When Freestyle Love Supreme ended its successful limited Broadway run in early January 2020, they were ready to take their improvised show on the road. Then the pandemic hit — and live theater on a stage disappeared for the foreseeable future in an effort to keep people healthy and safe. So the group never expected to return to Broadway again so soon. This past fall, the hip-hop collective received a special Tony Award to acknowledge their astounding accomplishment that doesn’t fit into any typical categories: crafting a new live show at every performance using audience suggestions.
“You know we still get people after the show saying: ‘Which songs were already written and which did you improvise and make up?’” says Anthony Veneziale, a.k.a. “Two Touch," with a laugh. “That to me is like the biggest compliment. That's just the best.”
Then they got the news that they were returning to the Booth Theater on Broadway for a few months before going out on their 2022 national tour. “We had a pretty cool opportunity to be the medicine that people needed to come back to the theater, to Broadway,” says Veneziale, one of the co-creators of FLS along with Thomas Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
But before COVID vaccinations and new protocols were put into place for a return to live shows, many took to virtual platforms to connect, including the Freestyle Love Supreme Academy, which managed to pivot to Zoom to teach their freestyle rap and beatboxing, and is still offering virtual classes to people around the world.
“FLS Academy is the connecting branch of Freestyle Love Supreme to the public when we are not on stage,” says Chris Sullivan, a.k.a. “Shockwave,” who regularly blows people’s minds with his beatboxing onstage. “We show that anything in life is approachable if you're given it in the right bite-size chunks or you find the way that you can relate to it.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Wayne Brady, Aneesa Folds, Chris Sullivan, and Anthony Veneziale in Freestyle Love Supreme at the Booth Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus.
To teach people the art of beatboxing, Sullivan explains that “everybody's body is an instrument. You may or may not be able to do sounds that other people can make; it's a bit of discovering what it is that you can do. Being comfortable with that and knowing that if you're freestyling or beatboxing or learning to play the saxophone, it takes years and years of practice.”
“So many people were like, ‘If I didn't have this, I don't know how I would have survived.’ And truly, I don't know how I would have survived either,” says Aneesa Folds, a.k.a. “Young Nees," who was discovered at FLS Academy and had her Broadway debut with the group in 2019.
She’s now excited to tour this year to show that women and people of color are also an essential part of this dynamic group. “You know, the audience is a member of our show — we get our stories and ideas from them — so it's really important to have that representation on stage, as black woman as well,” she says. “We all have different lives and lived different paths, and we're all going to have different information in our heads. There's a lot of women who have come up to me after the show to be like, ‘Oh my god, I'm so happy you got that!’”
Kaila Mullady, a.k.a. Kaiser Rözé, is thrilled to share her incredible beatboxing skills with audiences around the country, especially since people are often surprised to see a woman in the role. “Especially women, they will come up to me and Aneesa and say, ‘Wow, I never thought something like this was possible.’ And I really think that people are realizing what a gift it is to be able to go out and see real, live art and people creating right in front of them,” Mullady, who’s a two-time Beatboxing Battle World Champion, says. “And the coolest thing about our show is that you never know what you're going to get!”
While all of the members of Freestyle Love Supreme say they were lucky to be able to transition online, there's nothing like being in the room with people and hearing actual laughter. “There's this feeling in our show of, ‘Oh, this is only for us, and we're now part of a club that just shared one special moment in time that nobody else will have experienced,’” says Andrew Bancroft, a.k.a. “Jelly Donut.” “We're all in it together, trying to make it happen, trying to keep each other safe, trying to support each other. And that camaraderie and support that we've always relied on is now just intensified and even more important.”