Used to toiling away in the ensemble and learning lines as an understudy, Todd Jacobsson has now made the gargantuan step directly into the limelight.
The 24-year-old Ballarat born and bred performer will take to the stage as Tony, the love-struck lead role in the latest national revival of West Side Story from April.
The musical, which has music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein, takes its roots from Romeo and Juliet but focuses on the tensions between blue-collar Americans and Puerto Rican immigrants.
"It's kind of a life-changing thing to happen," Jacobsson told The Courier this week.
"For a lead role in such an iconic musical to be bestowed upon me, it's big shoes to fill, but it's exciting."
He said he expected to be challenged by the "emotional extremes" required for the iconic musical, which was elevated in infamy by the Academy Award-winning film version starring Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno in 1961.
"It covers all these really heavy issues like gang violence and two racial groups not getting along," Jacobsson said.
"I think West Side Story in 2019 is as relevant, if not more relevant, than it was when it first premiered onstage in 1957 because of those elements.
"But the stem of the story is Tony and Maria, and whether or not it's a happy ending, it only takes one or two people to try and make a change."
But the road to leading man has been an atypical one.
After seeing his cousin do ballet at the age of six, Jacobsson said it occurred to him he'd like to give dancing a go. Paired with his love of watching Michael Jackson's smooth moves, and a well-timed 13th birthday trip to watch Phantom of the Opera, the bright lights beckoned.
"Growing up, I lived at the BLOC hall, and through the Ballarat Lyric Theatre, all I ever did was musicals," he said.
But he used a little showbiz magic to get his first break in BLOC's Bugsy Malone at the age of 10.
"I'd never had a tap dancing lesson in my life, but I said I could tap just to get into it. And then I ended up having to tap in the show," he said.
I remember seeing The Phantom of the Opera, and it clicked. I figured out, 'these people do this for a living. They don't go to their jobs during the day, they just come here and get to do this every night.Todd Jacobsson
"From the minute I figured that out, I haven't looked back. I hope to never look back!"
While his contemporaries spent years honing their craft at NIDA and the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), Jacobsson took a different journey, performing on cruise ships over two years with The Aussie Boys, immediately after graduating from Ballarat Clarendon College.
"It's a very unnatural way of living. But we actually had it pretty good, we'd jump from ship to ship almost weekly," he said.
Taking musical cues from The Jersey Boys, the group traveled extensively through Asia and the South Pacific, performing two 45-minute sets each night.
"My plan, like everyone, was to go to a performing arts university. But I finished school and I got the audition for the cruise ship, and I didn't think there was any harm in going. I got that job at 18.
"I thought I'd do the job for a year, get a bit of life experience and save some money, like a gap year. But I finished that job and then I got The Pirates of Penzance. And then I got another musical. And then another.
"I do feel like learning on the job is one of the best things you can do."
Jacobsson has since cut his teeth in Guys And Dolls, before spending two years in the ensemble of The Book Of Mormon, where he understudied the role of Elder Price.
First staged in 2011, The Book of Mormon was created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who are primarily known for the long-running television series South Park.
Despite the incongruous heritage of the musical's creators, it's been a world-wide, barnstorming success, picking up nine Tony Awards while making tongue-in-check fun of the titular religion.
"It's so ridiculously silly," he said of The Book of Mormon. "The energy of the show and the comedic nature of what you do onstage reflects what you do offstage. That's how you can do it eight times week for two and a half years."
Reading for the role of Tony in the newest staging of the Broadway hit was in no way expected. Describing the cut-throat audition process as "musical theatre Gladiator", he'd just planned to go in and dance for a different, decidedly-smaller character.
When rehearsals for The Book of Mormon clashed, he was invited to read with a group of aspiring Tony's, and the rest is history.
"I ended up performing half of the show across call backs, it was intense," Jacobsson said. "By the end it was in front of 30 different people; investors and producers from New York.
"I felt like to be a lead role in a musical, you have to be a 'name'.
"But when my agents called to tell me, I literally fell to the ground in the driveway of my Sydney apartment building, crying my eyes out.
"My roommate rushed out onto the balcony, because he thought something had gone wrong … very melodramatic."
He said for West Side Story, researching previous iterations of the musical were key, before he starts rigorous rehearsals in three weeks time.
On a eight show a week schedule, you're sort of living like nun.Todd Jacobsson
"There's no alcohol, plenty of water, I wake up and I steam (my voice) and I'm a bit fitness junkie so I'm in the gym every day.
"You have a new audience watching the show every night, so you want to be able to bring the exact same experience to the audience every night, the same as when it was fresh, new and exciting.
"We train like athletes to get our voices and bodies ready. We're not playing one game of footy a week."
Acknowledging it "takes a different energy" to carry an Australia-wide production, he said he was looking forward to threading the needle between creating something vibrant and hitting the expected tone of a production more than 50 years old.
"It's a really fine line. People from ages eight to 80 have some sort of recollection of it, whether it's seeing the movie, or performing it in high school.
"You want to be able to touch on that sense memory they have … what they love from that film, and then bring a touch of Todd to make it fresh."
West Side Story will begin a run for in Melbourne at the Arts Centre from April 6, before seasons in the Sydney Opera House, Canberra and Wellington.
For more information or tickets, visit westsidestory.com.au.