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‘Weird’ Coincidence Links City Tech to Hit Broadway Show ‘Billy Elliot’

Carbonell-Alvarez with his son, David, and Cumming, with her son, Alex Ko. Photo credit: Susan Farley for CUNY.

What’s the probability of two complete strangers — whose sons concurrently star on Broadway as “Billy” in the Tony-Award-winning hit Billy Elliot the Musical &mdash being hired by the same Downtown Brooklyn employer?

Not very likely, but that’s exactly what happened at City Tech when Tammie Cumming and David Alvarez-Carbonell came on board &mdash she as director of assessment and institutional research; he as an adjunct professor of chemistry.

It turns out Cumming’s son, Alex Ko, will be the fifth actor to rotate into the title role of “Billy” (he makes his debut on October 6), joining Alvarez-Carbonell’s son, also named David, who has starred in the show since it opened on Broadway last fall. David is one of the “Billys” who shared the 2009 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical, one of 10 Tony Awards the show won.

Billy Elliot the Musical is about a poor British working-class boy, who, despite the lack of support from his family, pursues his dream of becoming a ballet dancer. The role of “Billy” is the largest child’s role ever in musical theatre and one of the largest parts for an actor of any age. It requires a remarkable range of talents, including ballet, tap, street dance, singing, acting, dialect and gymnastics. The part is so demanding that the role is shared, with each boy performing it a couple of times a week.

Unlike the fictional character they portray, Alex and David both had the support of their parents, who made the same decision to relocate their families to New York City — one from Iowa, the other from California — thus giving their sons the chance to pursue their dreams and ambitions.

Carbonell-Alvarez, a biochemist and molecular biologist who is a senior research scientist in the Department of Medicine at NYU Medical Center, started teaching at City Tech last spring. He studies congenital heart blockage in infants, in particular, why it occurs.

Cumming began working at the College in June, bringing broad experience as a researcher, consultant and teacher to her position. Most recently, she served as executive director of the Iowa City-based National Learning and Achievement Organization.

Both hold PhDs in their respective fields &mdash his in biochemistry from McGill University (Montréal) and hers in psychometrics and applied statistics from the University of Iowa.

“After being in my new job for about a week, I mentioned to City Tech Provost Bonne August that my son was going to star on Broadway in Billy Elliot,” Cumming says. “She told me she thought another ‘Billy’ parent worked at the College. I was absolutely shocked.  But then I realized, why should I be? This entire Billy Elliot experience has been full of ‘rare events’ in the statistical sense, culminating with Alex getting the part!”

Alvarez-Carbonell concurs: “Being a father of a ‘Billy’ is surreal; from now on, anything can happen in my life and nothing will be a surprise!”

Both Cumming and Alvarez-Carbonell say their day jobs at City Tech help them feel grounded and provide a sense of normalcy for their respective families.

When Alvarez-Carbonell asked his son what he thought about the fact that he and Cumming work at the same place, the youngster replied, "Gosh, that's weird if you ask me."

Adds Alvarez-Carbonell, "It was really funny because it's the same response that Billy's friend Michael gives in the play when Billy asks Michael what he thinks of Billy's audition for the Royal Ballet!"

Perfect timing played a major part in bringing Cumming to City Tech and her son Alex to Broadway. “The same week that he had his final audition for Billy Elliot, I had my big interview at City Tech,” she recalls. “I had told him that if he got the part he could only take it if I could get a job in New York,” adds Cumming, who has been a single mom since her husband died in June 2007. “Luckily, it all worked out. I secured a position that fits completely within my career goals.”

Alvarez-Carbonell and his wife, Yanek, an actress and theatre director in their native Cuba, moved across the country to New York in 2006 with David and their two daughters. The impetus was that David, then 11 years old, was awarded a full scholarship to the American Ballet Theatre School. Back then, Alvarez-Carbonell was doing cancer research at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.

By the time Cumming and her family — which includes two sons in addition to Alex — moved to New York, Alvarez-Carbonell’s family was well-established here and became an invaluable resource.

“They have been so kind to me and my family,” Cumming says. “They opened themselves up to us and gave us some great advice on adjusting to the city and working for the show.”

Both parents agree that when the time inevitably comes that David and Alex outgrow the role of Billy, the two will most likely continue to train to become professional ballet dancers with some of the best ballet teachers in the world — right here in New York.

And, as fate would have it, Cumming and Carbonell-Alvarez’s good fortune has become City Tech’s as well, as both of them make their invaluable contributions to the college community.

For more information on the show or to see a performance of Billy Elliot on Broadway, visit www.BillyElliotBroadway.com.

09.22.09


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