“Freestyle Love Supreme”: The latest iteration of Broadway meeting hip-hop



Should the urge to see Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda drop his pants to show off a pair of He-Man-patterned boxers ever strike, Broadway’s “Freestyle Love Supreme” is the place to be. 

The show, which debuted Oct. 2 at the Booth Theatre, is an improvisational hip-hop musical where audience members share stories and suggestions with performers who transform the ideas or moods into comedic riffs or full-length musical numbers.

Beyond the show’s unusual scenes and circumstances, the diversity and uniqueness the cast brings to their performances and the connections they form with their audience during each performance is an element that few of its musical predecessors have touched. The chance afforded to audience and cast members alike to share personal experiences and become part of the story’s narrative as more than just characters is a novelty.

 The musical was created by Miranda, Thomas Kail — who directs — and Anthony Veneziale, who had the original idea. Each performance has a guest star and Miranda took the spot one night.

“We were doing a song called ‘True’ where every performer tells a story from their own life based off of a word, and the word was ‘He-Man,’” said Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan, who has been with the show since its inception off-Broadway, 16 years ago.  “I know when [Miranda] heard He-Man, he knew what he had in store.” 

Miranda’s story was tied to the 1980s-era superhero, and when he finished, he revealed to the entire audience that he was wearing the perfect attire for the night: underwear featuring He-Man: The Most Powerful Man in the Universe. 

The comedic aspect that “Freestyle Love Supreme” brings to hip-hop performances is what attracted cast member Andrew “Jelly Donut” Bancroft, who said that the rap community can sometimes stray from a funnier, friendlier vibe to a more hostile one. He took “Jelly Donut” as his rap name as a homage to his childhood.

“My mom gave my brother and I cute little food names,” he said. “He had red hair, so he was Pumpkin Pie, and I was pretty fat. I was a chubby little thing, so I was Jelly Donut.”

The name is not entirely self-deprecating; Bancroft used it as a tool to diffuse some of the intensity he found within rap and beatboxing battles. 

“There’s a lot of camaraderie in that world,” he said. “But there’s also a lot of ego and misogyny.” 

The beatboxing that underlies the show’s impromptu songs and raps is provided by Kaila Mullady, who not only faced head-on a community rife with misogyny but won beatboxing competitions around the world before joining “Freestyle Love Supreme.” Mullady worked with The Beatbox House, a Brooklyn-based team comprised of five members, many of whom hold championship titles from international beatboxing competitions.  

“A real turning point came in 2015,” said Chris Celiz, who founded The Beatbox House.  “Kaila won the world champs, and another one of our members, Napom, won for males. It put America back on the map.” 

Celiz said the United States was looked upon as a joke before his team members won their respective competitions at the 2015 Beatbox Battle World Championship, a triennial competition in Berlin.

“I loved coming up with Kaila in those first few years,” Celiz said. “Having her added a whole different element, which was amazing.”

Mullady brings that “whole different element” to her performances each night at the Booth, combining her talents with the instrumental, vocal and improvisational abilities of her cast mates. 

Arthur Lewis, a cast member who goes by “Arthur the Geniuses” on performance nights, said what they do on stage is “a really difficult thing to capture in words.” 

To Bancroft, the most beautiful part of the show is the “symbiotic relationship” formed between the performers and the audience. The point of the show isn’t to impress viewers or demonstrate acting prowess. Rather, Bancroft views it as a way to light people up, to make them laugh, to tell the audience’s stories while simultaneously telling the performers’ own stories. 

“That might sound like a grand way to describe what is often jokes about sex,” he said. “But it really has kind of a deeper element to it, which is why I think it lasted so long. It resonates with people on quite a few levels, more than just comedy.” 

The opportunity to connect more directly with audience members is part of what drew Bill Sherman out of production roles and into making guest appearances. 

“I’m definitely more of a behind-the-scenes person,” said Sherman, who likes to perform in front of an audience occasionally “just to remember what that feels like.”

Sherman, who goes by “King Sherman” while performing in “Freestyle Love Supreme,” worked as a music arranger and orchestrator for “In the Heights” – another Miranda show – and is the music supervisor for the upcoming pop musical “&Juliet.” 

Being able to push boundaries and challenge themselves is part of what makes “Freestyle Love Supreme” special to its performers. Bancroft described the show as the answer to all his rap dreams, allowing him to combine freestyle and comedy with the unabashed truth of who he is.

The lone drawback, it seems, is that the constant improvisation and unexpected twists and turns the show takes means performers struggle to pinpoint any one line or scene as a personal favorite. Sullivan described this as memories of what just occurred on stage immediately exiting their minds and disappearing into the ether. 

“That’s kind of the amazing thing about ‘Freestyle Love Supreme,’” Sherman said. “Any night, any show could be the funniest moment ever.”