Some Broadway stars cut their teeth in regional theater, or in off-off Broadway shows. But Eden Espinosa, who stars as Elphaba, Wicked Witch of the West -- a.k.a. the "Green Girl" -- in "Wicked," at the Pantages Theatre, got her start doing shows at Disneyland.
This is off-Broadway -- way off Broadway.
The musical is a prequel to "The Wizard of Oz" that imagines the childhood friendship of Elphaba, the green-skinned outcast with magical powers, and the bouncy and popular Galinda, who will grow up to be Glinda, the Good Witch.
Pull back the curtain on the life of Espinosa, 29, and you won't find the great and powerful Oz, but the O.C. And for a kid growing up in Orange and Anaheim -- to paraphrase a certain girl from Kansas with a yappy dog and a penchant for stealing shoes -- there's no place like Disneyland.
For Espinosa, performing at the amusement park was a family affair: An uncle had a role in the Kids of the Kingdom ensemble, and a cousin once portrayed Minnie Mouse. Even from the beginning, Espinosa was the lucky girl who got to go backstage and see inner workings of the Magic Kingdom. "There were people there that were still working in entertainment and performing when I started working here," she says. "That was really cool."
Espinosa attended Anaheim's Canyon High School, where she played Maria in "West Side Story" and Laurey in "Oklahoma." But, as someone who had little patience for academe and longed to jump into professional performing, she found her high school and college of the performing arts was Disneyland.
At 17, Espinosa got her first Disneyland job as a caroler in the Christmas Fantasy Parade. Her parents, Eddie and Elsie of Anaheim, both public-school teachers, had to get a special permit for her to perform, since she was still a minor. Later, she played Pocahontas, and Ariel in "The Little Mermaid" -- and, perhaps less notably, Gypsy No. 4 in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
The actress admits that working at Disneyland was not always a walk in the theme park, so to speak. "It's rough; it's five or six shows a day. And if you were in an outdoor theater, sometimes you had special 'Code 90' shows, which meant that you had a modified show because it was so hot. The costumes are heavy, and you're running around."
There were also strict appearance guidelines, according to Disney casting director Dana White, a former colleague of Espinosa's. The park required that tattoos not be visible, that men's hair be no longer than the nape of the neck and, for all, a generally tidy appearance.
Still, Espinosa adds, "Maybe because of my childhood there, it's always been special -- just seeing the little kids react to your character."
It was at Disneyland, Espinosa says, that she developed the strength and discipline necessary to carry her through eight belting performances of "Wicked" each week. That includes always being the first to arrive at the theater and the last to leave, because of the 25 minutes it takes to put on the green makeup and about the same amount of time to scrub it off.
"It prepared me in more ways than one, stamina and work ethic especially," she says. "They run a tight ship here, and they have someone watching you every single performance, taking notes."
Maybe that's why two Wicked Witches have come from the West, via Disneyland: The current Broadway Elphaba, Stephanie J. Block, is also from Orange County and got her start at the theme park. "If they needed a singing Belle, Mary Poppins or Little Mermaid, I was your girl," Block jokes.
During those same years, on breaks from Disneyland, Espinosa also performed in shows at Universal Studios Hollywood, including a stint in "Spider-Man Rocks" and as a sub in "Beetlejuice's Rock 'n' Roll Graveyard Revue."
The Universal Studios experience was a little looser, she says. In those shows, there were no animated characters to compare to: "You didn't have to sing it like the character did in the movie. You could sing it how you wanted to, sing it different every single time if you wanted to," she says. "And it was fun, you are wearing sexy little costumes or monster makeup for the 'Beetlejuice' show. I had the time of my life working there."
Espinosa was performing in "Spider-Man Rocks" in 2002 when she got the call to audition for the new musical "Brooklyn." She moved to New York for the workshop production but paid her dues working at the Gap and as a coat-checker for about a year before "Brooklyn" had its premiere production in Denver before heading to Broadway.
The odd-job experience made Espinosa even more appreciative of her local theme parks. "In L.A., there's so much more opportunity than in New York. There's Disneyland, Universal, industrials, cover bands. In New York, it's waitressing or Broadway."