At 10 years old, Winter Donnelly is already living out her dream on the Broadway stage, thanks in part to the training she’s received from New York City’s youth theater programs.
The pint-sized powerhouse made her Broadway debut in Disney’s "Frozen" as young Elsa earlier this year after initially being inspired to pursue acting by the film itself.
Like many children, Winter was obsessed with the Oscar-winning track "Let It Go." But unlike the rest of the film’s millions of fans, she turned her love of the highest-grossing animated film into a career launch point — with plenty of help from Mom.
"Winter, she expressed interest in singing and acting very young, maybe 5," says her mother, Belinda Neumann, of the Upper West Side. "She’s had some incredible programs and teachers that also helped her navigate through it."
One of those is the 92nd Street Y’s musical theater program, where Winter was enrolled when she landed her breakout role in "Frozen."
92Y Musical Theater, which made its debut last year, is self-described as being the place "where tomorrow’s stars" are made. And in Winter’s case, it just might be true.
Before joining 92Y, Winter had been a part of several music and theater programs around New York and New Jersey — including ones at Bergen PAC, the Pixie Dust Players, Metropolitan Children’s Opera and LaGuardia High School. She juggled onstage performances for local youth groups with classes at a prep school in the Bronx.
"I know that theater sometimes gets a bad rap, especially with young people and the competitive nature, but I haven’t found that," Neumann says, adding that the 92Y program, in particular, created a "nurturing and supportive" environment for her daughter to grow.
In 2018, Winter was cast as one of three leads in 92Y’s very first musical theater workshop production, "Annie Jr." After school, Neumann would drive Winter to 92Y on Lexington Avenue to take part in nearly two-hour workshop classes, weekly.
With about 90 students enrolled per seasonal production stint, the program stretches 10 weeks and includes training by as many as five instructors. It all culminates in a live performance fit for 140 audience members at the 92nd Street Y’s Buttenwieser Hall.
Neumann says the diversity within the program — which attracts students from the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and beyond — provided a unique learning experience for her daughter that helped push her abilities to Great White Way heights. Though musical theater programs can often come with a hefty price tag (upward of $600), 92Y’s workshop for kids grades K-12 offers a limited number of financial aid scholarships.
"A lot of times when you’re making a musical you cast the kids with the most amount of talent, or who’ve gotten to do it before. We don’t. We really try to give kids new opportunities," says Megan Doyle, the director of 92Y Musical Theater, who was Winter’s teacher. "We have kids in the shows like Winter who now have Broadway credits, and we also have kids who are first graders stepping on the stage for the very first time."
The workshop also taught Winter how to control her vocal range and showed her what it’s like to take on the challenge of playing a lead while balancing schoolwork and being a kid — a skill that’s coming in handy with her new Broadway gig.
"We know that inevitably because we are New York City, it will happen," Doyle says of her students using her program as a launchpad. "We want to train them for that world, show them how to behave backstage. We treat them all like professionals, but it’s not the key tenet to the program. They key part is building great humans, no matter what they’ll go off and do."
Winter is set for a minimum of four performances of "Frozen" per week, and tag-teams the role of Elsa with another young actress, Mimi Ryder. Though her Broadway gig keeps her too busy to enroll in 92Y’s upcoming productions, Winter’s mom says she’s eager to keep acting after "Frozen."
"She’d love to keep performing. I don’t see that ever fading away, but whatever she wants to do is fine and I’m open to the idea that she might want to take a break at some point — they’re child actors and it’s a long journey," Neumann says.