GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Yurel Echezarreta of 'Aladdin'
Cast in his first Broadway show at age 19 and now appearing in his fourth at 25, Yurel Echezarreta has also already endured the banes of a gypsy's life: injury and unemployment. He had to sit out opening night of 2010's La Cage Aux Folles because of a dislocated knee, and after La Cage closed the following year he had trouble finding work not only as a performer but even as a waiter.
These days, however, he's in a whole new world with what looks to be a secure job in Aladdin, which has been selling out and posting Denzel-level box office grosses since it opened March 20 to mostly positive reviews. Echezarreta made Time Out New York's list of "the 10 hottest chorus boys opening in Broadway musicals this spring" and earlier this week took part in the special Aladdin performances on Good Morning America and The View.
A year ago Echezarreta was making the rounds of TV appearances in Matilda. He'd taken over for an injured member of the original Broadway cast a week and a half before previews began and was a swing in the show until shortly after the Tonys (where he performed). He went on frequently, including opening night. Participating in the opening and awards seasons with Matilda helped compensate for missing those same exciting times with La Cage Aux Folles three years earlier. During the last week of La Cage rehearsals, Echezarreta dislocated his knee while doing a jump split in the cancan number. "Here's the funny thing," he says. "In the three months I missed of La Cage, I missed opening night, the TV performances, the Tony Awards. And the only section I got to do with Matilda was opening night, the TV spots and the Tony Awards. Isn't that crazy, how the universe can give you a gift back sometimes?"
He rejoined La Cage soon after the 2010 Tonys, sang on the cast album, and played Phaedra the Cagelle for the rest of the run. Echezarreta had been cast in La Cage while he was in the Arthur Laurents-directed revival of West Side Story, where he made his Broadway debut in March 2009 at the age of 20. He was only 19 when he got the part of Tio, a Shark, and dropped out of the University of Michigan to take the role.
Echezarreta had just finished his freshman year as a Michigan musical theater major when a classmate told him about the West Side Story auditions. He'd gotten his Equity card doing the 2008 season at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera--which included West Side Story along with Mame, Peter Pan and Annie Get Your Gun--but when he made his Broadway debut, it was less than five years since he'd started performing at all. "Going into high school, I didn't know too much about Broadway," recounts Echezarreta, who grew up in central Florida. "My parents knew nothing of show biz. I thought I wanted to be a marine biologist or an archeologist or an astronomer--something that didn't require going in to a 9-to-5 office job. And I loved science."
He'd always been an extrovert, though, and took a drama class during his freshman year of high school. The teacher alerted him to auditions for Children of Eden at a community theater in need of young male performers. Many of his castmates in that show were students at Polk County's Harrison School for the Performing Arts (the choreographer was head of its dance department), so he transferred to it. "After I got in [to the magnet school], my life changed," Echezarreta says. "I decided I wanted to do this, and I never looked back." Throughout high school he performed at both Lakeland Community Theatre, where he'd done Children of Eden, and Theatre Winter Haven in his hometown. He even choreographed a production of Chicago at the Winter Haven theater.
It took a while for his parents, both Cuban immigrants, to come around to his vocation. Though "in Cuba ballet is very well respected," Echezarreta notes, "when I said that I wanted to dance, my dad was like, 'If you're wearing tights, I don't want to come see you.'
"It was kind of a hardship for me growing up because I wanted my parents to support me, and sometimes my dad just wasn't there," he adds. At one point after he'd already begun working professionally, Echezarreta stopped speaking to his parents "because I did not feel the support," he says. But eventually his father reached out to him: "He was like, 'I love you, you're my son, I want to be there for you.'" Echezarreta was in La Cage at the time, and when his dad said he wanted to come see the show, he felt obligated to prepare him. "I gave him a big old warning. I told him, 'Listen, Dad, just so you know, you're about to see your son in a dress and a wig and heels, lipstick, makeup, lashes...'" He still recalls how he felt seconds before he burst into the spotlight during the opening number of the performance his parents attended.
"I remember the eight-count before having to jump out," Echezarreta says. "I was like, 'Omigod, omigod, my dad's going to see me as a woman, and I don't know what's going to happen.' I jumped out into that spotlight and thought, 'Well, Yurel, you did it. Now give it your all!' At the curtain call I was trying to find them in their seats and I couldn't see them. I was really nervous. What if they couldn't handle it and walked out?
"I was in my dressing room taking off my makeup," he continues. "I feel like I'm Paul in A Chorus Line, and they call my name: 'Yurel, you have guests at the stage door.' I go down, open the door, and there I see my dad and my mom smiling, beaming, coming at me. Such a wash of relief came over me. I hugged them. And he was like, 'You know what? If I made the money you made wearing heels, I would do this too!'" His father demurred at his suggestion to go backstage and try on the wigs, but Yurel finally felt that "my dad fully accepted what I do and who I am," he says. "It was awesome."
He encountered a whole different obstacle when La Cage closed in the spring of 2011--unemployment. Echezarreta was out of work for the rest of the year except for doing the fall workshop of Empire, a musical by Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull that takes place in New York during construction of the Empire State Building. Then Echezarreta's romantic relationship ended, and "I decided I needed to get out of the city," he says.
He spent most of 2012 aboard Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, performing in the shipboard production of Chicago. "That was just the break I needed," says Echezarreta. "Once I finished that contract, I was so ready to be back. I had this new motivation, this fresh outlook, and I said, 'The world is mine to conquer.'" During the winter of 2012-13 he appeared in Fiorello! at City Center Encores!; Bound for Broadway, a weekly cabaret showcase of up-and-coming talent at the Upper West Side club Underground; and a workshop of The Last Goodbye, which set the story of Romeo and Juliet to Jeff Buckley's music (directed by Alex Timbers, the musical was produced at San Diego's Old Globe in the fall 2013, without Echezarreta in the cast).
Those were all short-term projects, however, and he wasn't eligible to collect unemployment because the cruise-ship job was out of state. So he had to start looking for work at restaurants, although he had no waitering experience. He agreed to be considered for a busboy job at a theater-district restaurant--and then, two days after interviewing there, he was contacted by Matilda (for which he'd auditioned previously) to immediately replace the injured company member. He never let the restaurant know he didn't need a job any longer, but they never called him either. "Essentially, it was easier to get a Broadway gig than a busboy position," he laughs.
Echezarreta represented Matilda in last year's Broadway Beauty Pageant, a chorus-boy competition held annually to benefit the Ali Forney Center. As in female beauty pageants, the contestants have to compete in interview and talent segments and model formal wear and a swimsuit (with some striptease during the latter). Echezarreta's talent was re-creating a Beyoncé concert. "I admire and respect Beyoncé's talents and beauty very much," he says. "I always strive to impersonate her to the best of my abilities anytime I perform in drag."
He's earned spots in the beauty pageant and "hottest chorus boys" roster without intensive workouts. "I'm one of those lucky ones that don't need to hit the gym often," Echezarreta says. "I do a couple of pushups here and there and fortunately retain muscle easily." He's also recovered well from the La Cage injury. "That was a wake-up call for me," he admits. "'Yurel, you are not invincible. You can make mistakes, and you gotta learn from them and not repeat them.'" He hadn't done jump splits before that show, and after getting hurt doing them he realized he hadn't spent enough time focusing on the new movement and how he could do it properly over and over again. He did so when he returned from the time off--"and I never jumped higher, and I always landed safely," he says.
Last year Echezarreta filmed his first movie role, in The Last Five Years, an adaptation of the off-Broadway musical, starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. He appears with Kendrick in the "Summer in Ohio" scene in the movie, which is due to be released later this year. Now that he's got a steady job in Aladdin, Echezarreta plans to resume the training he'd abandoned when he left college for West Side Story and take voice lessons again, as well as classes such as acting for the camera and vocal performance (a.k.a. acting through song)--with the hopes of landing featured and principal roles in the future. In Aladdin, he understudies the title character's pal Kassim, played regularly by Brandon O'Neill.
Echezarreta had the title role in Aladdin in high school, where he also did West Side Story for the first time. He came to NYC for the first time after his junior year in high school, on a Moveable Arts retreat that entailed workshops, meetings with people in the business and seeing Broadway shows (among them the John Doyle revival of Sweeney Todd, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Color Purple and The Wedding Singer).
Just three years later, he would be performing himself on Broadway, in one of the all-time great dance shows. "West Side is so classic," he says. "Very balletic, very technical." His next Broadway role was quite a contrast: "La Cage was just crazy fun--you got to flounce around and be fierce and gorgeous. And drag brings out a whole other side of physicality." As for Matilda, "it was all about being suppressed children," he explains. "It was like contained explosions."
And now? "Aladdin is a big, fun show where you're doing jazz choreography," Echezarreta says. "It has so many production numbers. You just go there and you have a good time. The choreography is so in-your-face, you have to explode with every step. We're all just heaving after every number." The show has reunited Echezarreta with fellow ensemble member Andrew Cao, with whom he'd performed in Annie Get Your Gun and West Side Story at Pittsburgh CLO six years ago.
The Aladdin cast performed "Arabian Nights" and "Prince Ali," respectively, when they were on Good Morning America and The View April 15, but the main showstopper is usually "Friend Like Me." On opening night, Echezarreta says, "we got, like, three standing ovations throughout the show. We usually get one after 'Friend Like Me'--which is amazing in itself--but opening was really special, the audience was just loving it."
Aladdin's director-choreographer, Casey Nicholaw, "just has a great energy with the cast," Echezarreta adds. "He was an ensemble member, so he understands the dynamic. Casey has an amazing talent to make a rehearsal room feel happy and safe and lighthearted. He definitely has his goals, and we achieve his goals; he has things in mind, and they will happen in a timely manner. But at the same time he cracks jokes and allows laughter and you to feel comfortable. That unites the cast. He has an amazing ability for that, as well as getting all his work done."
Photos of Yurel, from top: center, dancing in "Arabian Nights" in Aladdin; far left, in La Cage Aux Folles with the other Cagelles, Christopher Sieber as Georges (center left) and Harvey Fierstein as Albin; in Cozumel, Mexico, in 2012; performing in Chicago aboard the Allure of the Seas; singing "Crazy in Love" as Beyoncé during the 2013 Broadway Beauty Pageant; right, in West Side Story with Manuel Herrera (left) and George Akram. [Aladdin photo by Deen van Meer]