The classic musical West Side Story (by Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents) has gone through countless iterations from its 1957 origin, including the Oscar-winning 2021 film that featured Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, queer actress Ariana DeBose (who won an Academy Award herself for Best Supporting Actress) and Rita Moreno (who won an Oscar for the 1961 movie).
Lyric Opera of Chicago is hosting the latest take on the story of star-crossed young lovers Tony and Maria. Queer actor Yurel Echezarreta (who was also in the recent movie version, as Sebas) takes on the prominent role of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. He recently talked with Windy City Times about DeBose, being a role model, taking on a Beyonce challenge and having been a part of more than one "Story."
Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Windy City Times: While researching you, I discovered you've been in West Side Story twice [including a 2009 production at Broadway's Palace Theatre].
Yurel Echezarreta: I've [actually] done it, like, six other times. [Laughs] The film and that 2009 production are the highlights.
WCT: Tell me about the challenges of this newest role, as Bernardo.
YE: I've played Bernardo twice before, but this is the first time in a classical [capacity]. The challenge is simply that it's a beast of a role. The [challenge] that comes to mind is simply the nature of the role. This role is heavily featured in the first act; there are all these numbers, there's a pas de deux with Anitaand it's not only physically demanding but it's emotionally demanding as well. These two leaders are going head to head, and there are all of these heavy emotions, like anger and jealousy. But you have to bottle it all up and try your best not to explodeand there's all this choreography, on top of that. And then there's the racism in the show.
So, basically, it ends in this rumble wherespoiler alert!something dramatic happens. So this arc is so intense and it all happens in the first act. I then get to put my feet up in the second act.
WCT: And you have to bring that intensity night after night.
WCT: When did you know you wanted to be an actor/performer?
YE: I knew when I was 16 years old. I thought I was going to be some kind of scientistmarine biologist, astronaut, archaeologist. I just knew it didn't want to be in an office; I wanted to be out in the field, and I love science.
But then one summer, I had nothing to do and [enrolled] in a drama class. I always loved expressing myself but I just thought this would be for fun. I got word that a community theater wanted to do a show and I thought that sounded fun. I went and auditionedand it turned out that I could sing and dance! Being part of the run, I was, like, "Oh, my gosh!" Everything in my body was firing and I said, "This is it!" So I dropped biology, I dropped math and all these aspirations, and I went to the local arts high school.
That's where everything changed. I said, "I'm going to go to New York, I'm going to get on Broadway and I'm going to perform"and that is what I did.
WCT: I know this might be hard because you've seen so many, but give me [a couple] of your favorite Broadway musicals.
YE: Ahhhh! The first that comes to mind is Into the Woodsand can I say West Side Story? It's such a classic and it's all three art forms coming together. These three genius brains came together to make this.
WCT: I have to ask how you felt when Ariana DeBose won the Oscar for the film West Side Story.
YE: Oh, man! Personally, I was so proud of her. She started in the ensemble on Broadway, and I started there. She said, "I want more"and she got more! It's weird and beautiful to witness such a rise in a career. The stars aligned. When one person wins for a show, we all win because we all support each other. That's just the nature of the game.
WCT: We've been talking about musicals, of courseand you're in [a film] called I'm Not Gay: A Musical.
YE: Yes. It's a musical about an MMA fighter who goes through a lot, like separation from his family. He's trying to find his way in life and finds himself with the LGBTQIA community in Fire Island. And I'm the villain in this movie! I'm also an MMA fighter in the movie and there's a "dance fight." My character is already out and I'm shaming him, trying to push him into a corner. But it was really cool; it's always fun to play a villain. [Laughs]
WCT: By the way, what's this Beyonce challenge that you did? It's pinned to your Instagram account.
YE: I've done a few Beyonce challenges! That was my rendition of her song "Drunk in Love" that she performed in Dubai. It was a challenge that was going around. I was, like, "Heck, yes!" I'll love Beyonce forever.
WCT: Have you met her?
YE: My close friend has, but I haven't. I haven't given up hope, though.
WCT: On a different note, what is like being LGBTQ+ and BIPOC in today's America?
YE: First of all, I'm so grateful to be alive in a time where we've fought and gained more than we've ever had, even though some ridiculous [people] are trying to bring us back. The wonderful thing about being queer and a person of color is that once we've taken those steps forward out into the light, there's no going backbut you can try. The light has been seen and will continue to shine.
I'm so grateful and humble to be in this place where people can see someone like me and say, "Look! That person looks like me and is up there. I can do it, too."
And it's good to let people who are even slightly uncomfortable know that it's OKAY to be who you are. I'm not even talking about being queer or a person of color. If you are weird, be weird. Cool is boring! Don't apologize. Be you.
WCT: You seem really comfortable letting your light shine. Have you always been like that?
YE: I haven't always been that way. I'm a sensitive person. (Why am I getting so emotional?) I've always had a big heart and I want to share that with people. The world taught me to not trust it, but I had to push back. Now, I've never felt more secure and confident. I'm happy where I am on this personal journeyand it's a personal journey that must continue.
Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of West Side Story will run through Sunday, June 25. Single tickets for West Side Story start at $30 and are on sale now at lyricopera.org/westsidestory or 312-827-5600.