From left, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Anthony Veneziale, Chris Sullivan, Aneesa Folds, Ian Weinberger (on keyboard back), and Arthur Lewis (on keyboard front). Photo: Joan Marcus
Co-created and co-produced by Lin Manuel Miranda — from a collective he co-founded back in 2003 and which had a TV show a few years ago — Freestyle Love Supreme is a different kind of music show for Broadway. It’s not a musical. It’s not even a jukebox musical. It’s a freewheeling combination of improv comedy, music and rap, all spontaneously created every night, making each performance a unique event unto itself. The show, playing at the Booth Theatre, has been resonating with audiences, averaging a healthy $700,000 weekly gross since it debuted in early October 2019.
‡‡ Not Your Usual Broadway Show
The cast of Freestyle Love Supreme is comprised of four main members. On our night, Utkarsh Ambudkar (a.k.a. UTK the INC.), Aneesa Folds (a.k.a. Young Nees), Chris Sullivan (a.k.a. Shockwave), and Anthony Veneziale (a.k.a. Two-Touch, the conceiver and co-creator of FLS) — along with two keyboardists were performing. Arthur Lewis (a.k.a. Arthur the Geniuses) was also playing and is a mainstay. He also came out for a seated group improv session called “True” and sang on it.
At every performance, the core quartet asks the audience for topic suggestions. For example, at a show that FRONT of HOUSE attended, the audience suggested geometry, coagulate and stinky things in my fridge, and the performers had to come up with raps and singing about those topics. Further, they would riff on those ideas and return to them throughout the evening. For one special section, the performers asked audience members for headlines of events that come out of their life. The winner? “Dog Funeral as a First Date.” It was hard to top that one that evening.
In dealing with an improv show like this one — which involves live music, rapping, singing and human beatboxing — there are likely some challenges in designing sound for the show and the possibility of bleedthrough. Broadway veteran Nevin Steinberg relished the challenges that FLS presented.
“It’s a wild ride,” admits Steinberg, “but the engineer learns very quickly to just leave the mics on because you never know what’s going to happen. Luckily, the cast do a lot of the mixing themselves, giving focus and leaving space for one another. The design is more of a concert setup, and delivering low-end and power in the beatboxing and sub-bass of the keyboards is paramount to the feeling of power in the systems and for the audience.”
From left, cast members Utkarsh Ambudkar, Aneesa Folds, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Anthony Veneziale and Kaila Mullady (on congas). Photo: Joan Marcus
‡‡ The System
There is already a P.A. at work, but flanking each side of the stage are two triangular stacks of six speakers, and they each sport photos of giant speaker heads. There is certainly a good amount of volume coming to front of house, but these speakers do not really contribute to that level. “They are primarily for show,” Steinberg admits of those speakers. “We run some of our pre-show music through them, but not any of the live mics.” They are the equivalent of the excess stacks of Marshall amps at heavy metal shows that look great, but if they all functioned, you would be rendered temporarily deaf.
In terms of the real P.A. for Freestyle Love Supreme , Steinberg primarily selected a Meyer sound system. “It was chosen for compact power and rigging solutions,” he says. “It’s just a great P.A.” The main P.A. consists of Meyer Leopards, the subs are Meyer 900-LFCs and UMS-1Ps, and the delays and fills consist of Meyer UPM-1Ps, UPJUNIORs, UPQ-1Ps, UPJ-1Ps and a couple Alcons VR8s. The monitors are L-Acoustics 108Ps.
The audio team is running a Yamaha CL1 console, which Steinberg says is “pretty well maxed out at 48 inputs.” Processing comes courtesy of a Meyer Galaxy 816. The mics that were selected include Shure Beta 87As and Beta57As, Sennheiser MKH-40s and MKH-60s and Radial Engineering direct boxes.
For the cast, “we are using Shure SM87A capsules on Shure UHF-R wireless handhelds,” explains Steinberg. “These systems were what the cast were used to from the downtown run, and I like the tight pattern and real bite in the sound of the SM87. The keyboards are all going direct.”
‡‡ Catch Box to the Rescue
The cast uses a special microphone for one portion of the show, when they ask audience members for personal headlines for a spontaneous performance generated by the cast. Two-Touch wandered up and down the aisles asking for suggestions and then repeating them out loud for every to hear. But one young lady shouted out the “Dog Funeral as a First Date” idea, and thus Two-Touch needed to toss a mic up to her in the balcony. After he did so, the woman related the story of showing up for a first date with an acquaintance who just learned upon her arrival that the family dog needed to be put to sleep.
There was no way the audience could understand all of that without amplification, so they are given a soft mic, called a Catch Box module. Its dimensions are 7”x7”x7”. The audience members know how to speak into it by finding the X marking the middle of one side, and the sound is very clear. Inside the padded cube, the Catch Box module incorporates an integrated omnidirectional mic element that’s compatible with transmitters manufactured by Shure, Sennheiser and AKG. (FLS uses a Shure URM1 transmitter.)
When the Catch Box is in motion — or in the case of our evening, flying into the balcony — it temporarily mutes its signal (as it does when it is thrown, caught or dropped). When Two-Touch tossed the Catch Box to the audience member that night, there was no noticeable bumping or thudding sound. According to the Catch Box website, the module is “equipped with a unique magnetic locking mechanism which ensures that the inner capsule doesn’t pop out when the device is thrown.”
‡‡ All Together Now
Although most Broadway theaters were not designed for amplified performances, modern sound designers have learned to adapt to that. Steinberg had no problems dealing with the acoustics of the Booth Theatre for Freestyle Love Supreme. “The Booth is a great theater — full stop,” enthuses Steinberg. “I’ve always wanted to do a show in there, and I think the acoustics and the geometry are good for any kind of show.”
The spontaneous performances and unexpected twists and turns in the show certainly will motivate some people to see the show more than once. The sound designer also likes the more personal touch from the cast in one portion where they have to bring personal experiences into the mix.
“I learned a lot about our cast,” says Steinberg. “They really reveal themselves in the portion of the show called True, and I love to find out about them.” Best of all, the audience leaves on a high, having had the mic and laughter turned on both them and the performers.
Yondr Comes to Broadway
Freestyle Love Supreme marks one of the first Broadway shows to have audience members silence or turn off their phones and place them in foam Yondr pouches that are sealed for the entirety of the show. Not only does this prevent authorized video and photo taking, but it means people cannot text or use their phones. The idea is to emphasize the need for zero interruptions. We’ll see how it plays out, but it’s good to prevent unintended sound design from emerging in a show. For more info about Yondr, go to www.overyondr.com.
Freestyle Love Supreme, Booth Theatre, New York City
- Director: Thomas Kail
- Sound Design: Nevin Steinberg
- Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt
- Costume Design: Lisa Zinni
- Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
- Main P.A.: Meyer Sound Leopard
- Subwoofers: Meyer Sound 900-LFC, UMS-1P
- Delays, Fills: Meyer Sound UPM-1P, UPJUNIOR, UPQ-1P, UPJ-1P; Alcons VR8
- Monitors: L-Acoustics 108P
- FOH Console: Yamaha CL1
- Drive Processing: Meyer Sound GALAXY 816
- Microphones: Shure Beta87A, Beta57A, Sennheiser MKH-40, MKH-60
- Wireless Mics: Shure UHF-R, Catch Box Module
- Direct Boxes: Radial Engineering
The original article can be found here: https://fohonline.com/articles/theater-sound/freestyle-love-supreme/
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