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Camping It Up With ‘Joyful Noise’ Director Todd Graff


“It’s all going to the same playbook over and over,” admits Joyful Noise director Todd Graff. “Not only is it people performing, but performing in competitions and benefits and big final numbers.”

With a filmography that also includes the musical features Bandslam (2009) and CAMP (2003), it is hard to deny the existence of a pattern on the director's resume. Projects that celebrate diversity among young performers have become Graff’s de facto calling card. It's a seemingly natural extension of the career he launched as a pre-teen actor on The Electric Company, the landmark 1970s TV variety show that famously introduced to wider audiences a young—though by no means teenaged—Morgan Freeman.

Back Stage caught up with Mr. Graff in between final sound-mixing sessions for Noise to reflect on the 10 years -- and three seasons of Glee -- since the making of CAMP, and the joys of being “pigeonholed.” (We should all be so lucky.)


Billed as "a comedy about drama" and released to positive reviews but little promotion on the arthouse circuit, CAMP may not have garnered much attention at the box office, but thanks to DVD and frequent airings on IFC, the film steadily earned bona-fide cult favorite status among legions of young performers who could appreciate its spot-on ribbing of the hilariously age-inappropriate repertoire sometimes found in adolescent theater programs.

Case in point: Future Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick marks her film debut by belting a mean, literally scene-stealing version of "Ladies Who Lunch" from Stephen Sondheim's Company. Other CAMP breakouts include Robin DeJesus, who at the time of filming had never been to a Broadway show, but who would later go on to score Tony nominations for his performances in the Broadway productions of In the Heights and La Cage aux Folles.


But perhaps what the film most touchingly captures is the sense of belonging that each of the campers feels while unleashing their inner diva/divo at the fictional "Camp Ovation," an arc not unlike the misfit members of a certain club on a particular FOX TV mega-franchise.

CAMP is based on a real summer camp where I went to and worked at,” reveals Graff, referring to his stint at Stagedoor Manor, a well known Upstate New York theater camp whose famous alumni include Natalie Portman, Zach Braff, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and perhaps to the surprise of no one, Leah Michele. It was during his tenure as a counselor (entrusted with the care of a young Robert Downey, Jr., among others), that Graff truly began to grasp the stockpile of confidence which the camp environment brought out in his brood of aspiring young talent, many of whom were used to getting thrown into their school lockers the other 10 months of the year.

“[Stagedoor] is like Oz for these kids,” he acknowledges; but whereas "Glee is depicting a school where the kids have this haven every single day, CAMP is depicting this place where it's kind of like Brigadoon. It only exists for a couple of months and then they have to go back to their crappy real lives."

While fans of Graff's film can make the case that CAMP and Glee share the same DNA, the director stresses that such comparisons are superficial at best. "I'm a really big Glee fan," he says. "In no way do I feel like you could never have Glee if I didn't make CAMP, that's not it at all. They're both obviously about kids who are in love with performing, and kids who feel like outsiders who don't fit in and face a lot of harassment and persecution in their lives outside of Glee Club or theater camp, but I think that the main difference has to do with what you can do in television and what you can do in a movie. My impression is that the show has covered a lot of the same kinds of emotional territory that we do in CAMP, but our film was an indie produced by Killer Films—it would never meet network standards and practices the way Glee needs to."

If anything, Graff relishes the strong niche afterlife CAMP has enjoyed, likening it to one of those rare original cast recordings his fictional (and real life) campers would salivate over. "There's a really great musical called [title of show], and in it they sing a song that goes 'I'd rather be nine people's first favorite thing than 100 people's ninth favorite thing,' and when I [heard that line] I thought, 'That is CAMP'," Graff says. "For a large percentage of the few people who saw it, it became a very important movie for them, which is very gratifying. They really responded to it and took ownership of it in a way that maybe they don't do for many other movies."

With Joyful Noise as the latest entry in his unofficial "let's put on a show" trilogy, Graff shows no sign of switching genres and dismisses the notion of change simply for the sake of change as he embarks on his next project.

"Some people make Westerns, some people make war movies, some people make horror movies. This is what I do," he says, without the slightest hint of defensiveness. "It's not the only thing I think I could ever do, but I'm very happy doing this. I stopped taking traditional work for hire years ago. I've only done three movies in the last eight years, and even though they're all in the same genre, they're very personal to me, and they are exactly what I mean them to be. My agent said that for my next movie I should be careful and not do another musical because I'll be pigeonholed. I said to him, 'What do you think I am, 25?' I probably only have five more movies in me before I die, so if they're all in this genre, I'll be perfectly happy."

If you are interested in following in Graff's footsteps as a Stagedoor Manor counselor, be sure to check out their upcoming auditions. Click here to read the casting notice at Backstage.com. 

CAMP is available to stream via Netflix. Joyful Noise is in theaters now.

-- Jesse Landberg

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