The experience of performing-arts sleepaway camp, where kids stage musicals and test their dramatic chops, is the world of the new film, "Camp," producer-director screenwriter Todd Graff's PG-13-rated picture being released July 25.
Performing arts camp is generally seen as a ritual that either encourages young people to continue in the theatre or cures them of the bug altogether.
The movie is being called a cross between "Meatballs," "Fame" and "Dirty Dancing." It features a cast of unknowns and a soundtrack that includes songs by Stephen Sondheim (who also makes an appearance in the picture), Burt Bacharach and Hedwig and the Angry Inch songwriter Stephen Trask.
Graff is no stranger to the performing arts camp experience. As a kid, he attended a Catskills camp called Stagedoor Manor 1974-76 and later became a counselor there 1977-79. Among his later grown-up roles was his turn as Danny in the Broadway musical, Baby.
The new picture from IFC Films, with casting by New York theatrical casting agent Bernard Telsey, is set at Camp Ovation, a place inspired by the still-operating Stagedoor Manor. The movie is about "a group of extraordinary kids growing up and discovering who they really are," according to production notes.
Who are the kids? According to www.campthemovie.com, "Michael (Robin De Jesus) is beat up when he tries to attend his junior prom in drag; Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) is so unpopular she has to beg her brother to take her to her junior prom; Vlad (Daniel Letterle), much to everyone's surprise, seems to be a red blooded, all-American straight guy in a sea of musical theatre freaks and geeks; the bombshell Jill (Alana Allen) makes a beeline for his attention; then there's the lovely Dee (Sasha Allen), who is out to prove she's not destined for a life of fag-hagdom."
For two months, the kids will work toward putting on a show every two weeks, and "relationships are formed, talent is tested, and hearts are broken." The kids' fragile egos are entrusted to guest director Bert Hanley (Don Dixon), who had a Broadway smash 10 years ago, "but now has fallen on hard times and become a cynical alcoholic."
In production notes, Graff said, "The most obvious inspiration is 'Fame.' It's rated R, it deals with teen sexuality and body image and it actually had a little bit of an edge, and the musical numbers were great. So that was certainly something I looked at.
"I was very inspired by a film from the 70's called 'Smile' about a 'Young American Miss' beauty pageant. The Bert Hanley character in 'Camp' is virtually a rip-off of this over-the-hill choreographer played by Michael Kidd in that movie. The way he could be so funny and so satirical but so honest with those kids was a model for me."
How autobiographical is "Camp" for creator Todd Graff?
"I think when I was that age there's a lot of Vlad in me, that idea of testing your power in adolescence, testing it with boys, testing it with girls. Now I think I'm more like Ellen. I wasn't a troubled kid but I was a truant and I was always in trouble. I was stealing cars to joyride with my friends, drinking beer, basic adolescent stuff. So my parents found this ad in the back of the Sunday New York Times magazine and they knew I was into all this stuff, so I went there. It focused me. I realized there was something I loved and I wasn't the only person my age who loved it, and suddenly I had a different circle of friends. The camp played a huge role in me finding my way in life.
"[At camp], you're thrown into this world where there is this incredible range of freak kids. You go from a place where nobody is like you to a place where everybody is like you. That part is very autobiographical and true."