How 'Hell's Kitchen' reflects and differs from Alicia Keys' life

Keys's song catalog makes up this new musical about a young girl coming of age in Manhattan — a story inspired by, but not identical to, Keys's own upbringing.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Discover where Alicia Keys's own dreams were made. The 16-time Grammy Award-winning musician has been working on the new Broadway musical Hell's Kitchen for over a decade, but its origins reach back to the '90s.

Loosely inspired by her formative years in that decade, Hell's Kitchen centers on 17-year-old Ali (Maleah Joi Moon) and her mother, Jersey (Shoshana Bean), who each learn hard but necessary lessons about love, community, and change in the title Manhattan neighborhood. And as Ali begins to seek out her own way in the world, she also stumbles upon a passion for the piano.

This story is set to a score entirely by Keys, including hit songs like "No One" and "If I Ain't Got You," as well as new songs like "Kaleidoscope." But Hell's Kitchen is not an autobiographical show, as Keys and book writer Kristoffer Diaz made plenty of dramatic changes to make Ali's story its own.

Learn more about Keys's life and where the Hell's Kitchen musical parallels and differs from it. Then, head to the Shubert Theatre (mere steps from the real Hell's Kitchen) to see it for yourself.

Get Hell's Kitchen tickets now.

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Alicia Keys lived in Manhattan Plaza.

Located on 43rd Street and Ninth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan Plaza is a federally subsidized apartment building for performing arts professionals. Its mission to provide affordable housing now extends to neighborhood residents and the elderly.

Keys's mother, Teresa Augello (also known as Terria Joseph), moved from Toledo, Ohio, to Manhattan to pursue a performance career. She was also a paralegal, but her part-time acting work secured her housing in Manhattan Plaza. Augello raised Keys there and often worked multiple jobs to support them.

"She is the quintessential New York story," Keys said.

Hell's Kitchen closely reflects Keys's life in this way. Ali's mother, Jersey, raises her in Manhattan Plaza and works long hours as a paralegal. That's one difference between real life and the musical: While Augello appeared in various stage and screen projects in New York throughout Keys's life, Jersey entirely abandoned her performance career before the events of Hell's Kitchen.

Keys was raised by a single mom.

This much of Hell's Kitchen is true. Keys has said on record that her mom was tough on her, but she taught a young Keys how to be strong, mature, and self-sufficient.

A major part of the musical is the journey of Ali and Jersey to better love and understand each other as a small family. Jersey is sometimes overprotective to a fault in the musical, but she learns to let her daughter make her own mistakes — and opportunities. In return, Ali learns to appreciate her mother's deep love and care.

Keys's father was not in her life.

A key (no pun intended) plot point of Hell's Kitchen is the on-and-off reappearance of Ali's father, a traveling piano player who was mostly absent from the character's early teenage years. In contrast, Keys's own father was not in her life at all.

She has said in interviews, however, that she doesn't resent him. Keys wrote the character of Davis, Ali's father, with compassion to avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes about absent fathers.

Hell's Kitchen was a lively but gritty area.

Hell's Kitchen is now a thriving restaurant district, an LGBTQ+ hub, and the bustling next-door neighbor of the Theatre District. But during the '90s, when Keys was a teen and when the musical takes place, the greater Times Square area was considered seedy. That included Hell's Kitchen, and Keys was exposed to addiction, violence, and sex alongside art at an early age.

In Hell's Kitchen, though, we see the neighborhood as a hopeful young Ali does: a place filled with irresistible energy and sound and opportunity. It was all those things amid the rough patches, as it still gave rise to artists like Keys.

The musical also addresses police violence and discrimination, as people of color made up the bulk of both Keys's and Ali's communities in the neighborhood. Characters like Knuck, a street drummer and Ali's love interest, represent those wrongfully stereotyped as dangerous in Hell's Kitchen and beyond.

Alicia Keys found her passion for music in early childhood.

In Hell's Kitchen, Ali first takes up piano at age 17 when she hears a neighbor playing it in a common room in their building. That neighbor, Miss Liza Jane, teaches Ali how to play, which opens up Ali's passion for making music.

Keys actually took an interest in the piano at 6 years old, and a neighbor gifted her family a piano when she was 10. Keys wrote her first song at age 12 and underwent classical piano training until she was 18.

Though Keys's exact journey as a musician is different than the way Hell's Kitchen portrays it, the most important thing is the same: that the piano helped Keys find her voice, her confidence, and her future.

Get Hell's Kitchen tickets now.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Photo credit: Hell's Kitchen on Broadway. (Photo by Marc J. Franklin)

Originally published on

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