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From Disneyland to the Great White Way

Broadway star credits her theme park past

Eden Espinosa plays the title role in the Broadway musical "Brooklyn."


Arts, Culture and Entertainment

(CNN) -- When singers and performers set out to sharpen their skills, some attend music conservatories, some go to a university with a strong performing arts program, and some take private lessons.

Eden Espinosa went to Disneyland.

"It kind of was my college years, if you will," she says, "because I didn't go to school. It's a great opportunity to hone your craft."

At 17 years old, the Southern California native ventured to nearby Anaheim to perform in the theme park's daily shows, playing characters from Pocahontas to Ariel, "The Little Mermaid."

These days, the raven-haired soprano plays the title role in the Broadway musical "Brooklyn," a production she calls a "sidewalk fairy tale" about a girl's journey to fame and her efforts to find her father.

Broadway is a far cry from the Magic Kingdom. But Espinosa says her days working for the Mouse gave her a chance to develop her voice and strengthen her performing skills.

Working at Disneyland, she recalls, meant "five shows a day, five days a week [in] tons of different weather situations and, obviously, screaming kids and people that don't really want to be there."

But today, she credits that rigorous schedule for building her endurance, a necessity as she now performs a full-length musical eight times in seven days.

"It still really was a good time for me to kind of just hone my craft and figure out what my voice was and build up my stamina," she says. "So I loved my time there. I look back on it with good memories."

Real and fantasy worlds

Espinosa, who has also worked at the Universal Studios park in Hollywood, calls the theme park circuit a good way to make a living while considering other projects -- an option generally not open to New York thespians.

"I made a really good living, whereas in New York, it's either Broadway or regional theater out of town or waitress ... I've been fairly lucky."

While working in theme parks, Espinosa periodically attended several auditions for Broadway shows and touring companies.

After years of just missing out on roles, she says, a casting director familiar with her work called and tapped her for the lead in a new musical workshop, a process many musicals go through before making it to Broadway.

That musical was "Brooklyn," the show she stars in today. After performing in the workshop, Espinosa moved to New York in order to perform the show.

But when the "Brooklyn" debut was delayed, Espinosa had to get a "real" job.

"It was a learning experience, to see how the normal people live," she says. "I was working as a hostess in a restaurant [and] at The Gap, and it was really hard, you know, it was really tough."

'Paid to play'

This less-than-glamorous existence didn't last long. A friend working as an understudy to Idina Menzel, the Tony Award-winning lead in the musical "Wicked," got a role in another musical and urged Espinosa to audition as her replacement.

Espinosa during a performance with two of her four castmates.

Espinosa got the job, and soon thereafter got her first taste of Broadway when she occasionally filled in for Menzel.

She stayed with "Wicked" until "Brooklyn" finally made it to the Schoenfield Theater in the heart of New York's Theater District just off the Great White Way.

Espinosa and the other four cast members of "Brooklyn" have a ritual before each performance to remind them how fortunate they are to do what they do.

"Right before we have a little huddle [and we say] 'All right guys, we get paid to play.'"

Espinosa says that she would like to work on other projects, including dramatic, non-musical theater, but that singing remains her first love.

"Broadway is the biggest thing, but now that I have this check mark on my list of things there are other things I would like to tackle. ... But singing will always be number one for me. Life, theatre -- I don't think there's anything like it."

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