Despite the soaring vocals and elevated rhetoric of “How Shall I See You Through My Tears,” The Gospel at Colonus does not hold out a religious promise of transcending the body or the present moment. In fact, if anyone reigns as God at Camp Ovation, it is the very human composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, whose musicals are prominently featured throughout the film. Michael keeps a framed picture of the composer on his bedside table, and Sondheim even makes a delightfully campy cameo at the end of the movie, when he is attacked by a group of squealing teenage fans as if he were a pop star. It is no wonder that the theater geeks at Camp Ovation connect to Sondheim’s canon; his musicals are sympathetic to alienated outsiders such as the perpetual bachelor Bobby in Company (1970), the vengeful barber Sweeney Todd (1979), and even a community of assassins of the Presidents of the United States in Assassins (1990). The pointillist artist Georges Seurat – protagonist of Sunday in the Park with George (1984) – is particularly akin to Sondheim’s celebrity persona; Sondheim composes what has been criticized as unemotional, academic music on darker themes, stylistically subverting musical theater’s typically hummable hit songs and happy endings. Indeed, Sondheim’s musicals defer the happily ever after to consider what it means to survive when dreams go unfulfilled or fall apart; he gives voice to struggle, suffering, and disillusionment, with the occasional glimmer of hope in human connection and artistic fulfillment. After being critically maligned and underappreciated in his early years, Sondheim has only recently been elevated to the “fucking king of musical theater,” as the avid fan tumblr Fuck Yeah Stephen Sondheim so eloquently puts it.
At Stagedoor Manor, Sondheim is the most frequently produced musical theater writer in their repertoire; kids clamor for the opportunity to play cynical middle-aged married couples, aging Follies girls, and disillusioned fairy tale characters. The Stagedoor ethos is to learn by doing, which sometimes means performing age-inappropriate material – and which makes for one of the campiest aspects of the movie Camp (Rapkin 16). In an audition sequence, an array of female campers performs the showstopping “I’m Still Here” from Follies. These diminutive 10 to 18 year olds sing the role of a diva several times their age with utter conviction. Rather than channel their teenage trauma through angsty, “age-appropriate” rock and roll, these girls pronounce their endurance in a determined musical theater number; they proclaim, “I got through all of last year, and I’m here,” with a whole year of high school marginalization supporting their right to belt out Carlotta’s big number. In a production of Company later that summer, a little girl named Fritzi – who has long attempted to ingratiate herself to the camp’s elite by serving camp favorite Jill – finally steps up to the spotlight. The unexpectedly conniving little diva poisons Jill’s drink and shows up backstage at the opportune moment, ready to take her place for the showstopping “Ladies Who Lunch.” After tugging Jill out of the spotlight, Fritzi commands the stage as the cynical housewife Joanne, a role made iconic by the staunch diva Elaine Stritch; as Fritzi belts, “Rise! Rise! Rise!” at the number’s conclusion, the audience actually begins to rise to its feet, in awe of this “scary little girl” who has finally wrangled her way into a lead role. Attention must be paid.
You guys, Sarah quotes me in her dissertation and I get a little misty eyed. I’m sure that has nothing to do with the glass of red I just finished.