A Comedy Gift to Musical Geeks

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There’s a specific audience for the movie Theater Camp. It’s demographic who prays every morning in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Patti LuPone for the most important things in life: that the high school theater director will finally listen and produce Songs of a New World instead of Footloose for the spring musical; that they’ll transfer that West End production of Dreamgirls already; and, of course, that they’ll find their community, the people who understand these priorities.

That audience was abundantly present at the film’s Sundance Film Festival premiere Saturday night in Park City, a crowd clearly reared on ritualistic rosary sequences of Our Sondheims followed by three Hail Audras. Directed by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, who co-wrote the largely improvised story with their best friends Ben Platt and Noah Galvin, Theater Camp isn’t so much a love letter to theater geeks as it is the diary of one.

It still can feel like a revelation to learn that the diary isn’t a personal one, but a shared one; that there is a passionate, unabashed population that understands every reference in the film, from the self-important drama club acting techniques to each musical theater song a camper sang in their audition—and why it was an embarrassing choice. We have been every kid at that camp, and, at times, every adult working there.

By the time the film ended, with an uproariously inappropriate original musical for the prepubescent kids performing it (plus Galvin in drag as an alternate version of Amy Sedaris; trust me, it makes sense in context), the applause in the screening was so enthusiastic and so knowing that one wondered if it would mutate to a clap in time to the break down at the end of “Seasons of Love” from Rent.

What Theater Camp hits on so exactly is the lifelong imprint this passion has on this community, in a way that thrills with the same intensity the cast harmony does at the end of the Ragtime title number, for those who get it—and might leave all others blinking clueless and confused. It nails what it feels like to discover this family of people who share this all-consuming infatuation. But it also understands the satisfaction of digging into the nitty gritty of it all—to take it so seriously that it becomes almost alarming, yet also the source of your greatest joy and catharsis.

Maybe the bug caught you young, and you found yourself at a place like AdirondACTS, the upstate New York haven where, in Theater Camp, precocious and preternaturally talented preteens go to belt out Andrew Lloyd Webber songs. Maybe you did some hoofing on the boards of your high school’s stage.

And maybe you’re a grown adult wistful for a time when the promise of a career in the thee-ah-tuh seemed real, and you refuse to let go of it. Or, if you’re a healthy enough person to have done let go, perhaps you still allow yourself the pleasure of absolute musical theater obsession. (Have you debated who was the best Into the Woods Witch with a loved one lately? Just steer clear of a “Best Mama Rose” discussion. Those are known to get bloody.)

Theater Camp portrays a circus tent in the mountains where young kids get to channel their enthusiasm for the performing arts for three glorious weeks, and the counselors who are teaching them get to relive their glory days. But that’s the gag of loving theater. That circus ends up being everywhere, taking place every day. It’s always in town, so send in the clowns.

There are several references it is tempting to make when describing Theater Camp. Glee, of course, for the musical theater geekery of it all. Wet Hot American Summer, for the summer-camp comedy of it all. And there’s Camp, the cult 2003 film about the cutthroat competition, but also beautiful camaraderie that happens in the wonderland of a sleepaway arts intensive. What Theater Camp owes most to, however, are the films of Christopher Guest.

At the beginning of this vérité-style mockumentary, we follow Joan, the owner of AdirondACTS as she recruits for new campers at opening night of Bye Bye Birdie at a school in New Jersey. When she suffers a seizure because of the strobe lights in the play, a title card shows up: The subject of the documentary, Joan, is now in a coma. Filming will continue anyway.

We then head to camp, where Joan’s wannabe business influencer son, an incompetent narcissist named Troy (maestro of young himbos, Jimmy Tatro) takes over.

We start to meet the counselors, including Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) and Amos (Platt), who attended the camp for 11 years before spending the next decade working at it together. (“I thought we were full-time teachers aspiring to be performers,” Amos at one point tells Rebecca-Diane when she admits that she… aspires to leave and actually perform.) Galvin plays Glenn, a third-generation stage manager who harbors dreams of taking the stage himself—which manifest in uproarious fashion in the film’s final act.

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Photo by Tiffany Burke/IndieWire via Getty Images

Troy is clueless about theater. He sees a Playbill and pronounces it Playball. When Glenn goes over the budget with Troy, he explains they’ll have to scrap the summer’s straight plays in order to afford the musicals. Troy doesn’t understand the concept of a straight play. “What would be a gay play?” he asks, as Glenn takes a beat before begrudgingly admitting: “A musical.”

It turns out that it’s not just straight plays that AdirondACTS can no longer afford. The camp is on the verge of foreclosure. Troy’s out of his depth when it comes to figuring out how to help. The counselors have burrowed too deep into the hole of their own self-importance to be useful. There’s a camp to be saved, by a group of people who think a “show must go on” attitude and a dream ballet in the second act is enough to satisfy a creditor.

Orbiting all of this drama are the kids themselves, an inclusive, incredibly gifted, and dedicated cast of young performers who don’t just embody the avatars of all the theater lovers watching them on screen, but nail the specific mockumentary tone: playing to the truth so intensely that the comedic lunacy bursts to the surface.

Theater Camp isn’t necessarily ripping off the Christopher Guest style of observational, improv comedy. In a post-screening Q&A, Gordon, Lieberman, Platt, and Galvin cited the director of movies like Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman, and A Mighty Wind as an inspiration for the kind of film they wanted to create. It’s exciting to think of a new band of creative collaborators who could seize that Guest-ian ethos and style of performing, and interpolate it through their own experiences, inspirations, and relationships.

Platt’s ability to let his frantic anxiousness fizz over into soulful, poignant moments are on fine display here, and Gordon, best known as an actress for her work in Booksmart, shows off new shades of confident kookiness. Galvin has a unique ability to portray a vulnerability that invites an immediate audience impulse to protect and empathize, and then subvert that with an almost menacing unpredictability. There are also hilarious turns by Ayo Edebiri, Patti Harrison, Nathan Lee Graham, Owen Thiele, and Caroline Aaron.

Theater Camp is shrewd about the world it is sending up (though it feels so real, you could just as truthfully say “it is documenting”). The kids need the validation of the adults, and the adults need the adulation of the kids. And everybody needs the healing power of the arts, as bizarre as those arts might be. (In this case, an original musical number called “Women Can’t Read” performed by a cast of children.)

The standing ovations at Sundance prove its appeal to the people who know this world, because they’re a part of that world. When someone who is uninitiated watches, will they be so tickled or charmed? Who knows. And who cares. This is one for us.

As the screening let out on Saturday night, there was a cacophony of conversations with everyone swapping their own war stories about their theatrical backgrounds: Rizzo in Grease in 11th grade! Went to a camp just like AdirondACTS! Have seen Kimberly Akimbo on Broadway six times!

It makes sense that its creative team is a quartet of best friends, two of whom (Gordon and Platt) have known each other since they were three years old, and two of whom (Platt and Galvin) are engaged to be married. Theater Camp is about a lifetime of loving theater. And it’s about the people you have the privilege to love it with.

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