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Lin-Manuel Miranda's freestyle love supreme ends in January, but its sister school is here to stay and open to all
Don't be surprised if you find yourself tearing up at Broadway's freestyle love supreme. Although the hip-hop musical improv show is mostly comedic, there are segments designed to elicit a mix of emotions, particularly a bit in which the performers come up with rhyming lyrics on the spot inspired by a word suggested by the audience. The one rule: Everything they rap or sing must be true.
"That song in particular really runs the gamut," says Andrew Bancroft, aka rapper Jelly Donut, a member of freestyle love supreme's rotating cast. "I've heard some of the funniest things ever in that number, and I've definitely heard some of the most poignant things as well. My father's been sick all year and I've brought it up in 'True' a couple of times." Other examples include Utkarsh Ambudkar rapping about his struggles with alcohol, and special guest star Wayne Brady recounting the dissolution of his marriage. "It really gives us a moment," Bancroft says. "Rather than be like, hey, look at what we can do! It's, here's what's going on with me right now. You can't do that in most other shows, really be yourself and share yourself."
FLS, as the members call the troupe, was formed in the early '00s by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail and Anthony Veneziale. In 2005, a celebrated run at Ars Nova put them on NYC's radar; two years later, Miranda's In the Heights, directed by Kail, made such a big splash Off-Broadway it transferred to the Main Stem and ended up winning four Tony Awards. Even as Miranda and Kail got insanely busy with Hamilton and other projects, they stayed involved with the ever-expanding FLS.
A sold-out engagement downtown earlier this year inspired freestyle love supreme to transfer to Broadway for a limited run, with a core cast welcoming famous FLS members as surprise performers every night (yes, even Miranda). And since the entire show is improvised, you never know what -- or who -- you'll see at freestyle love supreme.
"Even though we have a structure that we follow, it's absolutely different every time," says Bancroft. "We have different combinations of people and different audience suggestions and different lines every single night. I'm amazed at how many shows I've done and how different each one feels."
In addition to performing in freestyle love supreme, Bancroft is a co-founder of FLS Academy, where students can learn the troupe's singular mix of improvisation, storytelling and hip-hop. Once participants complete the eight-week intro course Foundations of Freestyle, they can try out for additional classes and perform in monthly Rap Recess sessions.
Since its launch last fall, the Manhattan-based FLS Academy has attracted a diverse array of pupils. While some are aspiring pros (one, Aneesa Folds aka Young Nees, was actually cast in freestyle love supreme on Broadway), others just want to expand their horizons, not make a career out of it. That's why acceptance is by written application, not audition.
"It's less about becoming an amazing rhyme-finding lyricist, and more about how you can share yourself over music in a vulnerable way," explains Bancroft. "It's nice to have people from different backgrounds. We try to make 50 percent of our classes female, and we also want people of varying skills. We've had singers, people who play instruments, some who have freestyled before and some who've done none of the above. We've had a rabbi and doctors and lawyers and a neuroscientist. Each one brought an interesting perspective and life experience."
Bancroft's freestyle love supreme costar and FLS Academy co-founder, Chris Sullivan aka Shockwave, agrees. "We are teaching freestyle, but the class is so much more than that," says the beatboxer. "We're cultivating a group of empathetic people who are sharing their stories. Every participant helps foster an environment of learning from each other."
While freestyle love supreme ends its Broadway run on January 5, 2020, FLS Academy is here to stay. Classes are currently in session and the new semester begins in January. There will even be a weeklong camp for teens next summer.
"We started the Academy because of demand," Sullivan says. "People were always asking, 'Do you teach classes?' after they saw shows. Also, we have an ethos behind our group that FLS can help improve the world by empowering people to be heard. There's a magic to truth-telling and exploring that truth together." Watching the cast of freestyle love supreme bare their souls is proof of that.
FLS Academy will start new sessions in January. Visit the official website for more information and to apply.
Top image: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Anthony Veneziale, Chris Sullivan and Aneesa Folds in freestyle love supreme. Photos by Joan Marcus.