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Will Broadway Audiences Love Freestyle Love Supreme?

Lin-Manuel Miranda's improvisational hip-hop troupe makes its Broadway debut this fall.

Chris Sullivan, Christopher Jackson, Anthony Veneziale, Utkarsh Ambudkar, and Arthur Lewis starred in the off-Broadway run of Freestyle Love Supreme, directed by Thomas Kail, at Greenwich House Theater.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Now that the 2019 Tony Awards are firmly in the rearview mirror, we are beginning to see the 2019-20 season on the horizon. This week, we learned that Hamilton creator and Broadway mega-star Lin-Manuel Miranda will (sporadically) return to Broadway in Freestyle Love Supreme, starting performances September 13 at the Booth Theatre.

Story of the Week will explain what Freestyle Love Supreme is, what makes it different from all other Broadway shows, and what chance it has of becoming a hit this fall. Oh, there's a reason I'm not sneezin' at Freestyle pleasin' — even when Broadway's geezin'.

What is Freestyle Love Supreme?
Freestyle Love Supreme is a show in which the cast uses stories and suggestions from the audience as the basis for some seriously hilarious freestyle raps. Co-founded by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the group has been around for the better part of the last two decades, creating rhymes on the fly and delighting audiences with verbal gymnastics. It's essentially a nerdy improv comedy show in hip-hop drag.

The core members of the Broadway company are Andrew Bancroft, Arthur Lewis, Bill Sherman, Chris Sullivan, Anthony Veneziale, and Utkarsh Ambudkar. They will be joined each night by a special guest star that could be Christopher Jackson (Hamilton), Daveed Diggs (Hamilton), James Monroe Iglehart (Aladdin), Wayne Brady (Whose Line Is It Anyway?), or the roster's one lady, Ashley Pérez Flanagan (The Great Comet). And, there's always the possibility that the talented Mr. Miranda will show up.

Why is Freestyle Love Supreme moving to Broadway?
The show ran off-Broadway this past winter, selling out almost as soon as tickets went on sale. The possibility of seeing Miranda perform live in an intimate venue was certainly one of the driving factors in that overwhelming response. Of course, he wasn't in the show the night I attended, and I'm guessing that was the case for most of the people who saw it.

Still, the show is a delightful 85 minutes of music and clever wordplay, all created right there in the room. Admiring the beautiful impermanence of the show in my review, I said it was "like a Buddhist sand mandala — but a lot funnier."

Nick Kroll and John Mulaney starred in Oh, Hello on Broadway.
(© Joan Marcus)

Is improvisational comedy common on Broadway?
Improv is the lifeblood of New York City's many comedy clubs, but it is rarely attempted on Broadway, despite some very convincing imitations: Heidi Schreck's What the Constitution Means to Me purports to present a live debate on the U.S. Constitution between Schreck and a teenage scholar, but the arguments are entirely scripted (although Schreck, as author, exercises her right to ad-lib more frequently than most Broadway actors). Similarly, David Javerbaum's An Act of God appeared to depict God taking questions from the audience, but these too were entirely preordained.

The most muscular recent example of improv on Broadway was in Nick Kroll and John Mulaney's Oh, Hello, in which the two comedians (in character as Upper West Side curmudgeons) interviewed a different celebrity guest each night — with uproarious results. Nothing gets an audience to lean forward more consistently than an unscripted moment. The potential for anything to happen is also one of the reasons behind Freestyle Love Supreme's most talked-about innovation.

Are they really going to mummify my smartphone at the door?
You betcha. As they did for the off-Broadway run, the producers of Freestyle Love Supreme have teamed up with Yondr, a company that makes little pouches for smartphones that are sealed by theater staff for the duration of a performance, allowing audience members to maintain possession of their phones while ensuring that they cannot use them until they leave the theater. The Yondr pouch has been hailed as a revolutionary way to curtail smartphone use in theater; but it has its detractors, and it has been the subject of vigorous debate on this website.

Dave Chappelle will perform a week of comedy shows at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre this July, and he will require audiences to secure their phones in Yondr pouches.
(© Mathieu Bitton)

The Yondr Pouch will be given a Broadway test-drive this summer during the five performances comedian Dave Chappelle has scheduled for the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Chappelle has long employed the Yondr pouch at his comedy shows, freeing him to try out material on the live audience that he might not be ready to share with millions of YouTube viewers. That same sentiment seems to be prompting Freestyle Love Supreme to unleash the pouch.

Will Freestyle Love Supreme be a hit?
It's not going to be the next Hamilton, but that surely isn't the goal of this 16-week limited engagement. With minimal design and a slim roster of performers, Freestyle Love Supreme will be one of the least-expensive shows to produce on Broadway this season, meaning that profitability is not only achievable, but likely — especially if the off-Broadway ticket hype follows the show to the Booth.

Lin-Manuel Miranda (center) poses with Freestyle Love Supreme members Arthur Lewis, Andrew Bancroft, Bill Sherman, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Christopher Jackson, Anthony Veneziale, and Thomas Kail.
(© Janie Willison)

Of course, it is possible that Freestyle Love Supreme will follow the path of Be More Chill, which completed a sensational sold-out off-Broadway run, only to struggle to gain traction once it transferred to Broadway. This would put Freestyle Love Supreme in the same league as those tragic holiday concerts with reality TV stars that seem to come around every year: so cheap to produce that the audiences smell the cynical money grab and stay away.

But Freestyle Love Supreme has spontaneity on its side — and anyone who has seen a show in which an actor goes off-script knows how it can supercharge a live performance. In my review of the off-Broadway run, I noted that since so much of Freestyle Love Supreme is made right in front of the audience, it constituted the only rapid-response musical off-Broadway: The performers are free to reference that morning's front page or (heaven forfend!) presidential tweet. Audiences are hungry for that kind of artfully presented topicality, and they may be willing to pay Broadway prices to get it.

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