For Yurel Echezarreta, snagging a role in the Oscar-nominated recreation of the legendary West Side Story was the process of taking a leap of faith. Known for roles on Broadway, this Miami born performer took the trek to LA to realize a long held dream, landing smack dab in the film which many are crediting with reinvigorating movie musicals. I sat down with Yurel to discuss the path to West Side Story, why manifestation is absolutely crucial, and what it was like having a reunion of his own with the divine Rita Moreno.
Michael Cook: West Side Story has reinvigorated the movie musical genre for many, and you are a part of it. What does it feel like to be part of such a monumental project?
Yurel Echezarreta: I just feel so lucky and it feels so dreamy. Just to know that this is a bit of a legacy and something that everyone will be able to see for generations. That is not something you get to do that often, so I just feel honored, lucky, privileged and all that good stuff!
MC: The people behind the creation of West Side Story are part of the LGBTQ community, and this iteration has cast a trans person in the role of Anybodys Additionally, Latinx performers have been cast in roles of Latinx people, which is a definite turn from how the original movie was cast. How does you character weave into the storytelling of this version of West Side Story?
YE: My character in the movie is Sevas, and he is a Puerto Rican gang member. I am a Cuban-American, so they really fought hard for authenticity within the Puerto Rican culture for the movie. We had a Puerto Rican dialect coach, and actual Puerto Rican born cast members who we were able to really support and they helped us feel as authentic as possible. That is what I worked hard for, to help represent accurately in the movie, adding my own Latino passion/flair/”sason” to the mix which it is always nice to be able to represent my community in that way.
MC: We all know that representation is beyond important, so being part of a production like West Side Story, it must make it even more important, as Steven Spielberg and the creative team have made the authenticity paramount to the production. What does that feel like?
YE: it makes you feel proud, good, and makes you want to work harder and really infuse your spirit into something. There is something different about doing something because its your job, your duty and you’ve been hired to do a task and doing something with your whole heart and spirit because you feel your are being supported, respected, honored and lifted up in the process. Steven Spielberg was so amazing and genours of spirit to really share in the creation with us. To be a part of this film where they really tried to bring up what was happening in the Latino community at that time, we learned what was happening at that time and then we got to represent that in the film. It gave us more “oomph” to infuse ourselves into it and to really educate the masses based on us portraying that experience throughout our performance.
MC: Before West Side Story, the stage production Head Over Heels is where many first saw you. To be part of a production that brings together drag performers and the music of the Go-Go’s is truly a one of a kind stage production. What was it like being a part of it?
YE: That was really a fun one for me. It just feels so good and correct to be a part of a story that is so forward and so progressive, and so right now and what should be being told. Educating people on inclusivity and authenticity and shining their true colors and being proud in that and being brave enough to learn about what they have going on in side that they didnt even know that they had going on inside! The same for me, through my experience on the Broadway production I got to learn more about the trans experience through Peppermint and her education with us. I recently finished a reimagined production in Los Angeles at Pasadena Play House where they did a reimagined version. We got into the non-binary experience and a lot of gender conversation. The show not only educates the audiences, but it has helped bring even more light to colors that I didn’t even know that I had. I just feel so blessed to have been part of Head Over Heels a couple of times, it only roots me deeper in who I am
MC: Working with people like Peppermint and Lea DeLaria who have always lived their truth, you are probably spending most of your time being a sponge.
Y: Oh yeah, I am a person that lives pretty out loud, but these people really take it to the next level. They are like a light of pride and being who they are and that is a hard one. That came from struggle, bravery and pushing through fear. It is very encouraging and it only emboldens me to be my full self.
MC: When did you know that performing was much more than a passing interest and would be the passion you would follow?
YE: It happened between freshman and sophomore year of high school. I did my first musical and it was because musical theater needed more guys to audition and I didn’t have anything to do that summer. I auditioned and got one of the lead parts. I was like “oh this is really fun, I like this feeling, I feel like I am a natural at it”. The choreographer at the show was the dance instructor at the local arts high school. She said she saw something in me and that I should audition for a school. I did and got in, and once I was infused in that community and that educational institution it was where I was finally opened my eyes to the fact that his could be a career, and it is also where I learned about Broadway and that it existed. Growing up in a lower middle class Cubam family where we struggled in and out of finances, being a Broadway performer was never a discussion. I played sports, I was in the band, but I was in the sciences and thought I would be a scientist. Broadway wasn’t in my orbit at all. I didn’t know it existed until I went to the hight school and realized that these were my people and this is what I was supposed to be doing. I didn’t look back, I didnt have a plan B, I said that this is what was supposed to be happening. So Kudos to Yurel for having all that bravery back then…
MC: Your Instagram showcases you totally and completely living out loud. When did you decide that you were going to live your most authentic self all the time?
YE: It wasn’t me just flipping the switch, it was through one brave act at a time. It was through pushing through my own hesitancies and fears. I remember I was living In Washington Heights about seven years about and I was in Head Over Heels. I don’t know how I came into this crop top, but I was feeling myself and I said “today I am going to wear these tight jeans and these bright high top shoes and this turquoise striped crop top. I am walking out onto the street in Washington Heights, this place that represents conservatism and oppressive side of Latin culture, religion, all of this stuff that tells you how to be, that puts you in a cage and stay there”…I walked out of those doors and I posted it on Instagram that I was feeling myself and feeling brave, even though I was nervous right now.
For me, it takes acts like that to move me towards shining brighter and doing a show like Head Over Heels only made me feel braver. Doing a show like La Cage aux Folles in 2010 when I was in drag for the first time..when my father came and saw me dressed as a women and I was saw nervous..he came backstage and had a big smile on my face and said he was so proud of me. He told me it was amazing and if he got paid what he got paid, he would put on a wig too (laughs)! It started in high school, junior year I came out and that really helped me breathe and exhale into a part of my identity that I had to keep secret. When I dropped Christianity that helped, and allow me to feel that I can make my own decisions and explore what makes sense for me. Then just living life, just now during that production of Head Over Heels, I got a manicure and for the first time; I got gel nail polish that had nothing to do with Halloween or doing the occasional drag. It was about picking a color and enjoying it on my fingernails. I remember as a little kid I would paint my nails in secret and wipe it off. So even now, that was very healing; I am still on the journey of being brave and making bold choices; I don’t think it ever stops.
MC: It is very evident in our culture that painting your nails, carrying a clutch, or wearing what is typically women’s clothes, all of them are political statements and ways of defining ourselves.
YE: Yes! Now is the time that it is so exciting. We are starting to let go of these gender prisons and it is the beginning of that conversation, but it is so exciting. Even for me, I can walk through the streets as a human, it is easy to go into the default as a Latin guy with a muscle build and facial har. If I am not all femmed out, I would not be easily seen as gay. But wearing my fingernail color, I think allowed me not only to drop that little facade of trying to hunch my shoulders and “butch it up” to feel safe, but also as a signal to others…to the toxic masculine culture out there. I may look butch, but I am gay and I am not afraid to express femininity or what is considered feminine in my fingernails and eat that! I actually take pride in saying “don’t mistake me as just another straight dude I am more than that” that this is your sign”. I actually really loved that, confusing these little binary prisons.
MC: Manifestation is super important; in 2015 you performed at the Kennedy Center Honors for Rita Moreno, and now years later, here we are with you in West Side Story along with this legendary performer.
YE: I know. She popped into rehearsals for certain moments, and Rita spoke to us as well. They brought in Puerto Ricans in New York of that time that West Side was created to let us into the atmosphere of what was happening in the culture and the minds of the people. She would come and pop in for special occasions like dance rehearsals. I reminded her that I was a part of that, and we would have some laughs. Every time we would see each other there is a knowing, like “oh yeah I know you”. I was able to connect with her at the Los Angeles premiere party and take a picture as well
MC: What do you want to do next post West Side Story?
YE:I want to book a series regular in a tv show. it’s either that and/or a leading part in a high budget film, those are the two major goals, either one. That is exactly what I will be putting out and leaning into. I filmed a couple of independent films and they are coming out also. I am using the momentum of of everything going on and the power of manifestation is real; action is required for proper manifestation. Taking leaps of faith, going towards the thing that scares you, do the thing that scares you, you know? That is what my 2022 is all about; leaning into that.
MC: What have the past two years taught you about yourself and the world around us?
YE: One of the thing that I learned and acted on is to not get trapped into what we are used to and comfortable in, if you you feel that there is something else that you want to be doing. I have done six Broadway shows, I have done the Tony Awards, I have done cast albums, I have done Broadway. To be a lead on Broadway is still out there and will come later, but I have experienced the Broadway experience. I was in the machine, once you are doing it it is easiest to hop to your next show where you are getting paid well and getting benefits; you are in a spot that so many would want to be. I had a dream to go to LA and try for film and television and it took a pandemic for the machine to stop, for me to re-evaluate, and for me to remember that other dream. I moved myself cross-country and did really scary things, letting go of security and safety, I was in Moulin Rouge on Broadway and was offered to come back and turned that job down in the middle of a pandemic to go chase my dream; and I don’t regret it. I am happy for it and there are other avenues in life that are worth exploring. Who knows if reincarnation or an afterlife exists, we have this one shot for sure. Go do something else if there is something else to be done, go explore another avenue and that is what this has taught me. Go chase your happiness, don’t chase safety and security.
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