He was standing on an escalator in the lobby of a Times Square theater when the magnitude of what Jacob Simon was experiencing hit him.
"It was surreal," Simon said. "I was, like, 'Wow, we're in New York, on a Broadway stage on a Broadway theater, doing a show."
Simon came to New York as a contestant for the annual Jimmy Awards, a competition among the nation's finest high-school theater actors and actresses, after winning in Illinois. A performer for most of his life, the recent high school graduate competed in a weeklong intensive training trip that culminated June 24 at the Jimmys.
A gay man who used to worry about "playing straight," Simon's journey to New York began with Deerfield High School's spring production of Crazy for You, in which Simon played lead role Bobby Child. The stage was a familiar place for Simon; he appeared in his first production at age 5 and had performed in more than 60 shows since, including performances with Another Door Theatre Project and the LookOut series at Steppenwolf Theatre.
"You need to be somebody who is willing and able to put in work," Simon said. "[But] I love what I do so much that it doesn't feel like work."
Broadway in Chicago selected Crazy for You and the Bobby Child role as qualifying for nomination to this year's Illinois High School Musical Theatre Awards, where the casts and crews of more than 60 high schools vie for a shot at a host of theatrical and performing arts honors. After representatives from Broadway in Chicago came to see the Deerfield production, they announced Simon as one of 12 nominees for their Best Actor award. ( The Deerfield show's director, Susan Gorman, was also nominated for Best Directorand won. )
After a day to rehearse a musical number that would open the Illinois awards ( "All that Jazz," from the Broadway show Chicago ), the nominees took the stage of the James M. Nederlander Theater on May 6. Of the male nominees, a panel of judges selected Simon and two other finalists to perform a solo from their respective shows before announcing Simon as the winner of Best Actor, at which point Simon performed a song of his choice.
He picked West Side Story's "Something's Coming"a musical number he said he's been singing, save for a period of pubescent voice change, for eight years. Of all his songs, Simon said he can always find a way to "latch on" to the emotion of the music.
"It's maybe the only song that I can still sing that I could sing when I was younger," Simon said. "I love that piece."
From the Nederlander, Simon moved on to New York, arriving in the city June 17 for a week's worth of training and rehearsal. Working and sleeping out of New York University's dorms and theater facilities, Simon and 85 other local winners worked with Broadway stars, producers and conductors to stage a series of performances that would open the Jimmys less than a week from their arrival. Simon received coaching sessions from star Adam Kantor, who played Mark Cohen in the closing cast of Rent on Broadway.
Despite an intense schedule, Simon said he was "pleasantly surprised" about the positive atmosphere, citing an anecdote repeated throughout the week: "We have nothing to prove, only to share."
"The community is just really wonderful," Simon said, describing a culture of "mutual respect" in his time working with both his fellow high school students and the Broadway professionals.
When not rehearsing, the contestants attended the Broadway production of Dear Evan Hansen, whose current lead, Andrew Barth Feldman, won last year's Jimmy for Best Actor.
The Jimmys were presented June 24 at the Minskoff Theatre, where Simon had his realization. The contestants opened the awards with a series of performances that included contestants giving a medley of their high school roles ( in which Simon participated ), a tribute to the 15th anniversary of the Broadway debut of Wicked and, lastly, a broad homage to show business.
That night, Simon was honored with the Rising Star Award and also received a $2,000 scholarship that will go toward his planned study at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
There was much less fanfare when Simon received his award in New York; he didn't get to sing "Something's Coming," and only had his name read aloud. That was okay with Simon, though, because the person reading it was Ben Platt, who originated the role of Evan Hansen on Broadway.
So even though he didn't come home with the Jimmy, Simon has few complaints. "You just gotta think of it as an opportunity, and anything else is a bonus," Simon said.