"You can't act with someone you idolize," Chita Rivera
states in Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life
when she recalls her first reaction to costarring with Gwen Verdon in Chicago
. Edgard Gallardo knows exactly how she felt. He, after all, is the one who partners with Chita for the Dancer's Life
excerpt from West Side Story
Yes, in "Dance at the Gym," he's playing Bernardo to the original Anita. He's mamboing with Chita Rivera, the first Hispanic to receive the Kennedy Center Honors and a beloved celebrity in his native Puerto Rico. To assuage his nerves and excitement, he had to convince himself "to treat her like any other partner." Gallardo says that when he first started doing the role—and the lift that goes with it—"all I'm thinking is: 'Here is the well-being of the whole show sitting on my right shoulder.'" Talk about carrying a show!
Gallardo has been involved with The Dancer's Life since its workshop in July 2004, but he didn't get the Bernardo role until fellow ensemble member Robert Montano left the show (to do The Mambo Kings) before its tryout at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Gallardo had been invited to do the workshop because of his prior association with both Rivera and director/choreographer Graciela Daniele. He made his Broadway debut under Daniele's direction in the 1995 musical Chronicle of a Death Foretold. And in 1997-98 he toured with Chita & All That Jazz, a cabaret-type act that recreated some of Rivera's numbers from past shows but did not include her whole autobiography as The Dancer's Life does.
Gallardo says Rivera still teasingly reminds him of his tardiness to the audition for All That Jazz. He and about four other guys were up for a swing role, and when Chita recalls the incident, "she always says it was either my smile or something about me that said to her, This is the guy that I want." What he remembers most is meeting her on the first day of rehearsals: "I said, 'Ms. Rivera, thank you for this opportunity.' And she said, 'No, it's Chita.'"
That was his first indication that this Broadway legend is legendarily ego-less. "Some stars really don't like you to invade their space, or their spotlight," Gallardo explains. "Chita's the total opposite: She always likes to share that space and she always likes to be next to the dancers on the line. She takes the time to go out with us after the last show of the week, in a very informal environment. When we were touring with Chita & All That Jazz, she had us over to her place, and she had gotten all this food, and then you see her right there in the kitchen getting the food ready for us! She doesn't want to be waited on. She always wants to give back. The way that she treats people comes from that background of being a gypsy."
He has worked with other Broadway icons, such as Jennifer Holliday in Dreamgirls and Robert Goulet in Man of La Mancha. Those are two of his vast touring and regional credits, which also include My One and Only, Peter Pan, Sugar, Leader of the Pack, several go-rounds with West Side Story, European runs of 42nd Street and West Side, and the entire 2000 season at Sacramento Music Circus: Evita, Anything Goes, The King and I and Hello, Dolly! He played a dancing Christmas tree, bike-riding panda and toy robot in the 1996 Radio City Christmas Spectacular and appeared in the 1998 Broadway revival of On the Town.
Gallardo got a later start than many of his fellow gypsies. Born and raised in Mayaguez, on the west coast of Puerto Rico, he didn't start dancing until adolescence. He performed in the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico and was then selected for a traveling youth dance troupe called Ballet Isleño. One of its gigs was the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade circa 1980—where, prophetically for Gallardo, Chita Rivera performed "All That Jazz." He decided in high school that he wanted to pursue a theater career. "When I told my parents, they said, 'Absolutely not! We won't pay for it!'" So he majored in biology at the University of Puerto Rico, graduating cum laude. "When I graduated, I said, 'Here's my diploma. I'm going to New York.'"