TheRoot.com, By Shanelle Genai, Posted December 5th 2023
‘You can really feel that culture, the energy, the spirit in New York,’ she explained in an interview with The Root.
If you’ve never been to New York or if it’s been a while since you’ve been, then allow Alicia Keys’ new musical, Hell’s Kitchen, to be the reintroduction you so desperately need.
Debuting on Sunday, and loosely based on Key’s upbringing in the eclectic, yet hard neighborhood of the city, the work centers around a cramped apartment hanging off the side of Times Square. Here, we meet 17-year-old Ali, who is desperate to get her piece of the New York dream. Ali’s mother is just as determined to protect her daughter from the same mistakes she made. But when Ali falls for a talented young drummer, both mother and daughter must face hard truths about race, defiance, and growing up. Subsequently, Ali feels trapped, until the sound of a neighbor playing piano opens the door to an unexpected friendship and a radically different future.
While the musical may draw similarities to Keys’ own upbringing, she makes it clear in our interview that the story isn’t an autobiographical work, but instead, a project that tells the story of us all as a human race, working hard to attain the dream that’s inside of us.
“I think that’s what I’m seeing that people are really getting as they’re watching it is seeing themselves in it and they feel their experiences in it,” she said during an interview with The Root. “So I think that’s why it was so important. It is not an autobiographical recount of my life. It’s definitely inspired by the experience—some of the experiences. I think that’s what gives it that heart and spirit that you really feel. So I didn’t have any reservations about that. I felt more excited that you can really feel that culture, the energy, the spirit in New York, the truth, the real relationships, the life and the depths of humanity and the complexities that we all carry and have.”
Later on, as we discussed how her debut musical serves as a love letter to the city that molded her, she reflected on the “heartbeat” of the city—which she maintains can’t be duplicated anywhere else. She also acknowledges that that same heartbeat can be heard through the reimagining of a handful of her classic songs that are present throughout the musical and a handful of new ones, which she collaborated with Grammy-nominated musician Adam Blackstone to bring to life.
“The songs play so perfectly into the storyline that it almost gives you a new understanding of the songs. It feels like you can relate to them in a way that we never played them before,” she explained. “I love that about it. I love that I really was intentional about making people—and even voices and tones that you don’t usually expect to hear on certain songs—feature in those. So you might hear a male perspective on the song that you just wouldn’t be used to hearing a male sing that song. I think there’s something really refreshing about it.”
And while the reimagining and refresh of old favorites (and inclusion of new ones) are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to things to look forward to in this new work, what stands to be one of the more heartfelt connectors of the musical is its familial tie—specifically as it relates to the relationship between Keys and her mother.
When discussing why she felt a musical was the best medium to bring this story—which took over a decade to come to fruition—to life, the “Unthinkable” artist explained that her love for musical theatre came from her mother, who exposed her to the arts of that caliber at a young age. She described how they would go and see shows together in her younger years. Watching her mother chase dreams of being an actress at that time and with her still doing acting work to this day, Keys credits her mother’s love for the medium and vibrancy of its storytelling as to why she wanted to tell the story of Hell’s Kitchen through the liveliness of a musical.
“I love the songwriting process and the artistry and that goes along with it. A special part of how I grew up and definitely a part of our family is the musical theater and the Broadway experience. We’re currently off-Broadway at the Public Theater and it’s just so phenomenal for it to be supported in that way,” she said.
Tickets for Hell’s Kitchen—which opens Sunday and features music and lyrics by Alicia Keys, book by Pulitzer Prize-finalist playwright Kristoffer Diaz, choreography by Tony Award nominee Camille A. Brown, and direction by Tony Award nominee Michael Greif—are nearly sold out. But you can grab the few left by heading to publictheater.org.