By Christian Holub
February 12, 2019 at 10:00 PM EST
Matthew Murphy

Before he was the mastermind behind Hamilton or a Tony Award winner for In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda could often be found in the basement of the Drama Book Shop, writing musical numbers and freestyle rapping. As he roped more and more friends into the latter, it grew into a stage show called Freestyle Love Supreme, a unique blend of improvisational theater and hip-hop music that even ended up on TV for a bit in 2014. Years later, Miranda and his collaborators’ love for the show remains strong, and so it has returned to the New York stage for a limited Off Broadway engagement in New York, opening Tuesday and running through March 3 at the Greenwich House Theater.

Miranda is no longer front and center, but he and other former members will be popping in at various shows, and he is still on board as a producer. EW checked out one of the first performances of the new Freestyle Love Supreme — here’s what we thought were the most fun elements of this unique showcase. 

Ever-changing lineup (with some Hamilton cameos!)

Due to the very nature of improv, no two performances of Freestyle Love Supreme will be exactly the same. This is one reason the show requires that attendees place their phones in secure pouches for the duration of the performance, a move that allows you to retain possession of your property while also focusing in on the energy of a unique performance. That variance is further enhanced by the changes in lineups during shows. The core performers are Anthony “Two-Touch” Veneziale (formerly Miranda’s basement freestyle partner, who originally conceived the show and co-created it with Miranda and Thomas Kail); Utkarsh “UTK” Ambudkar, Andrew “Jelly Donut” Bancroft; Arthur “Arthur the Geniuses” Lewis; Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan; and music supervisor Bill Sherman. Sometimes, one or more of them will rotate out to accommodate a special guest. At the performance EW saw, Bancroft was switched for Christopher Jackson, Hamilton’s original George Washington.

Although Hamilton cameos can’t be counted on, fans of the blockbuster musical can look forward to the possibility. With Jackson in attendance, the other performers constantly referenced his resume, calling him “the general” or “the president.” Other Hamilton stars (and former FLS members from the original run) may check in for a show, including Daveed Diggs, James Monroe Iglehart, and even possibly Miranda himself. The show is designed to work well even without their presence (and don’t go in expecting them for fear of disappointment), but it’s always fun to see stars return to their earlier work with new perspectives. 

Audience participation

No matter who you are or what your interests are, you’ll have a chance to get involved in the Freestyle Love Supreme show you attend. The contents of almost every segment are determined by audience suggestions, and before the show starts there’s a bucket in which attendees can place cards inscribed with a word of their choice. Sometimes the performers will ask the crowd to shout out words (people, places, things) that they’ll use to compose a story song. The rules aren’t strictly defined, of course; if the “thing” you want to shout out is something as complicated, say, as the recent Jeff Bezos scandal, that can work!

Other times it’ll get even more personal. Sometimes the performers will ask particularly brave audience volunteers to explain, say, some embarrassing moment from their life that they wish they could take back. They’ll then perform the embarrassing moment, and also hypothesize a different way it could have gone with a “second chance.” At the show EW saw, the gang took an audience member’s story of face-planting on 40th Street on her birthday. In the first version, the fall happened because their fictionalized heroine (played by Ambudkar) was too busy looking at her phone to pay attention to things around her. With a second chance, she learns to stop looking at her phone all the time and becomes an innovator in “digital health.” Her efforts lead to a utopian ending in which Bezos (played by Jackson, reprising his role from the earlier people/places/things segment) is so convinced by her efforts that he shuts down Amazon. She went from face-planting on her birthday to single-handedly taking down Amazon! Such is the magic of improv. 

Topical humor mixed with evergreen emotions

Speaking of Bezos, EW saw a show two days after the Amazon CEO wrote his Medium post accusing National Enquirer publisher American Media Inc. of attempting to blackmail him with compromising photos. As a result, it was still on a lot of audience members’ minds, and the absurd story ended up in a lot of suggestions. Once it was mentioned, there was no stopping it from popping up throughout the show.

But not everything has to be timely or topical; there’s plenty of room for personal and evergreen emotions at Freestyle Love Supreme. At one point, the performers asked for a word and were given “my mom.” Sitting in a row of stools, they each soliloquized about their experience with their mothers. Jackson rapped and sang about his days as “a little bastard,” and how bringing up his own kids has helped him look at his childhood in a new light and inspired him to call hi mom to thank her for everything she did (aww!). Ambudkar’s mother and father were in attendance at the show, so he acknowledged their presence and rapped about their life stories as immigrants who built a new life for their family. During the same segment, Lewis sang about how his mother had recently died; after the number finished, the other performers hugged him. “That’s what can happen in a live show!” Veneziale, who had taken the “mom” suggestion knowing that Ambudkar’s parents were there but forgetting Lewis’ loss, declared after the segment.

Indeed, it was a good showcase of the show’s emotional spectrum. Interactions with the audience can result in zany comedy, heartfelt tributes, and sometimes a mix of both. 

Everything’s a jam

The creative performers on stage never miss a chance to turn something into a musical moment. The first thing that happens in the show is the mic check, in which the performers come on stage one by one to present their personal styles (Ambudkar’s rapping, Sullivan’s beatboxing) and declare which microphones they’ll be using. It both tests the equipment (“microphone two, two, two”) and introduces them to the audience.  

With such a style, there’s no such thing as dead air. The last segment of the show EW saw involved bringing an audience member on stage to describe the story of her day, so they could then riff on it. As soon as the woman said her name was “Tammy,” the performers started an impromptu jam rapping “Tammy” over and over in different enunciations, until Veneziale decided it was time to move on.

Look out for callbacks

The only genre that loves callbacks and references to prior material more than improv is hip-hop, so get ready for plenty of jokes, themes, and characters to recur throughout the show. During the aforementioned “mom” song, Ambudkar joked about his father wanting a free hoodie from the show: “Now my dad says it’s all goodie, can I have a hoodie? You money! Use your credit card! It’s only $40!” That joke then recurred throughout, particularly in the last segment reenacting Tammy’s day. Giving voice to Tammy’s thoughts as she prepared to come to the show, Ambudkar joked, “I’m feeling generous. Might buy an older Indian man a hoodie tonight.”

Though sometimes it runs the risk of repeating jokes, the callbacks also allow the show to build on itself. It’s similar to how the second act of Hamilton often riffs on themes and scenes from the first act, but in much goofier fashion. Instead of contrasting a politician’s early successes with his later failures, this show’s later segments might explore all the different facets of the Bezos scandal or Ambudkar’s father’s possibly-ongoing quest for a hoodie.

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