Molly Gordon and Ben Platt met as children at the Adderley School, a theater studio in Los Angeles that runs after-school programs and summer day camps. There are photos and home videos of them starring opposite each other in some very grown-up shows like “Chicago” and “Damn Yankees.” Two decades later — with the help of the actor-writer Noah Galvin, Platt’s fiancé, and the writer-director Nick Lieberman — they have spun those memories of wonky vibrato, stumbling choreography and an ardent sense of belonging into the feature comedy “Theater Camp,” opening Friday.
Set at the financially rickety establishment of the title, the film bounces among campers and counselors in upstate New York as they work on an ambitious slate of productions: “Cats,” “Damn Yankees,” “The Crucible Jr.” and “Joan Still,” an original musical inspired by the camp’s comatose founder (Amy Sedaris). The movie began as a 2017 short, and after a yearslong struggle for financing (“We wanted to make a mostly improvised movie with children; a lot of people were not down for that,” Gordon said), it was shot last summer in 19 frantic days at an abandoned camp in Warwick, N.Y.
Full of in-jokes (campers barter for bags of Throat Coat tea like they are Schedule I drugs), the movie is also a hymn to all of the outcasts and square pegs who finally find acceptance in a kick line. Theater camp is, as a closing ballad explains, “where every kid picked last in gym finally makes the team.”
Over the years, theater camps around the country have yielded a rich crop of Broadway stars, composers and directors. The movie’s creators and a handful of Broadway veterans who credit camp with shaping their careers spoke with me about community, stage kisses and the transformative effects of “Free to Be You and Me.” These are edited excerpts from the conversations.
Actress (“Booksmart,” “The Bear”)
Memories: At sleepaway camp, I was never a lead. I was always in the chorus — “Zombie Prom,” “West Side Story,” “Chicago.” But I absolutely adored it. I had the classic experience. I could eat all the sugar I wanted. I got to be in completely age-inappropriate shows. I kissed two guys who told me that they were gay the next day. I was just a crazy wild child and so excited to be in that environment.
Actor (“Parade,” “Dear Evan Hansen”)
Camp: The Adderley School
Memories: There’s an independence. You’re forced away from your parents, and you are having to risk embarrassing yourself; you throw yourself into things and fall on your face. It’s healthy failure. For queer kids, like me, it was where I was the most completely embraced, not having to fit a box or semi-pretend to be enjoying certain things. At day camp at Adderley, Molly and I were Adelaide and Sky in “Guys and Dolls.” We were Lola and Joe in “Damn Yankees.” We were Roxie and Billy Flynn in “Chicago.” We were Tracy and Link in “Hairspray.” I was pretty much the queerest Link Larkin. Molly, one of her first kisses was our kiss in that.
Actor (“The Good Doctor,” “Dear Evan Hansen”)
Memories: My first play was “Charlotte’s Web.” My mom tells this really disturbing story of me coming onstage as the gander with my script in my hand, because I was so nervous about forgetting my lines. My mom was like, “I’m not certain that he’s cut out for this.” But it teaches you agency as a young person; it gives you real independence, emotionally and physically. There were kids of all shapes and sizes and gender expressions. I walked into a space and there were 120 like-minded individuals who all want to do “Anything Goes.”
Jason Robert Brown
Composer (“Parade,” “13”)
Camp: French Woods
Memories: I went in thinking I was an actor, but I was also in the rock bands and jazz bands. Fortunately for everyone, actor guy has gone away. I was Pirelli in “Sweeney Todd” and Charley in “Merrily We Roll Along.” In a role I truly should never have been doing, I sang “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” in “Cabaret.” I was able to see this whole world of work. I’m not a happy-ending guy. And if all you see are the most popular shows, you might feel like that’s all there is. Because I got to do all this material that was darker than that, that was stranger than that, I got to say, “Oh, there is a place for the thing I want to do.”
Actress (“In the Heights”)
Camp: French Woods
Memories: It was a miracle. In my own school, I was the only person who really liked theater. Going to this wonderland, where I met other kids who loved this as much as I did gave me a true sense of belonging. I played Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” and Aldonza in “Don Quixote” the same summer. I was 14, singing “Aldonza the Whore” and talking about sleeping around. The way we would root for one another, it was such a joyful experience. Being inspired by the gifts of my peers drove me to work harder. I discovered true happiness in that atmosphere of collaboration and growth. Quite honestly, I’ve been chasing that feeling my entire professional life.
Actress (“To Kill a Mockingbird”)
Camp: Interlochen Arts Camp
Memories: I felt like I had landed in some sort of magical world. We were all talking about what our favorite Sondheim musical was instead of what was playing on the radio. The thing that has kept me in the theater for so long is that sense of belonging. I felt the most like myself when I was at camp. This feeling of wanting to do musicals was something that always felt singular and a little bit lonely, growing up, and then to be with all of these people who were so talented and loved it as much as I did, something clicked into place. Camp made me feel like, “Oh, this could be my profession.”
Director (“The Thanksgiving Play,” “Hadestown”)
Camp: Stagedoor Manor
Memories: I did “The Cell,” where I played a nun who murders a bird or a child or both. I did Arthur Miller’s “Playing for Time.” I played the lead in “Ruthless!” and the evil mother in “Blood Brothers.” We did “Our Town,” and I played the stage manager. A huge profound thing about Stagedoor was it was filled with people who were alienated in their home schools. For queerness of all kinds, it was a haven. And as ambivalent as I am about the strange status games at Stagedoor, I don’t think I would be in theater without it. It nurtured my curiosity. And it began to teach me about taste. I showed up to college a year after leaving Stagedoor and saw my first Wooster Group show, and I was like, “I never want to see another musical again.”
Composer (“Kimberly Akimbo,” “Fun Home”)
Camp: Stagedoor Manor
Memories: I didn’t even know what theater was until I was 18. But it all started at Stagedoor for me. I was a music director and a counselor. I music-directed “Free to Be You and Me.” My friend was directing it, and she wanted new material and that was the first song I ever wrote. I immediately thought, “Oh, this is the missing piece for me.” At that point, I was still a pre-med major at Barnard. After that summer, I did the music major at Columbia. I did that because of Stagedoor. It was just a ticket to a whole different world.