Poster for the new Broadway musical “Hell‘s Kitchen.” The protagonist stands in the center, surrounded by bold blue text reading, “Remember where dreams begin. ‘Hell’s Kitchen.’ A new music on broadway.”

This story was originally published on NYU News as a conversation between Kristoffer Diaz and writer Peggy McGlone. Check out NYU News to read it in its entirety.

Playwright and NYU arts professor Kristoffer Diaz remembers the first time he met Alicia Keys, the multiple–Grammy Award winner and musical powerhouse. It was 2012, and she was searching for someone to write a musical loosely based on her early life in New York City.

Keys and Diaz immediately connected. They talked about 1990s hip-hop fashion and the music they listened to growing up as city kids. “We shared a lot of cultural references,” Diaz says. “You don’t find a ton of people in theatre who speak that language. We connected on that vibe.”

More than a decade after that meeting, Hell’s Kitchen was born. It marks Diaz’s Broadway debut.

Playwright and NYU associate arts professor Kristoffer Diaz stands in front of a poster for the new musical “Hell’s Kitchen.”
Kristoffer Diaz in front of the musical’s poster. Photo by Tracey Friedman.

From the Classroom to the Stage…Back to the Classroom

Raised in Yonkers, New York, Diaz first came to NYU in 1995 to study at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study. In 2002 he received an MFA in Dramatic Writing at the Tisch School of the Arts and then returned to the University to teach in 2015. Diaz currently teaches at both Gallatin and Tisch where he often draws from his own experiences as a playwright and screenwriter.

“The dramatic writing program is built around that idea of a working artist,” Diaz explains. “Theatre is this three-dimensional collaborative art form, and one of the hardest things to get across is the idea that you are not writing the finished product. In theatre, you write a thing, and you bring it to interpretive artists who make it into the thing. We can teach some of that in the classroom, but you really learn by doing. By being around and watching other people do it.”

Diaz gained national acclaim in 2010 when his play The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. His work has been developed and performed at the Goodman Theatre, Dallas Theater Center, Geffen Playhouse, Second Stage Theater, Actors Theatre of Louisville, and New York Shakespeare Festival’s Delacorte Theater. He adapted Rent for television and wrote for the Netflix series GLOW. Furthermore, his newest play, Reggie Hoops, will premiere at the Profile Theatre in Portland, Oregon, later this year.

“There’s something about how you have to slow down to teach,” Diaz says about the impact teaching has on his work outside the classroom. “So many of my processes are automatic in my head, in terms of thinking about why I need to make this change, or would this line work better if I put it two lines earlier? I don’t have to ask myself that question if I’m doing it myself, but I have to understand it if I’m going to give that note to a student. The creative process is all muscle. So the more you’re exercising in different ways, the better.”

An ensemble of performers dancing in a musical production onstage.
Hell’s Kitchen opened April 20 at the Shubert Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

Hell’s Kitchen and the Freedom to Play

Diaz says collaborating with not only Keys but also Hell’s Kitchen director Michael Greif (Rent, Dear Evan Hansen) and choreographer Camille A. Brown was a liberating experience. “It’s like you’re doing a puzzle and you look for the borders first, and then fill in,” he says. “We all had a sort of permission to play.”

Pulling from Keys’ experience growing up in New York City, Hell’s Kitchen follows 17-year-old Ali as she finds herself through music. It focuses on a time in Keys’ life “when she was surrounded by music, by artists,” that was foundational to her becoming one of the most influential singer-songwriters of her time.

“Eighty percent of the time, she’s my buddy,” Diaz says about working with Keys. “And then 20 percent of the time I’m like, ‘Oh, right, you are the most famous person I know by an order of magnitude that’s not comparable.’ And the other thing is, she’s not just famous—she’s a genius. In addition to writing songs, she would come into rehearsal and teach the songs, teach the harmonies there on the spot. She would sit down and write things in front of us, create harmonies. That collaboration was incredible.”

Hell’s Kitchen received its world premiere in October 2023 at the Public Theater in New York City. Before the fall run ended, it was announced that it would move to Broadway. With music including “Girl on Fire” and “Empire State of Mind,” the show began preview performances at the Shubert Theatre on March 28, 2024, and officially opened in April.

“I was collaborating with a person and also with her catalog, which has some of the greatest songs ever written,” says Diaz. “You know at some point someone is going to stop what they’re doing and sing ‘Fallin’,’ which is legitimately one of the greatest songs ever written.”