How Hell’s Kitchen Will Surprise Even the Biggest Alicia Keys Fan

To hear Alicia Keys tell it, her whole life has been leading her to Broadway.

After all, the 16-time Grammy-winning musician traces the roots of her new musical, Hell’s Kitchen, all the way back to her childhood.

“My mother really is the pure connection I have to the theater,” Keys says of her mom, Terria Joseph, who moved from Ohio to New York to pursue dancing and acting. Born and raised in the Midtown Manhattan neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, Keys recalls attending plays and musicals with her mother from a young age, regularly standing in line with her at the Times Square TKTS booth.

“As I got older, I really did recognize that there wasn’t as much representation that reflected the New York that I understood and grew up in — the New York that I represented,” the musician remembers. “That was a big catalyst for me, to think about how there are so many vibrant stories to tell, and how much I would love to do that through music and through theater.”

Hell’s Kitchen arrives on Broadway in March after a sold-out run at the Public Theater this winter. But although the show’s composer and lyricist has deep personal connections to every aspect of the story, the musical is far from a straight biography of Keys. Instead, it’s a fictionalized coming-of-age snapshot of a talented 17-year-old — and along the way it pays tribute to the community and the city that raised her.

“It’s a story about a very remarkable young woman who’s challenging all kinds of boundaries in order to begin to find herself, and the seminal events in her young life that inspired her to get to where she’s going,” explains the director of Hell’s Kitchen, Michael Greif (Rent, Dear Evan Hansen). “The further we got in developing the story of Hell’s Kitchen, the more it separated from the actual events of Alicia’s life. It’s a story that is constantly aided and inspired by Alicia, but she gives us all lots of permission to make a show that lives separate from her life.”

The playwright Kristoffer Diaz (The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity) began crafting the narrative with Keys in 2012. “The most freeing thing was that Alicia did not want to tell a story about someone becoming famous,” he says. “We’re not interested in the concerts; we’re interested in a moment when this young woman learns who she is, and the role that music and family and community all play in that moment.”

Hell’s Kitchen is set in the late 1990s in and around Manhattan Plaza, the New York skyscraper where Keys grew up surrounded by artists and musicians. That community is conjured onstage by a cast of 20, led by the breakout talent Maleah Joi Moon as the protagonist Ali, as well as Broadway favorites Shoshana Bean and Brandon Victor Dixon as Ali’s parents.

In addition to Keys’s biggest hits — “Fallin’,” “No One,” “Empire State of Mind,” among many others — the score for Hell’s Kitchen incorporates new songs that Keys wrote specifically for the musical. Making them move is choreographer Camille A. Brown (Choir Boy, Once on This Island, For Colored Girls…), who draws on a wide variety of dance styles to bring the story to life.

“I’m using social dance to create a sense of time and setting and culture — there’s a little of the Bart Simpson in there, a hint of the Roger Rabbit,” Brown says. “But I’m also pulling from contemporary movement to expand how we see the dancers in space. Some of these songs people know so well, and you want to give them that bounce, that heartbeat, that rhythm that they love, and then on top of that bring something that surprises them.”

Throughout the show, Keys’s best-known songs have found new contexts and resonances that have surprised even the artist herself. She’s particularly delighted by “Fallin’,” which is sung in the show by Dixon and Bean.

“You don’t usually hear a man sing ‘Fallin’,’ and it is thrilling,” Keys says. “You are sucked into this moment. We knew that song had to live in a whole new space, and it really does!”

Moments like that are among the many things Keys has found rewarding about her work on Hell’s Kitchen. “Theater and musicals have been such a big part of the inspiration that’s been within me, and to be able bring all of the newness that I have to bring to it, and bring this collision of worlds into it so it feels fresh and feels like everyone belongs in the space — I love it,” she says.

And fans will be excited to learn that the artist doesn’t intend to make this foray into musical theater a one-time thing.

“This medium is ready to grow and thrive on a whole new level, and I’m so excited that I could be here as theater is becoming so much more unique and so much more diverse,” she enthuses. “It’s so ready for its next incarnation, and I’m grateful to be a part of this moment.

“And yeah,” she adds, “I’m definitely doing it again! Broadway has had a brilliant comeback from the pandemic and to be a part of this new season alongside so many special shows is so exciting. The theater community is a mighty bunch! There’s so much to experience and I can’t wait for it all.”

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