Virginia Cavaliere had wanted to become a recording artist since the age of 10—after hearing the second Spice Girls album.
But when it came time for her to go to college, "I realized you couldn't major in being a pop star," Cavaliere said.
So she studied musical theater at Catholic University of America and the London Dramatic Academy, and now she's one of the stars of the traveling Broadway musical In the Heights.
The show, which won a 2008 Grammy Award and four 2008 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, is about a group of people who live and work in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood and who consider each other family, even if they're not related by blood.
The 23-person touring company has been on the road since October for its second national tour, and comes to the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall next week.
Cavaliere said the audience is taken through the daily routines of the characters, and shows how they deal with life.
"It shows you how the community can uplift you, and being home is a good place to start," she said.
When she was a senior in college, In the Heights was just transitioning to Broadway. At the time, Cavaliere said, her voice had more of a pop inflection than a traditional musical-theater style.
"But when I saw this show on Broadway, I cried as soon as it was over, and I thought, 'Wow, I think I can actually be on Broadway,'" she said.
Cavaliere said she loves how Broadway can bring together new aspects of music, which is what drew her to In the Heights. The show's Latin-infused music has a hip-hop influence, which is also reflected in the dancing.
"Everything that you see in the dance, it's helping tell the story that's happening between the characters onstage," Cavaliere said. "It's just an amazing picture, and it really enhances the flavor of the show."
The characters range from 15 to 65 years old, so just about any audience can relate to the play, she said. The show also carries inspirational messages such as paciencia y fe, meaning "patience and faith" in Spanish—a message that resonates strongly by the end of the show, Cavaliere said.
Cavaliere plays Nina Rosario, a 19-year-old only child who falls in love with Benny, 24, a cabdriver at her dad's taxi-dispatch service. Nina's father is a hard worker who teaches her the importance of studying and going to college, Cavaliere said.
Cavaliere said she can relate to Nina because of the parallels with her own life. Cavaliere said her father gave up his job as the vice president of a major corporation so he could be closer to his family. He then opened his own hardware store.
"He's very by-the-books as well. He taught me to study," she said. "I get most of my work ethic from my parents—very similar to Nina."
Just as Cavaliere took a big risk in seeking a career as a performer, Nina takes a big risk in attending Stanford University, Cavaliere said. Nina goes for a bachelor's degree in music, which becomes very expensive—and because she has to work two jobs, she ends up flunking out. "It's definitely relatable, especially in this economy," Cavaliere said.
Nina learns an important lesson about following her dreams, even if they don't turn out as planned. She eventually realizes it's worth the sacrifice and struggle to pursue higher education "because she's following her heart," Cavaliere said.
The show takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster that swings abruptly from laughs to tears and back again, Cavaliere said.
"One of the amazing things is that there are certain parts in the show where there will be something very climactic that happens, and you'll hear the entire audience gasp all at once," she said, "and that gives me chills every time."