(CBS) Last fall, Aaron Carter left the warm, sunny weather of California to spend his days and nights in midtown Manhattan, where he's starring in the "The Fantasticks," billed as the world's longest-running musical.
The 24-year-old singer assumed the lead role of Matt, a rebellious young romantic, who falls in love with Luisa, the girl next door. This isn't Carter's first introduction to the Great White Way: He starred in Broadway's "Seussical" in 2001, but "The Fantasticks'" producers have pushed Carter to test his limits even further.
"They want to help me grow and become a much stronger vocal performer and actor," the former teen heartthrob told CBSNews.com. "There's not a day that I don't work on vocals, have vocal coaches, go to acting classes, read books ... I'm always studying my craft because I want to be the best at what I do."
Carter's latest off-Broadway success is a far cry from where he was a year ago. In January 2011, the Florida native checked into rehab for what his rep described as "emotional and spiritual issues."
Although he's not ready to talk specifics yet, Carter said, "Obviously no one goes to a rehab center to fix 'emotional and spiritual issues,'" even though that's all part of getting better, he added.
"It's not easy being in the entertainment industry, especially from the time that you're six years old until now," Carter admitted. "There have been times where it's been very difficult. I got to stay focused, stay on track and continue to embrace what I've been through and not ever forget it -- and be appreciative that I'm here today."
Now feeling "great and very healthy," Carter is eager to start work on a new studio album, his first in a decade. The singer, who released his debut in 1997, is currently working on new songs he describes as "pop-dance."
"I'm strong now, and it makes it so that I can be strong in the studio," he said. "You can't be doing that kind of stuff and expect to record material."
Carter, who appeared on "Dancing with the Stars" in 2009, also revealed he's likely to take on more TV and movie roles, hinting there's some "big things" in the works.
"I'm really blessed in my life right now," he said. "Having a dream, living that dream, losing that dream, dreaming again and then having that dream come true again is one of the greatest feelings ever because I'm stronger. I appreciate what I have a lot more than I did when I was younger."