Hip-hop is all about the use of words. Words build cyphers, stories, and excitement. A well-placed word in a tight verse can elicit a raucous joy. And when an emcee runs out of words, the moment is over. Gone forever. A rapper can’t duplicate an in-the-moment flow.
Cyphers. Raucous joy. Spontaneous flows. This is the magic of Freestyle Love Supreme, the Tony Award-winning improvisational musical comedy created by Port Richmond native Anthony Veneziale and his Wesleyan college buddies, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Broadway musical director Thomas Kail.
Freestyle Love Supreme will premiere in Philly on Tuesday, June 7, at the Kimmel Center Cultural Campus’ Miller Theater and will run through Sunday, June 12.
Miranda will join Veneziale, Allentown native Morgan Reilly, and the rest of the Freestyle crew on the Miller stage for the evening performance on Friday, June 10.
Freestyle works like this: The crew picks a subject — weather, pet peeves, famous people, true stories — and the audience shouts out words associated with the topic. The beatboxing starts, then the Freestyle crew creates rap songs, on the spot. The improv musical comedy, which runs for about two hours without intermission, is filled with stories from the audience, laughter, smooth harmonies, and dope rhymes.
Miranda says he’s excited to come to Philly because he wants to see what pet peeves we come up with. Can you blame him? Everything gets on our nerves: SEPTA trains, potholes, cheesesteaks with too much Whiz, and water ice that’s not friggin’ cold enough. Shall I go on?
“I’m so scared of pet peeves and Anthony Veneziale and Philly,” Miranda said in a Zoom interview. “It’s going to be so specific, like people are going to be seen.”
“It’s going to be so sick, it’s disgusting,” Veneziale said. “We are going to kill it in Philly.”
Freestyle takes its name from John Coltrane’s 1964 jazz album, A Love Supreme, to pay homage to improvisation. Back in 1998, Veneziale and Kail freestyled about whatever came to their mind to stay awake during a cross-country road trip. They rapped about mundane things that happened during their day. The search for the perfect words made stories about dates, things they knew about history, and current events more witty.
Veneziale, Kail, and Miranda freestyled so much during Broadway development for In the Heights they decided they could create a hip-hop musical. What if they asked the audience to suggest topics, words, and stories they thought were funny? And what if the rapping troupe took those themes, added a bit of musical theater and comedy, and improvised rap songs around them? Freestyle Love Supreme was born.
They added musicians, a beat boxer/percussionist, and a singer, Chris Jackson, who would go on to star as George Washington in Hamilton. Jackson will appear on stage in Philadelphia for matinee and evening performances on Saturday, June 11, and next Sunday, June 12. That group perfected the show in New York playhouses, on the West Coast, and overseas. (James Monroe Iglehart, the Hamilton alum who played Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette, will join Philadelphia’s June 7-11 performances.)
Freestyle kicked off its first limited Broadway run in 2019. In 2020, Hulu released a two-hour documentary, We Are Freestyle Love Supreme. Philadelphia is the seventh stop on Freestyle’s second 10-city tour that started in January. Celebrities like Wayne Brady, Tina Fey, and Daveed Diggs, another Hamilton alum who was in the Freestyle cast, frequently show up in the show. Perhaps Roots members Black Thought or Questlove will show up on the Philly stage. But so might Kevin Hart and rappers Tierra Whack or Meek Mill.
Miranda and Veneziale were mum about Philly’s special guests, but we did have a spirited conversation about words, Wordle, and hip-hop.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
When did your fascination with words start?
Anthony Veneziale: I was blown away by LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl.” I wanted to know everything he was saying. I recorded the song every time it came on. I was like ‘What? How he saying so many words?’ I wanted to know all of them; I memorized that song. That was my entry point. Anything I could get my hands on: A Tribe Called Quest, Run DMC, De La Soul, I memorized every album from front to back. ...
I listened to hip-hop every night before I went to bed. That is how I calmed my precocious mind. Hip-hop was a beautiful, mathematical equation that put me to sleep because I knew where the rhymes were going. That is where I got my love of words, for sure.
Lin Manuel-Miranda: I would corner people at the family Christmas party and sing the “Twelve Days of Christmas” My first awareness of internal rhyme was Darkwing Duck. Remember that? Darkwing Duck [“When there’s trouble, you call DW.”]? Trouble you call DW. That is some sophisticated rhyming. The secret to my love of hip-hop, however, was my cool older sibling. I have a sister who is six years older than me. She took me to all of the Hollywood hip-hop movies: Beat Street, Breakin’, Krush Groove. Speaking of LL, I stole her albums, her first cassettes and CDs.
Do you remember your first freestyle?
LMM: I remember being way too shy to freestyle in high school. I had friends who would freestyle for hours and when it came to me, I passed and I passed. I needed a certain amount of hours on stage before I felt comfortable freestyling with my friends. But my first real experience was not unlike Anthony’s. I was on a road trip with my friends driving to Vegas, and I had the midnight-to-5 a.m. shift through Kansas City. I had to freestyle to stay awake. I pushed through my comfort zone that night.
AV: I got cut from the soccer team my sophomore year in high school, and two days later I auditioned for the improv group. We were playing a game where the audience would give you a genre of music to perform. It was the mid 1990s so hip-hop was everywhere. I rhymed on the spot. My brain just clicked with rhyming.
When did you realize hip-hop was a teaching tool?
AV: When you freestyle you make 100 mistakes. You know you are going to miss your shot. But you get positive reinforcement. It was a kind of low-risk therapy around failure. I tried it. I didn’t die. I developed creative risk-taking.
LMM: The part in my brain that freestyles are different from the part in my brain that makes up stories. So with freestyle I developed a completely different side of my brain. I’ve done thousands and thousands of shows, but I’m still terrified every time I go on stage. I develop a low-grade fever. It’s a real-life version of the anxiety dream you have of being in front of a crowd and not knowing your lines. But every night we make something. We get the ingredients and we cook something.
The phrase, ‘I’m rapping off the top of my dome’ is a tell that a rapper is stuck during a battle. What are your verbal ticks?
LMM: I turn to the word, delicious and I rhyme it with I didn’t even do the dishes. If I say delicious, dishes isn’t far behind.
AV: Now that we have a masked audience, my verbal tick is What is that? What is that?
Do you wordsmiths play Wordle?
AV: Heck, yeah.
How about the New York Times Spelling Bee?
AV: Heck, yeah. I just found today’s pangram.
LMM: No, but I do do the Times crossword. OK, the truth is I’ve been working on one for months.
Will we ever be too old for hip-hop?
AV and LMM in unison: No!
“Freestyle Love Supreme” will play at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Miller Theater, 240 S. Broad St., June 7-12. Tickets range in price from $45 to $109, and are available at www.kimmelculturalcampus.org.