‘West Side Story’ actor David Alvarez got his start in San Diego
Before he became Bernardo, actor David Alvarez trained as a dancer at California Ballet
There’s a YouTube video on the Internet in which someone asks a young David Alvarez to name a role he’d want to do when he got older. He answers: “Bernardo from ‘West Side Story.’”
Back when he was asked that question, Alvarez was already on Broadway — sharing the role of Billy Elliot with two other teen actors (for which all three won the Tony Award). He imagined he’d one day play Bernardo in a theater, with a live audience, doing eight shows a week.
But that’s not exactly what happened.
Alvarez is playing Bernardo not on a stage, but on a big screen in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” — a remake of the Academy Award-winning 1961 movie inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
“It’s crazy how life works out,” Alvarez says. “It’s crazy that here I am now.”
“West Side Story,” created by choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright Arthur Laurents, premiered on Broadway in 1957. A few years later was adapted into the beloved, innovative film directed by Robbins and Robert Wise.
The 2021 adaptation, featuring an updated screenplay by Tony Kushner and updated score conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, also stars a predominantly Latin cast to portray the Puerto Rican characters, something that wasn’t done in the 1961 version.
Also new is that much of the film is in Spanish, and Spielberg made the decision to present it without subtitles.
“I think it’s genius and revolutionary,” Alvarez says. “It’s a statement that Spanish is an important language. It makes the audience feel this sensation that if you’re not a Spanish speaker, you’re kind of peeking through the lives of these characters, you’re peeking at this culture. I think it’s really beautifully done. And it’s done in a way where although you might not understand exactly the words they’re saying, the movement, the intonation, the emotions, all of that is already a language of its own and all of that is telling a story. Not necessarily the words.”
Alvarez’s journey to landing his dream role of Bernardo actually started in San Diego.
At about age 7, Alvarez moved from Montreal to La Jolla (“one of my favorite places I’ve ever lived”). Born to Cuban immigrants, Alvarez spoke Spanish at home and attended a French school in Canada. San Diego is where he learned to speak English, and also where he started serious ballet training at California Ballet.
“That was my dream at first, to just end up in a ballet company,” he says. “California Ballet was an incredible school and really prepared me for my journey to New York.”
Also at California Ballet at that time was Justin Peck, the choreographer for Spielberg’s “West Side Story.”
Peck left San Diego to attend New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet. A few years later, Alvarez received a scholarship to train full-time at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School (JKO) in New York.
Though the two dancers didn’t interact when they were at California Ballet, Alvarez was aware of the budding Tony Award-winning choreographer.
“I remember meeting Justin — he was a little older than I was — but I remember seeing him in dance class,” Alvarez says. “Justin’s a genius in his own way because, if you think about it, if you’re Justin Peck and you get the job to choreograph ‘West Side Story’ and you know that you’re gonna be compared to Jerome Robbins, that’s a big responsibility. Not only did Justin take it, he absolutely blew it out of the water. He has such a beautiful style that I love so much because he uses realistic movement, it’s almost like street ballet.”
When Alvarez was training as a ballet dancer in New York, casting directors for the “Billy Elliot” musical came to the JKO school in search of a boy who could take on the lead role.
Alvarez didn’t sing. Or act. He was still mastering English and had to figure out how to do Billy’s very specific Geordie British accent. But after a six-month “Billy bootcamp,” where he went through intense training with other prospective boys, Alvarez was cast along with Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish to star as Billy Elliot in the 2008 Broadway debut of the musical.
“Honestly, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life,” he says. “I didn’t realize it at the time. But now I can see what a big responsibility it was. I was just a kid having fun, learning all these things and being able to be on stage. That’s what I really loved, just forgetting about everything else and being able to live through a character.”
His version of Billy resonated with casting director Cindy Tolan,who happened to catch Alvarez’s performance. It was memorable enough that nearly 10 years later, when it came time to find a Bernardo for Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” Tolan remembered Alvarez and reached out to him on social media.
At this time, Alvarez wasn’t acting anymore. He was studying philosophy at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and also traveling through Mexico. The message about auditioning for Bernardo came as a complete surprise.
“Towards the end of my trip in Mexico, I see I have a message on one of my social media accounts, and it’s Cindy Tolan asking me if I’m interested to send in a self-tape,” Alvarez remembers. “It was just so weird, so I ended up doing the tape and just sending it. I had zero expectations.”
After a few call backs, Alvarez got the role of Bernardo — the strong and protective leader of The Sharks who goes to battle with rival gang, The Jets.
Along with learning the songs and choreography, Alvarez also had to learn dialogue in English and Spanish — something that filled him and his fellow Latin actors with pride.
“It’s so hard for the Latin community to get ahead in the film industry,” he says. “We haven’t really been given a chance to tell our story authentically and really dive into our truth — what it’s like to grow up within a Hispanic family, trying to learn a new language, adapting to a new culture — there’s a lot of elements.”
Also there to lend support was Rita Moreno, the legendary actress who won an Academy Award for playing Anita, Bernardo’s feisty girlfriend in the 1961 film.
In Spielberg’s version, Moreno takes on the role of Valentina, the widow of shop owner, Doc. She’s also an executive producer who has always been outspoken about her anger at having to darken her skin to play Anita, even though she is Puerto Rican.
“She’s such an incredible artist, I have so much admiration for her,” Alvarez says. “The advice she would always give us was to trust your instincts, show the world what you can do and don’t hide.”
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