Happy campers

By Kevin Maynard

Originally published on Advocate.com July 08 2003 12:00 AM ET

“I’ll never forget the first summer I worked
as a camp musical director,” says Todd Graff,
reminiscing about his long-ago summer job at Stagedoor
Manor, a performing arts camp in upstate New York. Julie
Shulevitz, 14 and gangly with braces, sang
‘I’m Still Here,’ the defiant Sondheim
showstopper written for a 60-ish ex-showgirl. ‘Good
times and bum times / I’ve seen them all /And
my dear / I’m still here.’ It was so
hilarious,” he says.

That song, along
with other heavyweight show tunes, is even funnier as
restaged by Graff in Camp, his song- and
dance-filled film about preternaturally talented kids at a
drama camp in New York State. Already a hit at the
2003 Sundance Film Festival, Camp opens in theaters
on July 25. It’s set to become the queer
feel-good movie of the summer.

Camp’s underdog appeal is about much more
than the show tunes. Graff’s debut feature turns the
old boy-girl summer-camp movie on its head. Not only
does queer sensibility rule at fictional Camp Ovation
but, blissfully, it’s no big deal.

Handsome, hetero
Vlad (played by Daniel Letterle) is the oddball, because
this camp belongs to all the brilliant misfits we first
loved in high school drama club. There’s
Michael (Robin De Jesus), the gay kid looking for
love, Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), the almost-pretty future fag
hag, and Jenna (Tiffany Taylor), the fat girl whose
parents have wired her mouth shut.

Hilarious though
they may be, Graff’s young actors are never
ridiculous. For one thing, they’re too gifted.
Watching them strut their stuff is one of the
film’s pleasures.

For its openly
gay writer-director, Camp is a labor of love
five years in the making. “Careerwise, I felt no one
else could or should direct this particular story,
because I lived it,” Graff says. But the
43-year-old filmmaker had to fight to get Camp to the big
screen without having his vision homogenized by Hollywood.
(Remember Center Stage? Neither do we.)

“One note
I got was, ‘OK, one of [the main character’s]
friends can be gay, but do three out of four of them
have to be gay? Maybe one of the kids can be a
Trekkie,’ ” Graff recalls.

Eventually
Camp was coproduced by three of the hottest
indie film outfits in show business: Jersey Films (Danny
DeVito’s company), Killer Films (led by queer film
pioneer Christine Vachon), and IFC (Y Tu Mamá
También
, My Big Fat Greek Wedding), which
came aboard for financing and distribution. Also
crucial to the project’s success was out
musical comedy legend Stephen Sondheim, who allowed four of
his songs to be used and even contributed a cameo
appearance.

The casting
process proved just as challenging as getting the green
light. Graff wanted a cast of nonunion professionals in
order to avoid the slick quality that he feels plagues
most of today’s teen movies. “There are
so many, but none of them have kids I recognize,”
says Graff. “She’s All That,
Save the Last Dance—the kids are all
gorgeous and in exactly the same way. None of them
have body issues or sexuality issues. It’s
always, ‘I’m the rich girl and he’s the
poor boy.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, shut
up!’ ”

Camp is a literal musical ode to the kids on
the fringes. When Vlad brings his guitar and brash good
looks to Camp Ovation, he becomes the object of
affection for two other campers: lovelorn ingenue
Ellen and Puerto Rican baby drag queen Michael. While
Vlad tries to sort out whether his feelings for either of
them extend to romance, both Ellen and Michael learn
to accept their burgeoning sexuality and get their
first taste of a summer crush.

Graff saw
hundreds of kids nationwide before casting his leads. His
pick for Vlad, 24-year-old Daniel Letterle, had
already danced in international theater touring
companies. “I always say Daniel is Sean Penn in
a boy-band body,” says Graff. “He can sing, he
can act, he’s a great dancer. The main thing
people are going to get is, he’s the guy all
the little girls will have a crush on. And the little
boys.”

“When I
first read the script, I got that [Vlad] was
androgynous,” says Letterle. “And then
we went back and forth, and Todd said, ‘No,
he’s straight.’ He’s just a
straight guy who could possibly mess around with
Michael. But I think Vlad would do anything for his ego. So
I definitely wouldn’t put it past him.”
Letterle adds with a laugh, “Maybe it’ll
happen in Camp 2, when I’m 30.”

Letterle is
straight in real life, but he also relates to his role as a
jock and closet theater queen. “I played football,
but I enjoyed ‘One’ from A Chorus
Line
,” he says. “I was at the high
school dance from the minute it started until they kicked us
out. That was me.”

After five
grueling callbacks, Graff cast 17-year-old newcomer Robin De
Jesus as the vulnerable Michael. “Robin is
emotionally transparent,” says Graff.
“His emotions are completely available, and
that’s either something you have or you
don’t. For this character, it’s one thing to
say the character is like you; it’s another thing to
convince people that you are being yourself
on-screen.”

For De Jesus, who
has recently come out as bisexual, it was tough enough
to make his professional acting debut in a lead role, let
alone take on a gay character. “My mom was
really freaked out about me doing this role,”
he says. “She was worried people wouldn’t
accept me or they’d make fun of me. In that
sense I am almost going through what Michael is going
through, because I want people to accept me as I am and for
my craft without being criticized.”

De Jesus’s
first scene in Camp packs an emotional wallop. While
attending his prom in full drag, Michael is gay-bashed
by a bunch of high-school bullies. Sadly, he was able
to draw from personal experiences growing up in
Norwalk, Conn. “I remember hearing, ‘Look at
that faggot walk by, that kid’s a
faggot,’ ” De Jesus says. “I always
felt like an outsider. But once I found the music
department at my high school, that totally changed. I
finally fit in. I found my Camp Ovation.”

In scouting
locations for Camp, Graff looked no farther than Stagedoor
Manor in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y., the performing arts training
center where he was once a camper. Filming took place
on a tight 23-day shooting schedule in the late summer
of 2002, and everyone from the cast and crew moved
into the cramped bunk rooms.

For Graff, it was
a welcome return home—even more so because he noticed
some encouraging changes. “Stagedoor Manor
isn’t a gay camp by any stretch, but they
don’t make any weird judgments about it,” he
says. “Boys have boyfriends and summer flings.
All the things that would happen at a regular camp
happen—just [homosexually as well as]
heterosexually.”

Over the years,
Stagedoor Manor has been a breeding ground for
celebrities, including Natalie Portman, Mandy Moore, and Jon
Cryer. As a camp counselor, Graff worked with a
9-year-old Robert Downey Jr. and a 14-year-old
Jennifer Jason Leigh. “Jennifer was just a kid, but
when she limped across the stage in The Glass
Menagerie
, your heart stopped,” says Graff.
“And Robert was such a little horn dog. I was
actually just talking with him on the phone about a
girl he used to like [at camp] named Rhonda.”

Despite growing
up a bona fide Broadway baby, Graff did not fully come
out as a gay man until his early 30s. He was raised in a
theatrical family in Queens, N.Y.; his dad, Jerry, was
Nat King Cole’s musical director, and his
sister Ilene and cousin Randy became actors. By age 16,
Graff was one of the groovy Short Circuits on The
Electric Company
; at 24, he had a Tony award
nomination for his role in the musical Baby. Since
then, he’s had a varied career, moving from
movie character actor (Dominick and Eugene,
Five Corners, The Abyss) to major
Hollywood screenwriter (Used People, Angie,
The Vanishing).

“When I
was at camp, I was Vlad,” says Graff, laughing.
“And now I’m Ellen.” Graff, who
has been with writer Sean Hanley for 12 years,
reflects on why he was a late bloomer. “I thought I
was straight for a big chunk of my life, so I had
girlfriends,” he says. “It wasn’t until
college that I thought, ‘Mmm, let me figure this
out.’ And then I got a little scared by it, and
for another 10 years after college, I was mostly with
women. I mean, obviously there was something I was not ready
to look at.”

Now that the film
is in theaters, Graff’s still in touch with his
Camp charges. “They’re all kind of my
kids, and they think of me as their dad,” he
says. “Like they love me, but [they think],
isn’t it a little sad that I have nothing else in my
life?”

Several Campers
are already making names for themselves. Anna Kendrick,
hilarious in an All About Eve–esque subplot,
recently starred in the New York City Opera production of
A Little Night Music. Sasha Allen, who belts
the film’s rousing opening number, “How Shall
I See You Through My Tears,” made it to the
finals on VH1’s reality series Born to Diva.
And Letterle just nabbed his first TV role,
guest-starring as a rapist on Law & Order: SVU.

Meanwhile, Graff
is at work on another queer-themed project, Tomorrow
Never Knows
, a biopic about gay Beatles
manager Brian Epstein, starring Jude Law.

But even as Graff
and company pursue other projects, they’ll keep Camp
close to their hearts. “It’s the sweetest
thing on earth,” gushes De Jesus. “This
really was Todd’s movie, and he worked with us for
those two months, day in and day out. He gave us so
much. He’s an awesome man, God bless his
soul.”

Graff hopes
Camp will touch young gay people everywhere.
“When I was a kid, there was literally nothing out
there that said you could be young and gay and it
might actually be OK,” Graff muses.
“I’m hoping our movie is another quiver in the
arrow for that battle.”