Imagine you’re making your professional acting debut in New York City at the renowned Public Theater. Now add on that you’re doing this as the star of the new musical loosely based on Alicia Keys’ personal experiences. Oh, and you’re also co-starring with one of your Broadway idols. Seem too good to be true? Well, for newcomer Maleah Joi Moon, it’s reality. She’s currently acting opposite Broadway favorite Shoshana Bean in the new musical Hell's Kitchen. “I have been a fan of Shoshana, like most people,” she explains, looking over to Bean who is sitting next to her. “I saw you in Waitress and stage-doored you.”
Moon recalls waiting in line to take a photo with Bean, which she still treasures. So, to go from admirer to colleague is something she still can’t quite get over. “You're a beast!” she exclaims to her co-star. “I get to watch your footsteps and the way that you navigate this role and the way that you navigate being in the show. I’m in awe." While appreciative, Bean says that Moon is a pro. “She don't need me,” Bean says smiling and looking over to Moon. “She doesn't need anything. She's good!”
In the world premiere musical debuting at The Public Theater (which is so highly anticipated that the production sold out before its first preview and has extended to January 7), Moon plays Ali, a 16-year-old being raised in Hell’s Kitchen in the early '90s by her mother Jersey, portrayed by Bean. With a book written by Kristoffer Diaz and songs spanning over Keys' nine studio albums and new original music, Hell’s Kitchen follows Ali as she attempts to push the boundaries of the life she’s known and discover herself. Meanwhile, Jersey desperately tries to protect her from the dangers of New York City.
“It was Alicia for me,” remarks Bean as she explains why the project was an easy sell for her. “I remember how my world shifted its axis when [Keys' album] Songs in A Minor came out.” For her, it was music unlike anything she had heard before. And when the opportunity came to work with Keys, she jumped at the chance. “There's three people on my bucket list left to work with and she was one of them. So, that's what got me in the door.”
Moon’s feelings are mutual, having grown up with Keys' music from her father, who loved pop and R&B music. “The fact that now we get to be in the room with her,” Moon says with eyes wide, with a smile from ear to ear, and throwing her head back. “It's a whole other level.”
Working with Keys, who the two say has been in the rehearsal room during the entire process, has been the experience of a lifetime. At the same time, being allowed to perform this style of music is another gift. When Bean was starting out in the industry, she found herself being told time and time again that her voice was too pop for Broadway. “Bitch, I've waited 20-some years to be able to sing like this on Broadway,” jokes Bean. “When I started out here, no one from the pop world wanted to touch Broadway with a 10-foot pole. So, the fact that I've been in this business long enough to live to see the day…” Bean pauses as she thinks back. “And I get to sing the way I’ve wanted to before it was sort of beaten out of me for the Broadway stages. I’m grateful.”
Moon echoes Bean’s statement, even while being the new kid on the block. “As someone who's making their professional debut [in Hell’s Kitchen], I feel like grateful is an understatement,” she says, sitting up and leaning forward. “The fact that I get to do this type of music on stage, in the industry that I've been wanting to work in since I was a kid, and I get to just express myself and my voice in the truest possible way and pay homage to Alicia’s stylistic talents. It’s just crazy.”
Bean adds that on top of working with Keys, which has been such a joyful and memorable experience, her time spent and quick time bonding with Moon has been a welcomed surprise. She also reveals that like her character Jersey, Bean has found herself wanting to protect Moon even in the rehearsal process.
“One day, she was running some song. And she was having a really hard time getting through it,” she recalls. “[Maleah] was really emotional, and I just wanted to run out there and hold her.” However, Bean says she knew she couldn’t interrupt the rehearsal, no matter how badly she wanted to. “I was like, my daughter needs a moment!” The moment and her reaction surprised Bean, who says she has never experienced this kind of relationship so quickly with a co-star. “I felt like I was sunk though, from the beginning when we did the first reading. There just was a beautiful ease and chemistry and connection.”
The feeling is mutual for Moon: “She inspires me to take up more space in my own realm.” She gets choked up, but gently clears her throat, takes a deep breath, and continues. “They say not to meet your heroes and well… shit. But she's fabulous! And it's so easy to love her onstage because it's so easy to love her offstage.” Moon turns her head to look at Bean and says, “I love you.”
Bean leans in, interlocks her fingers with Moon, and says, “I love you.” Though they may only play mother and daughter on stage, the two have truly become family.
See more photos from Playbill's exclusive photoshoot with Shoshana Bean and Maleah Joi Moon below.