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20-Year-Old Gets Chance of a Lifetime : Stage: Eric Kunze, college junior from Vista, lands a Broadway role in ‘Les Miserables’.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Yesterday, Moonlight Amphitheatre.

Tomorrow, Broadway.

Eric Kunze, a 20-year-old college junior, born and raised in Vista, whose performing experience has been almost exclusively on the stage of the Vista community musical theater, will make his Broadway debut in one of the leading roles of “Les Miserables” on June 6.

On Friday, while in New York on an internship with members of his UC Irvine class, Kunze auditioned for the hit Broadway musical. Five minutes after the audition he was told he had landed the part of Marius, the young man who falls in love with Jean Valjean’s daughter, Cosette.

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Kunze still needs an agent, an Actors Equity card, and, Saturday, his head spinning, he still didn’t know in which theater “Les Miserables” is playing. Talking of his surprise success in an interview from New York, Kunze was too excited to remember anything but that he’d been told to wait for the company manager to call and tell him where to go for his costume fitting for the Tony-award winning show that has been playing since 1987 at the Imperial Theatre in New York.

“This is a great birthday present,” said Kunze, who will turn 21 Friday. “This is my first kind of legitimate job theatrically. It’s going to be pretty exciting, I’m going to work pretty hard. This is exactly what I want to do.”

For Kathy Brombacher, the artistic director of Moonlight who cast him in a high school production of “Once Upon a Mattress” when she was still a high school drama teacher and he was a 16-year-old student, his Broadway ascension is less of a surprise. She recruited him for Moonlight and directed him in a variety of roles, from chorus to star. He’s played leading roles in “42nd Street,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Into the Woods” and “Brigadoon.” To her, Kunze’s talent for singing, dancing and acting was obvious, But even she didn’t think his big break would come so soon.

“He’s so dedicated and talented. We all thought we would be buying tickets to see him on Broadway in a few years,” she said from her home in Vista. “But we thought that would be in five to 10 years, not before he turned 21!”

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Kunze’s journey to his Friday audition began last August when he went to see Davis Gaines, star of the Los Angeles production of “The Phantom of the Opera.” Kunze had met Gaines through his roommate at United States International University, where Kunze was a student for two years before transferring to UC Irvine.

Kunze went backstage after a performance of “The Phantom” to meet the actor. Coincidentally, two casting agents for Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals as well as “Miss Saigon” and “Les Miserables,” were also backstage visiting Gaines. They were looking for actors for Mackintosh’s latest, “Five Guys Named Moe.” Gaines introduced them to Kunze. The casting agents invited him to audition.

Kunze did, but they told him he was too young for “Five Guys.” They told him they would be in touch.

In December, Mackintosh’s organization flew Kunze to Chicago to audition for the part of Chris, the young American soldier, in the Broadway production of “Miss Saigon.” Then they flew him to New York, where he was told he would be competing with one other actor for that part.

Kunze didn’t get it. Again, he was told he was too young, but Mackintosh’s agents asked him to get in touch the next time he was in New York.

So, when Kunze knew he would be there in April for his school program, he worked in one more voice lesson with James Cook, the musical director at Moonlight. And he made an appointment with the casting directors in New York.

Five minutes after his audition they asked him to step outside for a few minutes.

“And then,” Kunze recalled breathlessly, “they said, calmly, ‘We would like you to do Marius,’ “And I tried to calmly say, ‘OK’ ”

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Kunze credits Brombacher, Cook and the Moonlight organization both for turning him on to theater and giving him the training and experience he needed to succeed.

Brombacher and Cook both describe Kunze’s voice--a tenor with strength and a bottom range--as a key to what makes him so exceptional.

“He not only has the physical makeup of a real leading man, but his voice has that bottom quality under the tenor sound that gives him more of a dramatic sense,” Cook said. “It’s quite a voice. He’s one of those people who can hit those high notes and still sound like they’re men and that’s what is very appealing. He’s a tenor with strength.”

Cook added that Kunze has been “the most incredible success story” both because of his natural talent and because he worked so hard at his voice and progressed so rapidly. But Cook has worked with others privately and at Moonlight who have gone on to become professionals. Misty Cotton, an Oceanside woman who now lives in Los Angeles, performed with Kunze at Moonlight and studied with Cook before being cast as Eponine in the San Francisco touring production of “Les Miserables” two years ago.

While he waits to step through that stage door June 6, he will complete his junior year in New York on May 28. He will then take an extended leave of absence from school and from Moonlight, where he had been scheduled to star as Frederic, the pirate apprentice, in “The Pirates of Penzance” this summer.

“I was really looking forward to it,” he said of “Pirates.”

“But I’ve been preparing myself for this for about three years. I know three years is not very long, and I know the scared feelings are going to come later, but I’m thinking very positively. I do feel confident, I’m excited to do this, and I want to nail it.”


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