For more than a dozen years, pop star Alicia Keys has been working on a musical. Now, “Hell’s Kitchen” is being performed at the Public Theater in New York. “This is what I’ve been dreaming about, the whole time,” she said, walking up to the theater’s entrance. “And we’re here!”
What took so long? “Good things take time!” she laughed. “I’ve been working on this since even before my first son was born. Egypt just turned 13.”
“He’s never known a mom who’s not working on this show?” asked Sanneh.
“Facts! I was trying to figure out, ‘Well, dang, maybe ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ is my first kid!'”
For Keys, it’s been a labor of love, and she says she’s been laboring: “It’s hard. Work is hard.”
But she never lost faith that it would actually work. “Nope. I didn’t doubt the process.”
“Hell’s Kitchen” is named for the New York neighborhood where she lived as a kid. Geographically it’s just a few feet from Broadway, but to Keys, it felt much farther: “When I lived there, it was how it sounds. There was a lot of desolation there. There was a lot of drug addiction there. There was a lot of prostitution there. It was side-by-side, the desolation and the possibility. And I think that’s what kind of gave me a lot of hunger and grit.”
The musical is narrated by 17-year-old Ali, who loves music, loves a boy, and tries to love her mother. When asked the biggest difference between Keys and the character she created, she laughed, “Maybe her mama lets her get away with a little more backtalk that my mother let me get away with!”
Keys says the show is only loosely based on her own life story. For example, Ali starts playing piano at 17; Keys began at age 7. And by 12, Keys was composing songs. By 15, she had a recording contract, and at 20, a #1 record with “Fallin’,” from her debut album, “Songs in A Minor”:
“Hell’s Kitchen” includes most of her biggest hits, along with four new songs. Some of her most beloved songs have been rearranged, or recontextualized. For example, in the show, “Teenage Love Affair” turns out to mean something a little different.
Keys says she’s been involved in everything, including finding the actress that could play the character loosely based on her. “You can’t pretend to be from New York City if you don’t understand the nuances of it; it just won’t work,” she said. “And so, I have definitely been a major pain in the ass to all the casting agents. The pain in the ass-ness is through the roof!”
Twenty-one-year-old Maleah Joi Moon is making her professional theater debut as Ali.
Keys also pays close attention to who’s in the audience. Her mother just saw the show.
“Can we put it on the marquee? What did she say?” asked Sanneh.
“Mama f***ing loves it! Can we put that out?” she laughed.
“Can’t put it on TV, but you can put it on the marquee!”
Former New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley has seen clips of “Hell’s Kitchen,” but with the show still in previews, the theater did not make a ticket available to him. Sanneh asked him, “When you heard that the star Alicia Keys was working on a musical partly based on her own life, what was your reaction?”
“Well, I mean, her voice has certainly been part of the aural wallpaper of my life,” Brantley replied. “It is a great selling point, and that’s the lure.”
There is a term for shows built around pop hits: Jukebox musicals, a term Brantley has employed: “When I was using that in the early days, when they were first emerging in droves, I suppose I used it, if not with contempt, then it was with cynicism, because it seemed like such a lazy way to put a show together.”
The fact that “Hell’s Kitchen” changes up some of Keys’ most familiar songs, to better fit the plot, might help de-jukebox-ify the show. “I like it that she’s doing it herself,” Brantley said. “I like it when familiar songs sound fresh. You like to think that, especially her fan base, will have listened to those songs so often, that they may be sort of startled.”
Brantley identifies 2001 as the beginning of the jukebox musical era: “The one that you can blame a lot of really bad stuff on is ‘Mamma Mia!,’ which was ABBA,” he said. “It was a huge hit, that took the ABBA songbook and then just jimmied it into a kind of a sweet soap opera-ish plot. It was ridiculous. It was really tacky. And when I saw it in New York, I loved it, because it opened just after 9/11. And there was obviously a great sense of release for the people listening to this music, and the mindlessness of it.”
He said that musicals have been borrowing from pop music for decades, although, in the old days, musicals were pop music, with a lot of top-selling albums in those days being Broadway cast albums.
“Young adults in the 1950s or, like, 1940s would be singing along with ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ from ‘South Pacific,'” Brantley said. Then, there were concept albums turned into stage musicals, like “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Sanneh asked, “Do you think the jukebox musical era has been good overall for Broadway, and for musicals?”
“No,” Brantley replied. “My friend and current Times critic Jesse Green calls the jukebox musical the cockroach of musicals. I don’t feel that way. I did at one point, but, you know, I kind of learned to stop worrying and love the jukebox. Selectively!”
“Hell’s Kitchen,” which has already sold out its entire run, might be a different kind of jukebox musical, but it’s got a familiar destination in mind: Brantley says it’s practically preordained to wind up on Broadway. “It’s the most expensive production the Public has ever mounted,” he said. “If people say they’re not thinking it’s going to Broadway, they’re lying. I think pretty much everyone assumes it will transfer.”
Including Alicia Keys.
Sanneh asked her, “Is it important to you that this show eventually might move 40 blocks north to Broadway?”
“My eyes are definitely on that,” she said. “It would be a dream come true, really.”
For a behind-the-scenes look at the cast of “Hell’s Kitchen” click on the video player below:
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Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Ed Givnish.