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Happy campers

Happy campers


Queer and straight kids bond in Camp, the all-singing, all-dancing gay feel-good movie of the summer

"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 Mama Tambien, 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."

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

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