Besides the subject matter (teenagers at summer camp), the 2005 documentary “Stagedoor”, now available in home video, has other things in common with “Jesus Camp”. Like the budding rightwing evangelists in “Jesus Camp”, the aspiring Broadway performers at the Stagedoor Manor are on a mission. They are fanatically devoted to what is arguably a dead art, namely the classical musical comedies of the 1920s through the 1960s. Of course, between a religious cult devoted to shame, abstinence and the worship of mammon and the U.S. military versus a cult around the songs of Rogers and Hammerstein, there is no contest. One celebrates death while the other celebrates life and love.
“Stagedoor” follows around the young actors as they rehearse shows like “Cats”, “Auntie Mame” or “Annie”. At their performance, in the final week of the summer, casting directors and agents show up to review the talent. The camp has some distinguished alumni, including Natalie Portman, the star of one of the more recent and rather unwatchable “Star Wars” epics.
In interviews, the young performers demonstrate an amazing level of self-awareness. They understand that they are not in sync with their classmates during the school year and often have to endure taunts and beatings for their oddness. When everybody else is listening to 50 Cent or Justin Timberlake, it takes a certain amount of courage to proclaim one’s loyalty to Stephen Sondheim. It is especially difficult if you are gay, as 70 percent of the boys at Stagedoor Manor are estimated to be.
On the home page of Stagedoor Manor, there’s a testimonial by actor/director Todd Graff who probably speaks for all the campers when he says: “I was born at Stagedoor Manor. The camp is like Oz. Your real life is in black-and-white, but the minute you step off the bus everything is in color.”
Maladjustment involves other elements as well. A number of the campers suffer from attention deficit disorder and the film shows them lining up in the morning to take their pills. As Taylor Rabow, one of the featured interviewees, explains, the only time he can only get outside of his ADD symptoms and feel free is when he is “in character” and on the stage. In the closing credits of the film, we discover that Taylor has been shipped off to a military school, ostensibly to be purged of his need to perform. It is also revealed that he still has high hopes to get into a high school for the performing arts.
Indeed, the film that this superb documentary will remind you of is the 1982 “Fame,” a drama based on the lives of students at the High School of the Performing Arts in New York City. By comparison, the real-life participants in “Stagedoor” are a lot less full of themselves and a lot more attractive than their fictional counterparts. As I keep discovering, documentaries are the quintessential medium for the exploration of character, a feature of the classic novels of the past. Today, novels are much more about the exploration of irony and other postmodernist tropes so necessary for marketplace success.
Stagedoor Manor is located in Loch Sheldrake, New York, which is about a 15 minute drive from the Catskill Mountain village I grew up in. The lake is celebrated as a dumping ground for victims of Murder Incorporated, the Jewish professional killers led by Louis Lepke in the 1930s and 40s. Stagedoor Manor appears to be an old hotel that underwent a conversion. Only about a dozen hotels of the perhaps 1000 that flourished in the area still survive, mostly geared to aging Jewish couples that still feel attached to the vacation spot of their youth. Like the Stagedoor Manor, There are probably about a dozen or so hotels that have been converted to other uses, mostly as Hindu ashrams or Zen retreats. They also function as drug rehabilitation centers or halfway houses for retarded adults. Although local businessmen have been trying to figure out how to revive the area for the past 40 years, the one thing that stands in the way is an inability to transcend the narrow, Jewish framework that was its key to success in an earlier age.
“Stagedoor” is a terrific little movie, made on a shoestring budget. This is only the second film by Alexandra Shiva, who is dedicated to shedding light on those who march to the tune of a different drummer. Her 2001 “Bombay Eunuch” dealt with ‘hijras’, who have to deal with castration, poverty, prostitution, HIV, murder, and a caste system.