‘Hell’s Kitchen’ Star Maleah Joi Moon Has Found The Light

Maleah Joi Moon was destined to play the leading role in Alicia Keys’ new musical Hell’s Kitchen, as the two had an artistic connection even before they met. 

“My best friends were all in a school production, and I was jealous they got to hang out at school on Saturdays,” Moon shares with EBONY. “I decided I’m going to audition for whatever is coming up next, which was The Wizard of Oz and, coincidentally, Alicia’s first show, too.”  

From the leading role of Dorothy in that sixth-grade play to her Broadway debut, Moon is now starring as Ali in a fictionalized version of Keys’ life. Exploring the first love and self-discovery of a 17-year-old in the 1990s, Keys’ music is the show’s soundtrack, from her earliest compositions to a new song written for the musical by the 16-time Grammy Award winner called “Kaleidoscope.” 

EBONY chatted with Moon, who invited us to see their purple and plant-filled dressing room designed by production designer James P. Connelly, and learn more about connecting with Keys and why this opportunity of a lifetime is right on time. 

EBONY: When I saw the show, the audience was on fire.  

Maleah Joi Moon: It was a good show and I am glad you came to that one. I love it when the audience comes in just excited to have fun.  

When you wake up in the morning and realize that evening you’ll be performing in your Broadway debut, playing a role you originated, what’s the first thing that goes through your mind? 

Two things exist at the same time. It’s a mixture of gratitude for this being so surreal and insane. The other half is making sure that I’m disciplining myself emotionally, spiritually and physically so I’m ready to do the show at night. When I did it off-Broadway at the Public Theatre, it was its own beast. But now, this is a completely different ride. I’m realizing that there’s a certain level of preparation that needs to happen every day, not just stretching and going to the gym, but also setting my mind up so that I can have the best show, give the best performance and tell the best version of the story for the audience. 

What qualities of Ali’s mirror your personality? And where do they differ? 

Because I’m originating this role, I’ve had the opportunity to imbue so much of who she is at her heart with my own experiences. A lot of her is what I experienced when I was 17, this need to break free and redefine yourself or learn who you are at that age through the lens of freedom. I was going through my own type of tumultuous relationship with my mom; thank God that she’s like my best friend now that I’m a little older and I can see things more clearly. But when I was 17, I wanted to find myself and navigate love. Ali’s whole thing is navigating the hard things about love, family and complicated relationships. In my opinion, when you’re 17, it’s the meeting between childhood and adulthood, and it can be a hard bridge to cross. 

What is the most rebellious thing you did as a teenager?  

Because my parents were strict, most of my rebellion came from a place of personality, in trying to be something other than what my mother wanted me to be. I would stay out late and things, but that was never really an issue for my parents. It was about making sure I knew who I was becoming as I was trying to get away from this idea of who my mom or who anybody thought I was at the time—trying to really make sure that I was becoming who Maleah is. That was all about exploring what I like and who I like, things like that. 

What life event drew you to musical theater?   

It was a combination of a couple of different factors. I grew up with very musical parents, not necessarily the best musicians, but they loved music and the arts. They made sure that my older brother and I were always exposed to good music. My mom is an immigrant from Belize and my dad is from the Bronx, so I was getting a mixture of eclectic tastes. After being in The Wizard of Oz with my first director, Terry Saggio—I owe so much of my career to her because she believed in meI caught the bug. I did every educational theater show my district had to offer from there until I graduated in 2020.  

Bringing Alicia Keys’ legacy to life through her music, what are the most important ideals you want to capture when you’re on stage? 

I think the most important thing when I get on stage, especially when I’m singing, is trying to embody her soulfulness. I grew up listening to “Unbreakable,” “No One” and even her debut album Songs in A Minor. She’s an American icon in my opinion; everyone knows her work. “Empire State of Mind” is always echoing throughout Times Square, which is so surreal and honoring. I believe that Alicia is one of those last remaining musicians who really cares about the musicality of what they’re making and their musical influences. We had breakfast once, and she told me about her influences, like Stevie Wonder and Prince. One of the greatest things about playing this part of her is that she and I naturally vibe in this spiritual, earthy, grounded way. And she’s such a wonderful mentor to have. I try to absorb as much of her greatness as I can when we get the chance to hang out off-stage, or she’ll take me to dinner and make sure I’m okay. She’s a wonderful person.  

I’m sharing the stage with the best, most loving, most supportive, most grounded and spiritually talented cast. I love coming to work. 

-Maleah Joi Moon

What advice has she given you that’s been really empowering in your growth, professionally and personally? 

Take care of yourself! This is so crazy for me. Every day I do the work, it grounds me a little bit more, but I can never escape the fact that this is literally the biggest dream come true. And not that it doesn’t feel like it’s on time and divinely timed; God’s timing is always right. But to be doing this at 21 is insane. So, Alicia and I have these conversations, and she’s always checking that I’m checking in with my spirit. A friend of mine calls it “positive trauma.” This experience is expanding me in a way that I never imagined and forcing me to grow at such a fast rate. It’s important to check in with my mental health and make sure my mind is clear and ready to accept the blessings that are coming my way. 

In the musical, Ali has a life-changing mentor… 

Yes, the character Miss Liza Jane is based on Alicia’s real-life piano teacher Aziza Miller. Alicia hired her to play piano in the musical, so she’s now part of our show’s orchestra!

Alicia Keys and Maleah Joi Moon pose at the opening night of the new Alicia Keys Musical "Hell's Kitchen" on Broadway at The Shubert Theatre on April 20, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/WireImage)
Alicia Keys and Maleah Joi Moon (in Pat Bo design) at Hell’s Kitchen Broadway opening night in New York City. Image: Jason Mendez/Getty Images.

Who has been yours?  

Alicia’s definitely been such a huge inspiration and a role model. She’s taken on this big sister/mother bear role in my life. She’s very protective of me and I’m so thankful because this is a wild ride. I do have my own Miss Liza Jane. His name is Timothy Walton, and he was my director and vocal coach when I went to Franklin High School. He has a lasting legacy in Franklin Township, [New Jersey] for putting on fantastic high school shows. Our Hell’s Kitchen director, Michael Greif, taught me everything about Broadway.  

What is your favorite moment in the show? The scariest? 

I think the best moments are the “Empire State of Mind” finale and the show’s opener. At the opening, there’s this influx of love, gratitude and gospel. It’s this burst of energy that opens up to the audience. The hardest moment is “The River.” We call it Ali’s “I want” song because it shows the trajectory of her story. This is what she wants: the next question is how is she going to get it? The song is about how Ali is dying for freedom and dying to get away from the iron grasp of her mother and experience the world on her own. She looks to the Hudson River as a metaphor for freedom. It’s such a vulnerable song and I do so much of it with my own experience. My dad’s very much my life, he’s one of my best friends. But my mom and I lived in a small apartment. I have flashbacks to living there, being 17 and feeling small. So much vulnerability plays into that moment and it can be hard sometimes, but it’s worthy of its place in the show. 

What advice would you give your teenage self now that you’ve had this experience? 

Keep turning your face towards the light. I know that may sound a little whoo-whoo spiritual, but as a teenager, I dealt with depression and anxiety. It can be very hard when your world is so small and you’re just starting to build your own universe, to not feel like every instance, circumstance, problem and issue is like the end of the world. I feel that many teenagers and people in general can relate to that statement because we’ve all been teenagers at one point. Remind yourself that there is goodness everywhere. Miss Liza Jane is that goodness in Ali’s life; it’s a reminder that everything is all right. That’s a phrase we repeat a million times in the show because it’s a big theme: It’s all right. Know you don’t have to do this alone. There’s always love in your life. I’m grateful to have love in my life. Find the light in your life and keep following it.  

Hell’s Kitchen is now playing at the Shubert Theatre in New York City.

Updated: April 21, 2024 — 3:01 pm