Welcome to Camp Ovation, a camp where "American Idol" and "Star Search" collide with
summer camp and Broadway musicals. A place where the theater arts are celebrated and
performed by the nation's most gifted teenage singers, dancers, and actors/actresses.
It's a place where those who feel out of place in their normal lives can find comfort
with others. And it's a place where everyone gets to have their moment in the sun.
Marking the directorial debut of Todd Graff, a Tony nominated actor for his role in the
Broadway smash "Baby," "Camp" is an off beat comedy drama with a lot of soul. Blending
coming-of-age story arcs with whimsical show tunes and ballads creates a passionate,
uplifting summer sensation!
They come from all different walks of life - teenagers searching for an identity,
looking to connect with others, wanting to escape and explore their theatrical talents.
Segregated because of their dramatic or musical uniqueness, these so-called misfits
attend Camp Ovation over the summer to reunite with friends and perform in front of
friends and family. Most of the attendees are making a return trip with the exception
of Vlad, a newcomer 90210 type who causes quite a stir with his charm and good looks.
Like "Spellbound," where the kids are isolated based on their intellect, the kids at
Camp Ovation are isolated based on their performing art abilities. When not at camp,
Michael is beaten up when he attempts to attend his prom dressed in drag and Ellen is
a loner who must beg her brother to take her to the prom. Even Vlad, the picture
perfect poster boy, is a pill popping, semi-autistic guitar player. But despite their
quirks and mannerisms, when the kids arrive at camp, they feel accepted. They go from
situations where no one is like them to situations where everybody is like them.
As different campers are paired with one another for different shows,
relationships evolve. Vlad begins to take a liking to Ellen, Michael tries
to reconnect with his parents, Fritzi begins working as Jill's gopher, and
Jenna must overcome a wired jaw. As dysfunctional as many of the relationships
seem, nothing compares to Bert Hanley, the washed up choreographer, in charge
of the camp. Hanley's last Broadway hit was 10 years ago and since then, he
has disappeared from the public eye to become a cynical alcoholic. Returning
to camp, Hanley becomes disgruntled and hard-nosed, determined to teach the
kids (referred to as "freaks") a lesson in reality. But after some of his
music winds up in the hands of the kids, it's the kids who end up teaching
him a lesson he'll never forget.
In 1977, Carl and Elsie Samuelson created Stagedoor Manor way up in the Catskill
Mountains (NY) as a summer camp catering to teenagers interested in pursuing
theatrical careers. As the movie details, students go to camp, participate in a set
of weekly auditions, and are cast in a variety of plays that are rehearsed for three
weeks before being performed in front of a live audience. The real camp performs 12
full-scale shows every three weeks in both indoor and outdoor theaters, everything
from musicals to stage plays. Immersed in such an environment with professional
instructors, students are given a chance to have their special "moment" and build
lifelong friendships. This atmosphere quickly caught on and over a period of a few
years, Stagedoor became a hot bed of talent. Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh,
Robert Downey Jr., Mary Stuart Masterson, and "Camp" writer and director, Todd Graff
himself all attended Stagedoor at one point in their lives.
The film takes a lot of inspiration from "Fame," the 1980 classic with Irene Cara,
director Alan Parker, and music by Michael Gore. Gore won the Academy Award for his
musical score and ironically, much of his music can be heard in "Camp" as well. There's
even a tongue-in-cheek quip about "Fame" as the students go through a difficult tap
The screenplay was written about 4 years ago, well before the return of the
musical came about through "Moulin Rouge" and "Chicago." And even more
interesting is how the script was written, almost a no-no in screenwriting
101. Specific songs were selected by Graff as integral parts of the story
without a notion as to whether such songwriters like Stephen Sondheim, The
Rolling Stones, and Burt Bacharach would grant him the permission. Graff
admits: "It was a Hail Mary pass, the whole movie was a Hail Mary pass." But
the gamble paid off as Sondheim and others came through. Oscar winning
composer Michael Gore and Tony Award winning lyricist Lynn Ahrens even
wrote two original songs exclusively for the film.
Thus, it goes without saying that music is the most impressive element in the
film. Because Graff was able to secure the songs he integrated into the script,
the songs carry more meaning - connecting lyrics to characterizations and
situations. It's powerful stuff. Listening to the soundtrack, one can only
remember the trials and tribulations portrayed by amazing talents like Sasha
Allen in the gospel heavy "How Shall I See You Through My Tears" or the
vengeful "The Ladies Who Lunch" by Alana Allen and Anna Kendrick. They
demonstrate incredible range for such young songstresses. Yet, the one
song that captured the potency of the film for me was "Here's Where I Stand,"
a beautiful piece in which Jenna expresses her innermost feelings to her
parents. Removing the braces that lock her jaw shut, Bert tells Jenna: "It's
about time they met their daughter." And Jenna delivers - the song is strong
enough to move one to tears.
The subject matter of the film is interesting all by itself, but Graff takes
it to the next level by breaking a lot of the stereotypes and clich?s of
teenage coming of age stories. These kids aren't interested in sports,
they 're na?ve and openly exploring their sexuality. And they can also be
extremely manipulative and vicious towards one another. But beyond the quips
and perverse dialogue, a film that relies so heavily on music to connect and
make story sense can fall victim to plot foibles. In particular, a little
more than halfway through, the film transforms from something highly innovative
and original into an episode of Dawson's Creek. It becomes more about who slept
with whom instead of concrete character development, resolution, and fulfillment.
Despite a plot that peters out, "Camp" remains one of the summer's most
enjoyable films. It's a musical, it's a comedy, it's a drama, and it's a
whole lotta fun! Contagious and enthusiastic, the film energizes the audience
with an odd assortment of gospel, show tunes, ballads, and duets. And when
the music is silent, it felt good to reminisce about those teenage years, first
loves, adolescence, years when life seemed much simpler and it was easy to
declare: "What I want most of all, is to know what I want" ("Into the Woods"
by Stephen Sondheim).