STAGE TO SCREEN: "Camp" and Your "Phantom" Thoughts

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: "Camp" and Your "Phantom" Thoughts I spent several high school summers singing and dancing. OK, it wasn’t the entire summer. It was a week at Messiah, a Christian college in central Pennsylvania.

We just happened to use the space; with the exception of an occasional number from Superstar, the camp was in no way affiliated with any kind of religion. We also performed racy stuff like Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and "Barcelona" from Company. But for four years as camper and then another two as a counselor, "drama camp" was probably the highlight of my summer.

Why? It was made up almost entirely of funny, interesting people who also liked Leonard Bernstein and John Guare. (Almost 15 years later, my scene partner in Guare’s The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year remains one of my closest friends.) It condensed the entire process of auditioning, rehearsing and performing a show into a phenomenally jam-packed week. It was one of the two times I’ve ever actually sung Stephen Sondheim material in public—I was Fredrik in "Now/Soon/Later." And, most importantly, it was a chance to vault several rungs up the ladder of social acceptability; for that week, I shifted from being a theatre nut who got along surprisingly OK with the jocks to being one of the inner circle.

More than the glitzy production numbers or the Beckett parodies, it’s that aspect—the idea of rising above one’s station and becoming a more personally gratifying kind of "cool"—that the new movie "Camp" absolutely nails. Like any summer-camp movie, "Camp" plays up the stereotypes to touch on universal feelings. The miserable gay kid, the smart chubby girl, the sexpot, the bitter counselor: All of these are pushed to the nth degree.

But writer-director Todd Graff—who based the film on his own experiences at Stagedoor Manor, a far more intensive summer camp—has managed to fit these characters into a funny, intelligent summer film that just happens to have full-fledged production numbers from Dreamgirls and Promises, Promises. (Not to mention a cameo from an extremely well-known name in musical theatre.) It opens July 25 in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, expanding to seven more cities on Aug. 8.

"A lot of us really were those kids," says Robin De Jesus, who plays Michael, the gay kid who blossoms at Camp Ovation. "When I look at the kids who go to the camp, we are them." Much of the movie’s plot centers around two camp veterans, Michael and Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat). Ellen’s the kind of girl who ends up taking her brother to the junior prom, and she bonds with Michael and most of the other campers over their pariah status. Enter Vlad (Daniel Letterle), the new kid in town who sets the camp on its ear. A nice-looking skateboarder who might be straight and has never even heard of Stephen Sondheim? Before long, Ellen and Vlad are going over their lines, and a lot of emotions come to the surface before a fairly tidy resolution. Oh, with several more full-fledged musical numbers mixed in along the way.

Miraculously, Graff managed to film a first feature with a predominantly young cast (which means tutors and strictly monitored labor laws) and a lot of exterior shots in just over three weeks. He brought the movie only a tiny bit over budget and managed to get final cut. And with the help of old friend Arthur Laurents, he even scored that elusive cameo. The person in question had given Graff permission to use some of his material right away, he says, but "getting him to act took begging."

Graff says he made a point of not hiring hardened stage veterans; virtually all of the people cast have plenty of credits at their school and in their community but no professional experience. (One notable exception is High Society Tony nominee Anna Kendrick, who plays a creepy Eve Harrington-type star in the making.) "I had 22 days to make the movie," he says. "There was no time to break showbiz kids of all their bad habits."

In one pivotal scene, the alcoholic failed composer Bert Hanley (Don Dixon) tries to break the kids of all their good habits. He interrupts a song to announce that these young performers’ dreams will amount to nothing and that they’d do well to become as normal as possible. Unsurprisingly, the three lead actors don’t agree. "It’s hard, but people work their asses off and have careers," says Letterle, who at 23 was one of the oldest cast members. And Chilcoat, 19, says it takes more than talent to succeed: "I think some people are luckier than others, and I think some people have more drive than others."

Graff categorically rejects such advice—"if he was right, there’d be no point in making this movie"—and says more normal is the last thing these kids should become. "This movie is a lot of fun," he says, "but it’s also about how you have to embrace their freakiness. You have to kind of change your baseline of what’s normal."

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I got off to a pretty bad start with the American Film Theater series last month; the Zero Mostel-Gene Wilder "Rhinoceros" sounded a lot better than it was. So I came at the AFT batch with a little more trepidation this time around. But the latest offering, a virtual one-set take on Genet’s "The Maids," was far more satisfying.

My exposure to Genet has been fairly limited, but a recent Classical Theater of Harlem production of The Blacks piqued my curiosity in the playwright, and The Maids is a much more contained piece than The Blacks. It plays on a lot of the same themes—the idea of crime as an empowering act, the subversion of existing hierarchies, constant power struggles recast as games—but within a more naturalistic framework. (Well, as naturalistic as Genet’s baroque text can be.)

With its sexual ambiguity and plummy theatricality, the play is ideally suited for Glenda Jackson, who plays the older of the two sisters. The effort is a bit more pronounced with Susannah York, but their interaction is always well thought out and convincingly perverse. Vivien Merchant has only one scene, but it’s pretty spectacular. Her casual cruelty toward the girls puts everything that leads up to and follows the scene into perfect context. (I can’t wait to see her in "The Homecoming," another AFT offering and one of several works that Merchant did with Harold Pinter, her husband at the time.) Director Christopher Miles moves the action within a very confined space quite well, and he’s aided immeasurably by the legendary cinematographer Douglas Slocombe.

It did, however, fall prey to one of my pet peeves when adapting classics. You know the scenes where secondary characters say or do something without ever speaking? Where you see them pick up the phone and call one of the leading characters, but you never hear their voice? It’s a shopworn attempt to make the number of characters seem expanded, and I personally feel it draws more attention to the smaller cast, not less. (To be fair, a lot of stage works do this, too.) "The Maids" does this a handful of times. Still, it’s a fascinating glimpse at what might be Genet’s most audience-friendly work. My faith in AFT has been renewed. Onward.

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Aside from "Camp," the most interesting new title this month is probably "The Secret Lives of Dentists" (Aug. 1), with a screenplay by Craig Lucas; I hope to have more on that title in my next column. But a number of theatre folk will be appearing in more mainstream releases. "Spy Kids 3-D" (July 25) will feature two faces familiar from Roundabout musicals: Alan Cumming and current Nine star Antonio Banderas. The only Broadway leading ladies not costarring with Banderas in Nine, it appears, are all in "Le Divorce" (Aug. 8). Watch for Stockard Channing, Glenn Close and Bebe Neuwirth, not to mention Sam Waterston. Michael Gambon and the late Michael Jeter appear in "Open Range," Kevin Costner’s latest outdoors opus. Adrian Lester, a favorite unappreciated actor of mine, has a starring role in "Dust" (Aug. 8), a time-hopping piece partly set in Turkey. And then there’s "Hotel" (July 25), another split-screen exercise in digital film technique by Mike Figgis ("Time Code"). This time, one of the various plot threads involves the filming of a fictional adaptation of The Duchess of Malfi, hailed by many as the finest of all Jacobean tragedies (if you don’t include Hamlet). Frequent Figgis collaborator Saffron Burrows, who was so shattering in Figgis’ "Miss Julie," plays the Duchess.

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My Favorite Thoughts: Since so many of you seem to feel so strongly about the "Phantom of the Opera" movie, I’ve decided to open the floor to a handful of readers. In general, reader opinion seemed to fall into the "I have serious doubts, but I’ll give them a chance" camp, but there were plenty of variations. Here are one "pro" and one "con" letter, plus it wouldn’t be a "Phantom" column without the Michael Crawford camp weighing in. I tend to trim and prune from these letters, but this one from R. is a bit longer:

"Beyond my fondness for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, I am also an avid fan of the original story and as such bring some of that into how I regard the character relationships in the musical. For me, the Phantom was always an older man—one in his fifties at least—a man who had traveled the world and experienced many things except love. And now, in his twilight years, he finally encounters Christine; someone whom he falls in love with her voice possibly before her physical beauty. Their relationship has always been that of a young woman and a father-figure since Christine relates the 'Angel of Music' (as the Phantom first presents himself to her) with the memory of her dead father. And for the Phantom, it is his last chance at love, instilling a desperation to maintain that relationship, especially with the introduction of Raoul, the young and handsome rival for Christine's affections.

"As it stands, I find it difficult to imagine Emmy Rossum and Patrick Wilson as childhood friends of similar age. In the novel and in notes regarding the musical, there is only a difference of a year or two between the ages of these characters. Possibly with good make-up and lighting, the age gap could be bridged, but it doesn't help that in what limited press this cast is receiving, their ages are always mentioned.

"To be honest, it appears to me that Lord Lloyd Webber is fashioning the film version of his musical to conform to the sequel he had planned a few years ago. In the Frederick Forsyth novel ‘The Phantom of Manhattan,’ the age of the Phantom is reduced to basically what it is in the current casting—a few years older than the Raoul character. Is he somehow hoping success with the film will allow him to make a film sequel? I certainly hope not, considering some of the comments both he and Joel Schumacher have made about the fans of the show have alienated them.

"Could the film work with a younger cast? Possibly. Those who see it without the history of the characters and their relationships will most likely accept it at face value. But I find a 33-year old who's never found love not as poignant or heartbreaking as a 50-year old in the same situation, so the emotional resonance is significantly diminished in my view. A ‘young and sexy’ cast brings nothing but the superficial to the characters. As a Phantom fan and as a filmgoer, I demand more faithfulness to the emotion of the story.

"I have no intention to see the film when it is released, regardless of how much I love the musical, the story and the characters. Actually, it is because I love it so much that I refuse to see it—I know it could have been so much more."

Susan is a bit more sanguine about the idea:

"I know you will get a lot of negative mail from people who think that the cast should have been Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman. As most people know, Sarah has said for many years she does not want to do the role again. Then with Michael Crawford, he has gotten older, much older than most moviegoers will look for in this role.

"I am not putting my money into this movie, and as a fan of the show, I will wait until I see the movie to give my opinion. If it is good, that is great. If it is bad, that is sad. I will not go crying out of the theatre. The movie business is not an exact science. If the movie had been made in 1990, then the stars would have been Crawford and Brightman, but it is 2003.

"I have seen some great movies lately with some talented young actors. I know a lot of Chicago fans were upset about the casting for that movie, but it worked. So just give these young people a chance. It is not them who are casting younger. I do hope it does well, as I love musicals."

Finally, a few words from an anonymous reader:

"I think that young of a cast is too young. I think the Phantom character should be much older, and therefore, Christine should be older. Sixteen is ridiculously young. Anyway, I'm one of those who think that to consider anyone other than Michael Crawford is insane. His performance should be preserved no matter what. There are many, many fans of this musical out there, and if you took a poll of all of them, I truly believe 95 percent of them would agree that Michael should be cast in the role that he defined. You might get a lot of different suggestions regarding the other roles, but I know who the ‘people's choice’ would be for Erik."

Your Thoughts: Thanks to all the other readers who wrote in. I do read every response, even if I don’t respond to or print them all. Now, onward to drama camp. I can’t believe Stagedoor Manor and Messiah are the only two camps out there. Do any of you have any camp tales to tell? Childhood renditions of Equus or anything juicy like that? And has "Camp" made it to your town yet?

Eric Grode is a 2002-2003 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, associate editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.