Alicia Keys is currently making her official theatrical debut in the new musical Hell's Kitchen, for which she wrote the music and the lyrics. The show is making its world premiere at Off-Broadway's The Public Theater. Based loosely on her upbringing in the titular New York neighborhood, Keys has been collaborating on the musical since 2011. Kristoffer Diaz wrote the book.
Leading the cast is newcomer Maleah Joi Moon as Ali, starring opposite Shoshana Bean as Ali's mother Jersey. Now in previews, Hell's Kitchen officially opens November 19 and runs through January 7. The new show is directed by Michael Greif with choreography by Camille A. Brown.
In the interview below with Playbill, Keys shares insight on the creation of Hell's Kitchen,and how she in awe of the show and its performers.
What was your inspiration to create a musical? What about the form did you find to be a good fit for your songs?
Alicia Keys: The inspiration has been in existence for over 10 years, which is just crazy to me. I wanted to be able to tell a story about a girl really finding herself, her path. And ultimately, it being a love story between a mother and a daughter. And to be able to create the stories that we don't actually get to see, you know, the very real-life stories that just aren't often told.
The story really is so beautifully written by Kristoffer. Like, it would be a tremendous story without the songs. And I think that's what makes it such a great fit for the songs. So when you add [songs] into [the script], and you're being introduced to music that you've never heard before—and even music that you have heard before, but in a way you've never heard it—it really creates an experience that is so many things. It’s emotional, it’s uplifting, it’s vibrant, it’s tough, it’s New York, it’s vulnerable, it’s empowering.
What did you see in Shoshana and Maleah, individually, that made them perfect fits for these roles?
Well, Maleah is just a natural. It’s pretty shocking how naturally she embodies Ali. She has the energy of New York. This is New York in the '90s. There's a certain grit, there's a certain true New York fierceness that exists. And you have to be able to not only embody that naturally, but you also have to be able to be a stunning singer and a tremendous actor. And it's pretty uncanny that she is able to do all of that so effortlessly.
Shoshana, she has this tremendous way of really exuding the power, the toughness that has to be present in your spirit to survive New York, to be a single mother, and to be the main everything: the caretaker, the breadwinner, the disciplinarian, the woman who is also sensitive and vulnerable. She wants only to protect those that she loves, particularly her daughter more than anything. And [Shoshana] has that. And then the way her voice is—it takes the songs and just brings it to a whole level that you feel exhilarated to experience.
And that's what happens with everybody in the show. Everyone has this exhilaration to them that is really unique to me.
In hearing Shoshana and Maleah interpret your music, how did you guide them to create their own renditions?
When you’re working with greatness, all you have to do is let greatness be itself. That’s what’s been so cool about this process. It’s very collaborative. In the sense that the respect is just so mutual, that everybody feeds off each other and then is in the place of allowance for them to be who they are. It’s thrilling, helping them find their way to that and also allowing them to show me to it. And being a part of it, it is allowing me to experience [the songs] in this new way.
Me—like I wrote these songs. I’ve lived with many of them. And I feel them [now] in a new way, you know what I mean? I think that’s what it’s about. And you really feel the genuineness of it, you really feel the naturalness of it, and you’re going to feel the skill of these artists. You’re just going to feel them through it: who they’re portraying, the characters that they’re representing. It’s pretty phenomenal. I’m really grateful.
You have been completely hands-on with this project from the very beginning of its creation in 2011. In revisiting your songs—to work and rearrange them for the musical, and to hear the lyrics in a new context—has that brought new dimensions to your songs?
Wow, let me tell you, there's so many times when I will be hearing the way the songs are developing and seeing how they are put together in the way that we imagine them—which really deconstructs them and puts them in a way that you wouldn't expect. Or a person sings it in not exactly a way you've heard before. Or two people sing it and the song has never been broken down in that particular way before. And I'll just kind of be in my own head, or looking at Michael or looking at Kris, I’ll just say, "Why didn’t I ever think about doing the song this way?" I guess the only reason why is 'cause it was meant for this. A lot of the times, I am in awe of the new dimensions that are brought to it, particularly how well it complements the story in a way that I think gets me.
I think it’s gonna get you, too.