. I was telling my Twitter followers, this is as autobiographical as I ever care to get. I write musicals, I write fictional characters. I’m much more comfortable in a fictional character than I am as myself. But when you’re freestyling and you’re just pulling the words out of your brain in that moment, there’s no time to lie there’s nowhere to hide. And I think that’s what makes the show so exciting and I think that’s what makes the show unlike anything else on TV.

How has having this long creative relationship with Freestyle influenced your personal creativity like when you’re working on a show? 

Oh, I think it’s helped my writing immeasurably. I think it’s the opposing muscle group of what I do for a living. I spent seven years writing In the Heights, I’m on my fifth year of writing Hamilton. The process of writing a musical is like working in marble. You’re hoping to build something that will last a very long time so you will spend a day writing four lyrics or two couplets. You will spend a month writing a song. And then I go to a show where the song just has to come out of us and there’s no time to edit because it’s happening in front of people. It’s helped me embrace whatever the initial impulses are in in my writing, and keep more of that in my work. It’s also come in handy professionally. I got to write the closing number for the Tonys for Neil Patrick Harris for two years because he knew I could go sit in the basement and write a rap that he could deliver that night. It’s this superpower we’ve developed, and that’s been great. But it’s the opposite of my writing, and it’s great to be able work at both of those speeds and everywhere in-between.

Freestyle also has serious moments because it’s also autobiographical. Can you tease any great moments that audiences will see in the show?

If you’re a fan of our live show you’re going to see us offstage in a way that will help you understand our dynamic onstage. We did a song where we asked audience for a decision they were having trouble making and we would argue both sides of their decision for them. This young woman said, I’m trying to decide if I should move out to California or stay in Brooklyn. So Anthony took the side of moving out to California, which he did. And I took the side of staying in Brooklyn and it got personal so fast. It went from us advocating for this young lady in the audience to me screaming, “we were building something and you left. We could have been huge.” It was so funny because it so closely mirrored our very real conversations. And you can’t help but have your real life spill into the stuff.

There’s no division between who we are in real life and who we are onstage because there’s just no time. I think the TV show, what it does best is it obliterates that wall. It’s just us up there and our group dynamic. There’s actually a clip that’s online where the word was “sunrise” and Utkarsh talked about being an upward skinny Indian kid in Maryland. You just have to tell a true story about something that that word evokes. I talked about walking my dog every morning at 7 a.m. Whatever that sparks, that’s what we’re going to sing about. There’s no time to make anything up. So weirdly, this freestyle hip-hop is the most autobiographical thing.

That’s different from what a lot of people think of improv comedy, where you’re seeing people play characters in wacky situations.

It depends on the song. Some of the things we toss up there we’re telling about ourselves and some of them we’re taking the audience and we’re being a conduit for them. You’ll see in the pilot episode, we asked, “what’s the craziest thing you ever did?” And this guy says, “trespassing.” We said, “oh, where’d you trespass,” and he said, “I ate ramen on my roof.” And we did this whole song from his perspective about how that was like the craziest thing anyone had ever done. Like, “don’t go up to the roof, no one has ever survived.”

Have you learned anything from this experience about how to translate something that exists on a stage to a screen, and if you have any updates on an In the Heights movie?

I’ll tell you what we have learned. What was wonderful about Pivot, and I really mean this, was that it was a very barebones production. And what I have learned in the TV/film world is the less money you’re in the hole for, the more freedom you have. We didn’t make a ton of money making the show but we got to make our show on our terms. Pivot was incredibly supportive and we had real creative freedom and that’s my lesson going forward with the Heights movie, which will happen. There are people who are working very hard to make it happen.

What I am learning from this go around is we’re going to do the bare-knuckle, bare-boned [version]. Having gone the major studio, here’s a ton of money, but with these strings attached route, I’m really excited for the version of In the Heights that we shoot on location in the summer.

I don’t care when it gets made. It took Chicago 25 years to get made, but it was like the best f–king movie musical ever. In the Heights is now playing at every regional theater and every high school so the audience for it is only growing as more people do the show and fall in love with the show, and my only responsibility is to get it right.