It’s 2003, and Anthony Veneziale and I are freestyle rapping around a piano in the basement of the Drama Book Shop. Anthony works here. I’m supposed to be working on my new musical In the Heights, but on every break Anthony comes in and we freestyle instead. I bang out chords on the piano, while Anthony and I make each other laugh, making up rhymes on the spot, telling stories, going back and forth. Anthony keeps saying, “we should do this in front of people.”
He has to say it a lot of times before I realize he’s serious.
Our first performance as Freestyle Love Supreme is the day after the great NYC Blackout of 2003. The city is still coming back to life. Our performance was supposed to be at the Peoples Improv Troupe Theater on 29th Street, but that block still doesn’t have electricity yet. The Drama Book Shop on 40th Street does. So we lead the 16 friends who came to see us to the bookshop basement, and we are so grateful that we make up raps about each and every one of them. A hilarious evening of theater that is only theirs.
We grow. Thomas Kail, who has been directing In the Heights (and would go on to direct Hamilton) is soon directing us, guiding us towards us shaping an evening that allows us maximum freedom as improvisers and a satisfying night of theater for the audience. Christopher Jackson and Bill Sherman, who have been working on In the Heights in the basement with us, join right away. I bring in Arthur “The Geniuses” Lewis, who I’ve known since third grade, and is one of the best musicians I know. Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan, a brilliant beatboxer and improviser, joins us to provide the beat and we are never the same. And over the years, we find more and more people with this unique skill set: to make people laugh, to tell a story spontaneously, all while rapping at the same time. The squad grows. Utkarsh Ambudkar. Andrew Bancroft. James Monroe Iglehart. Daveed Diggs.
When you’re performing a traditional show on Broadway night after night, people sometimes ask you, “How do you keep your performance fresh?” This is never a concern with Freestyle Love Supreme. The show is always fresh. It changes every night. All of our suggestions of what we freestyle and sing about come from you, the audience. You are our greatest collaborator. We build it together and it becomes a unique shared experience. It’s one of the reasons we have people lock their phones when they come see the show. It’s only meant to exist for the time we’re all together and then it’s gone. We are listening so intently to you to make our show, and you are listening in turn. Every night, you are going to suggest how we play onstage, and you are going to get a hilarious evening of theater that is only yours.
Over the years, Freestyle Love Supreme has had the great fortune to perform all over the world. We’ve toured the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as well as the Aspen, Melbourne and Montreal Comedy Festivals. We got matching tattoos. We’ve had fantastic shows in NYC at great venues including Ars Nova, the PIT, and the Gramercy Theatre. In between these runs, we’d all go off and work on other projects. Several of us took what we learned from the road and applied it to songs and skits that were a part of the 2009 revival of The Electric Company on PBS. Careers in music, television, film and theater took us in all different directions. We even did a TV show called “Freestyle Love Supreme” in 2014 (you can watch it, it’s on iTunes!). You’ve seen members of Freestyle Love Supreme in movies, on TV, and on Broadway. But we still keep coming back to perform together as Freestyle Love Supreme, because there’s nothing quite like it.
We returned to the stage earlier this year, when we cut the ribbon on Ars Nova’s new downtown Off-Broadway home at the Greenwich House Theater. We had an incredible 5-week run. Now we are approaching a 16-week run limited engagement run on Broadway at the phenomenal Booth Theatre.
And I’ll always come back to FLS for as much time as I can, whenever I can. I hope I get the chance to perform with this group for decades to come. It’s always challenging. It’s always rewarding. It’s always hilarious. I’m so proud of the deep bench of performers who has joined our ranks over the years. Everyone has achieved great success in their individual careers, but Freestyle Love Supreme remains special to us all. And it exists because we were having fun and Anthony said, “we should do this in front of people.” So here we go. I hope we see you there.