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Designing Alicia Keys’ Set for “Hell’s Kitchen” Musical

San Diego set designer Robert Brill captures Manhattan’s kinetic energy in the singer's jukebox musical
Alicia Key's Hell's Kitchen Broadway musical featuring actors on stage dancing at Public Theatre in New York
Courtesy of Public Theatre by Joan Marcus

For Alicia Keys, Hell’s Kitchen is personal. The new Broadway musical, premiering at New York City’s Shubert Theatre on April 20, draws on the singer’s early life in the then-gritty Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, following teenager Ali as she falls in love with music. Its primary setting is Keys’ childhood home of Manhattan Plaza, a subsidized apartment complex dedicated primarily to housing performing artists (Keys’ mother acted part-time).

The show’s scenic designer and UC San Diego professor Robert Brill—tapped in by Hell’s Kitchen director and fellow UCSD alum Michael Greif (you may know him as the original director of Rent)—grew up in Salinas, California, but the show’s world is close to Brill’s heart, too. “I lived in Hell’s Kitchen for about 15 years,” he says. “My daughter, Sophia, went to preschool in the basement level of [Manhattan Plaza]. Many of her friends lived in those buildings.”

While concepting sets for the show’s 2023 off-Broadway run at the Public Theater, Brill revisited Manhattan Plaza, eventually zeroing in on the irregular terraces studding the exterior of the high-rise apartments. “When you look at them sideways, they’re almost like piano keys,” he points out.

Brill and his team crafted a batch of tall, movable structures with staggered levels, using the balconies as inspiration. “We were trying to create a complex web of architecture so that the space could evolve from scene to scene,” he says. Greif and Brill made miniature models of the set and spent more than 15 hours snapshotting different compositions, matching patterns to the mood and needs of each scene.

Rendering of Alicia Key's Hell's Kitchen Broadway musical featuring a city skyline and letters HK behind the stage
Courtesy of Robert Brill

In addition, two multi-level, platformed towers provide an alternative to the orchestra pit. Musicians and cast members flit from platform to platform, Manhattan Plaza’s vibrant artistic hive always buzzing through its halls and around its exterior. “We felt it was important for the musicians to be present, to constantly surround Ali and be the inspiration for her music,” Brill adds.

The shifting set pieces capture the staggering height and ever-changing thrum of New York, shattering the constrained space of the theater into a kaleidoscope of restless motion. To bring even more kinetic energy to the show’s visuals, Brill worked with projection designer Peter Negrini (who served the same role on Dear Evan Hansen) and lighting designer Natasha Katz to pack the stage with LED surfaces, which take on varying configurations throughout the show’s run.

Alicia Key's Hell's Kitchen Broadway musical featuring actors on stage singing
Courtesy of Public Theatre by Joan Marcus

“The LED screens are like a number of photographs randomly put on a table,” Brill says. “Imagine those photographs shifting and moving and taking you on a journey.” Negrini and his team can send images, videos, and other content to each screen, collaging or coalescing them into the places that shape Ali’s life. The set changes every few minutes over the musical’s 150-minute run time, and the team never repeats a composition.

The show’s move to the larger Shubert Theatre gives Brill and his team more space to play, making each vertical structure 50 percent taller or more than its previous iteration—but as nomadic as ever. “[It’s like one of] those puzzles where there’s one square missing in the middle. It’s very much a puzzle off-stage, too. While there was open space off-stage 10 seconds ago, now there’s something there,” Brill explains. “Musicals are a machine. It takes quite a community to put them together and to make them feel effortless.”

Previews for Hell’s Kitchen began Mar. 28. The musical officially opens at the Shubert Theatre in New York City on April 20.

By Amelia Rodriguez

Amelia Rodriguez is San Diego Magazine’s Associate Editor. The 2023 winner of the San Diego Press Club's Rising Star Award, she’s covered music, food, arts & culture, fashion, and design for Rolling Stone, Palm Springs Life, and other national and regional publications. After work, you can find her hunting down San Diego’s best pastries and maintaining her three-year Duolingo streak.

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