Hip-hop improv group takes riffs to TV
NEW YORK (AP) — As a Tony-winning composer and writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda sees nothing of spending five years writing a show, or months on just a few lines of dialogue.
And then there’s his other outlet: Coming up with a rap routine — or maybe a skit, or poignant love song — within a couple of seconds, based on words tossed out by a crowd that’s expecting brilliance.
The pressure of having to come up instantaneously with a rhymed riff on the subject of, say, Greek yogurt, or trigonometry, or customer service operators, would probably cause heart palpitations in most of us, or at least hives.
But Miranda, 34, who’s known as a whirlwind of precocious creative energy (he wrote the first draft of his Tony-winning “In the Heights” as an undergrad at Wesleyan), actively seeks that kind of pressure, as do his fellow “freestylers” in Freestyle Love Supreme. The group’s been at it for a decade now, amassing a cult following for their rollicking (and often gleefully profane) shows at comedy clubs, colleges and festivals.
Now they have a TV show. The group has taped 10 episodes of “Freestyle Love Supreme” for Pivot, the cable network catering to millennials, otherwise known as the 18-34 demographic. The half-hour episodes mix footage from live shows with quirky scenes from the streets of New York. The series debuts Friday; episodes also will be available on iTunes.
At a typical performance, the seven-member group — including an expert beat-boxer and a keyboard musician — asks the crowd for words to riff on, the raunchier the better. Or, the audience is asked for examples of things they don’t like. For example: Movie spoilers. Here’s what Miranda did recently with that one:
“Saturday night at the movies, it’s so intense; We’re sitting there watching ‘The Sixth Sense’; I’m trying not to pay attention to what my friend said; He turns and says ‘Can you believe Bruce Willis is dead?’”
Another feature is called “Second Chance,” where someone in the crowd describes a mistake they made (like texting a nasty message about someone to that very person, oops!). The troupe does a lengthy skit, in rap, showing the mistake, and then “rewinds” to give the perpetrator a shot at redemption.
Sometimes they’ll ask for a couple in love. When two teachers in the audience professed their love in one episode, the group sang about how their initial “correspondence” led to a “teacher-teacher conference.” Wink wink.
The group got going in 2004, connected, often, by the schools they attended or by “In the Heights,” or both. Anthony “Two Touch” Veneziale, a co-creator of the group with Thomas Kail, attended Wesleyan; Arthur “Arthur the Geniuses” Lewis, musician and “tech nerd,” has known Miranda since third grade at Hunter College Elementary School. Musician Bill Sherman also went to Wesleyan; singer/actor Chris “CJack” Jackson starred in “In the Heights.”
The group also includes beatboxer Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan and actor Utkarsh “Utk the Inc” Ambudkar. “Utk has the most issues with, let’s say, inappropriate stuff,” quips Miranda, a fact that viewers will surely notice.
The only thing not allowed on a “Freestyle” show, it seems, is silence. But what if you just draw a blank?
“There’s no such thing,” Miranda replies, walking his dog one recent morning in Washington Heights’ Fort Tryon Park. “You just keep talking. You know, I feel like the faucet is on, and I’m just funneling the water. Sometimes, gunk comes out. But there’s no time to not be talking.”
Miranda’s extremely busy in other ways. His new musical “Hamilton,” about the life of Alexander Hamilton, opens off-Broadway at the Public Theater in January, and there’s considerable buzz about a Broadway run.
“This has been one of the busiest years of my life,” says Miranda, who also will welcome his first child in a few weeks. But “Freestyle” gives him a chance to use an entirely different muscle group, he says, than when writing a show.
“I’ve spent five years writing ‘Hamilton,’ and it took seven to write ‘In The Heights,’” he says. The riffs he does with Freestyle, he adds, “are all glorious first drafts.”
″‘Freestyle’ is the constant,” he says. “It regenerates everything else.”