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Alicia Keys Steps Into a New Spotlight

One night this summer, Alicia Keys fell asleep listening to show tunes.

She was on vacation following a five-week concert tour, but her mind was still at work: For 12 years, she has been developing “Hell’s Kitchen,” a musical based on her adolescence in a then-gritty New York neighborhood, and at the top of her to-do list was writing a new song for the actress playing the main character’s mother.

So she took a nap with her headphones on, listening to a playlist of theatrical mom songs (think “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy” and “Little Girls” from “Annie”). When she woke up, she could feel the rhythm. She could hear the chords. She could see the title.

She ducked into a closet and began to sing into her phone. She hopped online, doing a little research to strengthen her lyrics. And then, when she returned to New York, she began to write, in the wee hours after the meetings and the calls and the rehearsals, noodling at an upright piano in her Chelsea recording studio.

“This is occupying a lot of space in my mind,” Keys said about the musical, considered but candid as she was driven to a downtown rehearsal hall, tuning out the traffic and focusing on getting where she wants to go.

Maleah Joi Moon is making her professional stage debut as the show’s protagonist, the 17-year-old Ali.Credit…Elias Williams for The New York Times

That day, where she wanted to go was the Public Theater, the celebrated but pandemic-weakened nonprofit where “Hell’s Kitchen” is to begin an Off Broadway run on Oct. 24. Even though Keys is not in it, demand is high: Each time more tickets go on sale, they are snatched up.

“I am thinking a lot about ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ and obviously the goal for it to be tremendously beloved and really something that comes into the world in a way that is just like a storm, an incredible storm,” Keys said. “And the goal, obviously, is to transfer to Broadway. So that’s heavy on my mind.”

With 15 Grammys, five No. 1 albums and about 5 billion song streams, Keys is an unusual figure in the music world — a classically trained pianist turned R&B singer-songwriter who signed a recording contract as a teenager and remains, at 42, determined, driven and resolutely in control of her creative and commercial life.

Her musical, “Hell’s Kitchen,” is unusual too, in ways that seem promising. Unlike many biographical jukebox shows chronicling childhood to celebrity, this one is both focused and fictionalized, depicting a few months in the life of a 17-year-old named Ali.

“This is not Tina Turner, this is not the Temptations, this is not MJ, this is not Carole King — although all of those are phenomenal,” Keys said, referring to shows about pop stars. “It’s really so much more about relationships and identity and trying to find who you are, which I think is a continuous theme in all of our lives: Who are we? Who do we want to be? Who are we becoming?”

In “Hell’s Kitchen,” Ali, like Keys, is the daughter of a white mother and a Black father and is growing up in Manhattan Plaza, a subsidized housing development just outside Times Square where 70 percent of the units are for performing artists. The supporting characters — a hyper-protective single mother, a life-changing piano teacher, an older boyfriend and an unreliable father — are based on figures in Keys’s own upbringing.

At its heart, “Hell’s Kitchen” is a mother-daughter love story, featuring the stage veteran Shoshana Bean, left, during a rehearsal with Moon.Credit…Elias Williams for The New York Times

“We’ve highly fictionalized the specifics,” said Kristoffer Diaz, a playwright and librettist who has been working with Keys on the show for more than a decade. Along the way, Keys and Diaz have been joined by the Broadway veteran Michael Greif, who directed “Dear Evan Hansen,” and by the choreographer Camille A. Brown, an in-demand dance-maker.

In some ways, the show’s narrative structure resembles that of Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film, “The Fabelmans”: It is a coming-of-age story about a gifted teenager with a fractured family; it ends with the protagonist’s trajectory unclear, but audiences can fill in the blanks based on what they already know about the author’s accomplishments.

Keys resisted suggestions that the musical give audiences a road map to Ali’s future — a future in which she might, like Keys, become a big star. “Sometimes they would push: ‘And how about we…?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ ‘No,’” she said. “You just need to know that she is going to find something. Everything else is irrelevant.”

“Hell’s Kitchen” is, in the eyes of its creative team, a mother-daughter love story. And, in an era when many musicals market themselves as love letters either to Broadway or to New York, this one falls squarely into the latter camp: Keys’s identity, as a person and as a songwriter, was shaped by the city in the 1990s, and that informs the show’s sounds (like bucket drumming) and movement (with echoes of social dances like the Running Man).

The score, played by a band that will include a pianist visible to the audience even when actors pretend to be tickling the ivories, features Keys’s best-known hits: “Fallin’,” “No One,” “Girl on Fire,” “If I Ain’t Got You,” and, of course, “Empire State of Mind,” her 2009 collaboration with Jay-Z that has become an inescapable New York City anthem. Keys said she has written four new songs for the show, but that even existing songs have a new sound because they have been rearranged.

“I almost felt obligated to create that piece that would be something that people who absolutely can’t stand musical theater would love,” Keys said, reflecting on her initial aspirations for “Hell’s Kitchen.”Credit…Elias Williams for The New York Times

“The songs that you think you know,” she said, “you never heard like this.”

Making a musical might seem like a swerve for Keys, but the truth is the overlap between the recording industry and musical theater is substantial. There is an ever-growing inventory of jukebox musicals biographical (“MJ,” about Michael Jackson) and fictional (“& Juliet”), as well as shows with original scores written by pop stars (“Here Lies Love”).

Keys is a lifelong theatergoer who has dabbled in acting — she played Dorothy in a preschool production of “The Wizard of Oz” and had a cameo on “The Cosby Show” at 4 — but her passion was always music. She studied piano from age 7, was performing in a girl group and wrote her first song at around 11, and signed that recording contract at 15. Childhood moved fast — she skipped two grades and moved out at 16.

“She knew a lot before she should have,” said her mother, Terria Joseph. (Mother and daughter both use stage names.)

When Keys was a child, Joseph was a struggling actor — that’s how she qualified to live at Manhattan Plaza — who took survival jobs, particularly as a paralegal, while trying to find work as a performer. (Keys’s father, a flight attendant, did not live with them and was mostly not around; though Keys was close to her paternal grandparents, she was often estranged from her father. Now, she says, they are good.)

Keys would tag along to auditions and rehearsals when her mother couldn’t afford a babysitter; when there was enough money, they would stand in line at the TKTS booth and buy discount theater tickets. Her mother recalls an early trip to “Cats,” and Keys remembers “Miss Saigon,” but the show that stands out most is “Rent,” in part because it’s about AIDS, which hit Manhattan Plaza, with its high population of gay artists, quite hard. “Rent,” like “Hell’s Kitchen,” was directed by Greif.

She was valedictorian of her graduating class at the city’s Professional Performing Arts School, and attended Columbia University for a month before dropping out to pursue music. In 2001, with the release of “Fallin’,” and boosted by an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” her career took off.

Keys has continued to see theater when she can, and in 2011 she co-produced a Broadway play, “Stick Fly,” about an affluent Black family wrestling with race and class. According to her mother, who is always trying to take her to more theater, Keys has long been thinking about developing her own show. “It was on her bucket list for some time,” Joseph said.

“People know her centrality to decision-making matters to her,” the Public Theater’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, said of Keys (above, at a rehearsal). “There’s nothing of the absent star about her.”Credit…Elias Williams for The New York Times

“Stick Fly,” Keys said, “ignited this desire in me, across all mediums in regards to storytelling, to be able to start to hear, feel and see stories that I know exist, but in so many ways the world doesn’t see.” And when she started cooking up “Hell’s Kitchen,” she had audacious goals.

“Because I have all the experience with seeing theater since a kid, I just was really ready to reinvent theater, too,” she said. “I just felt like there was so much to bring, so many worlds to collide and cross. I almost felt obligated to create that piece that would be something that people who absolutely can’t stand musical theater would love.”

Hang on! There are people who can’t stand musical theater? Apparently, yes, and one of them is Keys’s husband, Swizz Beatz, a renowned hip-hop producer.

“He’s not a fan,” Keys said, laughing. “Do not bring him to the show where in the middle of the sentence they break out into the song. He falls asleep. He cringes. He can’t take it.”

So one goal, Keys said, is simply to create a show her husband will like. (The two make up a power couple, with multiple homes and a significant contemporary art collection; they have two children together, and are also helping to raise his three children from previous relationships.)

And what about reinventing theater? When I ask her about that word, she qualifies it — mindful of how it might sound and wary after two decades talking to journalists. Keys said she thinks about her project differently now, because she believes that over the last decade, Broadway has made strides.

“I don’t want you to now quote me and say I’m reinventing Broadway,” she said. “I want to be clear that there’s so many pieces that exist now that really do challenge, I think, what we were seeing. There of course needs to be more diversity on Broadway. Is there more already? Hell yeah. And we still need more.”

I write about the business of Broadway, so one thing that has struck me, as I’ve been working on this profile, is Keys’s ownership — economic as well as artistic — of “Hell’s Kitchen.” Rather than finding Broadway producers to finance and shepherd the show, thus far she is doing so herself, retaining the rights to its commercial future.

“I want to own my story,” she told me. “And I deserve to.”

She consults, and is heard, on every strategic and creative choice: writing, casting, staging, marketing.

Keys has been shuttling between her recording studio in Chelsea and the rehearsal space, while fine-tuning the show’s sound.Credit…Elias Williams for The New York Times

“People know her centrality to decision-making matters to her,” said Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public. “She’s been as involved as any artist I’ve ever worked with — she gets involved on a level of granularity that’s just astonishing. It’s not just music, but every sentence, every relationship, every actor. There’s nothing of the absent star about her.”

Maleah Joi Moon, who at 21 is making a professional stage debut playing Ali, was taken aback to realize that Keys, whose music was a staple in Moon’s childhood home, would actually be involved on a day-to-day basis.

“When I saw the project, I was like, no way was she really attached to this,” Moon said. “And to find out, once I got into the rehearsal room, that she was going to be so heavily involved — it was insane.”

Keys radiated warmth as well as intensity during a rehearsal, a novel (“The Vanishing Half”) at her elbow while she bounced in her chair to the beat and tapped out ideas on her phone. “She’s very specific with her notes,” said Shoshana Bean, the actress playing Ali’s mother.

She teaches songs to the ensemble. (“You’ve never been to a more charged, lively and thrilling music rehearsal than when she’s running them,” Greif said.) She instructs the stars on vocal technique. (“She has expressed herself about what parts of my voice she wants me to use,” said Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Ali’s father.)

She even attended auditions for understudies, and she told me she was relocating a piano in her studio to try to replicate the sonic environment of the theater, thinking she would record the songs in the show and give demos to the band “so they get the feel, they get the swing, they get the idea, they get the energy.”

“I’m very, very anal,” she said, “and I know how I want everything to sound.”

Control has been a central theme of Keys’s career. While still a teenager, she successfully extricated herself from the contract she had signed with Columbia Records, chafing at efforts to mold her image and sound.

“It’s important for me to properly express how I feel at the moment and not have it filtered through other people,” she told Oprah at age 20. Now she preaches self-determination. “If you don’t know what you want for yourself, then you’ll never, never get there,” she told me. “You’ll always be deterred.”

Several times, as we talked, she circled back to her concerns about the way the music industry treats artists, and she said one of her long-term goals is “redesigning the industry.”

“I feel like as a young artist, we get very taken advantage of, and it’s unfortunate we find ourselves in these circumstances that do not benefit us to the level that it should,” she said. “And I’m lucky. I am in control of all of my music and all of the things that I’ve created. But let me tell you, that’s not the normal story. And I had to fight for it.”

Maintaining creative and financial control has become “a mission,” she said, and with “Hell’s Kitchen,” she believes the lessons she has learned are paying off.

“For the first time in my life,” she said. “I’m doing something exactly right.”

That startled me, given her success. “Really?” I asked.

The score is a mix of new songs and Keys’s best-known hits, including, of course, “Empire State of Mind,” her 2009 collaboration with Jay-Z.Credit…Elias Williams for The New York Times

“I really do,” she said. She explained that with previous projects, “I didn’t start out right, but kind of ended up right.” But this time, she said, “I didn’t want to go out and get too diluted and get too many partners. We have all the right partners, all the right minds. It’s the right mixture of experience and also newness that I think is important to continue to create a new world.”

One night in mid-July, I took the subway to Barclays Center to watch Keys do what she is best known for: perform. For 90 minutes she entertained a rapturous crowd of 11,894 — strikingly more diverse, and younger, than most theater audiences. Her sparkling Yamaha piano was in the center of the arena, on a rotating stage, with runways extending out so she could work the crowd.

Just before the concert, as she often does, she presided over what she calls a Soulcare Session, promoting her skin care line (“I call them offerings, not products — products is too transactional”), talking up empowerment (“The theme today is reminding ourselves to own our own power”), and posing for pictures with superfans who had paid a steep premium for up-close access (“You can talk to me about anything you want,” she said). Her staff sprayed the patrons with a “reviving aura mist” and invited them to select keys (get it?) with words of affirmation; attendees sat on embroidered pillows, black beanbags and purple cushions and asked Keys about her wardrobe, her writing process, her childhood. Some spoke about how her songs had helped them endure disease or emotional hardship.

Keys has long had an entrepreneurial streak — she started a babysitters club when she was 11 — and it is ever-expanding. “I’m really interested in business at this point,” she told me when I asked about what’s next.

She’s all-in on “Hell’s Kitchen,” of course. She intends to further build up Keys Soulcare. And she’ll make more music.

“I feel like I’m in a place where I can express myself clearly,” she said. “I am clear about what I want, what I don’t want. Who I want to do it with, who I don’t want to. I’m unafraid to be very vocal and verbal about that, and I feel like I’m in a place where I can do anything, anything. And I haven’t even begun yet.”

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