Alicia Keys Brings Her Soundtrack To Life In Her First Musical Hell’s Kitchen.

Alicia Keys makes a groundbreaking debut with her first musical production, Hell’s Kitchen. Known for her soulful voice and chart-topping hits. Alicia Keys is taking her artistry to new heights by creating a musical experience filled with original classic hits people know and unheard music specifically for this musical. Hell’s Kitchen promises to showcase Keys’ unique storytelling and musical prowess, as she weaves together a captivating narrative set in the vibrant and diverse backdrop of one of New York City’s most iconic neighborhoods. With her signature blend of R&B, soul, and pop, her music will undoubtedly bring the characters and their stories to life, leaving audiences with a different musical experience.

Hell’s Kitchen officially kicked off November 19 at New York City’s Newman Theater and will continue to run through January 14, 2024. Alicia Keys joins EBONY for a conversation about the inspiration behind Hell’s Kitchen and what people can expect from this musical along with hearing some of her classic songs.

EBONY: Being hands-on with this project since 2013. What was your inspiration to create a musical? 

Alicia Keys: I remember it being so clear to me, at the time that this is a story that would be so good to tell and I think that at the time, there was honestly — you know, 10-12 years ago — there was less diversity, in so many ways, particularly film and television, and definitely theater. I started to really just be inspired and excited to tell stories that maybe weren’t exactly stories that you always see. So that started to develop in a lot of different ways. I was a part of the production of my first Broadway play called StickFly. It was incredible because it was a story about a Black family in Martha’s Vineyard, and it was just ill the way it was written, it was tremendous, and it was so good. Again, just this idea of stories that were not always ones that we get a chance to really see. So I think I noticed how cool it would be to create a story that had my music as a part of it, but done in a way that was just a unique take on things. One of the things I love about Hell’s Kitchen so much is we meet this girl Ali, and you meet her in her 17th year and you only see her in her 17th year.

Alicia Keys. Image: Joan Marcus.

What songs, both original and unheard, can audiences anticipate hearing in this musical?

The music is one of my favorite parts of the show, just because you get to hear it in a way you’ve never heard it before. To be a big fan is to know the deep cuts and know all the joints, or if you didn’t really know much but the big records, you just get lost in the music, you get lost in a story. You find yourself inside of it. There is something that you’re going to relate to but the music itself really helps the story along in a way that feels very emotional, sometimes funny, sometimes light, sometimes heavy. I just love how the music is actually unexpected. You are hearing songs, some of which you may have never heard before, I guess we would call it a musical theater song for this piece. It was so exciting to be able to explore that a bit because I know that the songs fit so well in there. I know there are so many people who really love musical theater, this is a genre they love. I wanted to be able to put my twist on that world to be able to describe this one moment, in the mother Jersey’s expression. It’s kind of tough, but it’s funny, and she’s like ironic, and all the little things that I wouldn’t normally put into a song that I would write for an album or anything like that. I was saying there are versions of the songs that I’m like, ‘Why can’t I ever perform it like that?’ I didn’t at the time, because I guess it was meant to be here.

Were there any moments where a particular song brought you back to a certain memory?

You do remember special feelings about the songs and stuff that I think you’re so caught up in, in the piece you’re so caught up in Hell’s Kitchen, you’re so caught up in the story, the way that the book writer Kristoffer Diaz wrote this, it’s really special. You just really get caught up in it. When I’m watching I’m not going back to like my own memories in a way. I’m stuck right there experiencing what they’re experiencing. There’s a moment between Ali and Knuck and they’re singing “Unthinkable” and that’s definitely one of my favorite songs for sure, but I never even did that song as a duet ever before with a guy. I said to myself, ‘Why would I never have done that with a guy?’ I don’t know why … all the chances I got to do it; obviously Drake rhymed on it. There wasn’t a moment where I delivered it in that way. So I really think that even your favorite songs you’re gonna hear it in a way that you haven’t heard it but it’s played so well into the story. You’re not taken out of it. You’re just in the zone. It might remind you of something special that you can connect to.

What was it like for you growing up in New York City between Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem?

For me growing up, between Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem was just so much learning, so much experience and so much life in different ways. I think the interesting thing about growing up in Hell’s Kitchen was that it’s exactly how the name sounds like, Hell’s Kitchen. What it looked like, what it felt like, what it smelled like, and I think being able to experience that darkness that bleakness surrounded by pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, heroin addicts, needles on the floor. All those experiences were something that really shaped who I was going to be, not only as a girl but definitely as a woman. I’m never gonna be a girly girl and that’s because I grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, that’s just what it is. I really appreciated that perspective of life and just understanding that and having to respect it. At the same time you walk over between 42nd-43rd street between 12th Avenue and Eighth Avenue and then finally cross your way over to Broadway, you’re in the middle of a dream world where things are uniquely possible. You’re seeing all these theaters and all the bright lights and big city. That’s what it was like growing up.

Alicia Keys. Image: Joan Marcus.

How was the experience different for you with this involvement in Hell’s Kitchen compared to being a part of the tour process especially since you recently just did the Keys To The Summer Tour?

Oh my gosh, it’s different and it’s the same. I mean, there’s a lot of things that are the same and a lot that’s different. I think things that are different about Broadway and about theater is that it’s very streamlined. There are so many unions and there are very clear lines you can rehearse with this amount of time, you have these amounts of breaks. It’s very structured and together. Music, it’s just not and was really unique. I remember the first time when we were doing a bunch of rehearsals, they had to do these Max mandatory breaks. I was like what do you mean a break? What are we doing, we’re in the middle of work and there are no breaks. I think the way that it’s structured is really great. In that way, it’s new for me and there are a lot of things to learn. I think that in ways it’s similar. As a performer, I understand what these artists are experiencing, I understand that there’s a lot going on for them. I understand that there are different ways to really condition the voice and to be good to your body and your voice that will help you have longevity. In those ways, I understand in regards to building the set, designing it and then making sure that it really fits the energy and the vibe.

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Updated: November 22, 2023 — 3:02 pm