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Jazz Hands, Everyone!

The story of Stagedoor Manor, where Robert Downey Jr. and Lea Michele honed their chops.

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Robert Downey Jr. at Stagedoor, circa 1976.   

A few years ago, Mickey Rapkin was doing karaoke with a friend who was belting one obscure show tune after another. “How do you know that song?” Rapkin recalls asking. “I did it at Stagedoor,” the friend replied. That’s Stagedoor Manor, the Catskills summer camp that has, since 1975, been cranking out above-the-title stars like Robert Downey Jr., Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jon Cryer, and (you probably knew this was coming) Glees Lea Michele, who skipped out during her final summer because she got the lead in Spring Awakening.

That karaoke night eventually led to Rapkin’s book, Theater Geek. It’s a portrait of a haven (albeit an intimidating and intense haven) where living for musical theater doesn’t mean social exile; it makes you popular. Kids here put on professionalized shows as tough as Sweeney Todd. “It’s really crazy how hard they work. Rehearsing from morning to night—I was exhausted,” say Rapkin, who spent a chunk of a summer there reporting. Casting directors routinely come to end-of-season performances, and repeat campers talk of “being carded”—handed business cards by agents trolling for talent. It’s a more effective launching pad, in its way, than American Idol (which tried to start its own camp a few years ago). In fact, you do wonder, reading this book, whether Stagedoor is actually fun, or whether it’s full of little monsters hell-bent on stardom. Rapkin admits that there’s some outsize careerism—“There are kids who want it; no one is going to tell them no”—but insists that the camp puts talent and ambition in context. During one dinner break, “I was refreshed to hear them talk about The Real Housewives of New Jersey—that could’ve been in any high school.” He pauses. “Though in any other high school you wouldn’t see them re-creating scenes, or a 17-year-old boy doing a spot-on impression of one of the housewives.”

If anything, Stagedoor Manor has found its moment. When it was new, there were fewer than ten performing-arts camps in America; now there are more than 800. High School Musical and its sequels are everywhere, and then there’s the runaway hit Glee. Musical theater is, against all odds, sexy. “When the camp first started, they were giving scholarships to boys” to balance the casting, says Rapkin. “Now they’ve built a wing on the boys’ dorm, and there’s a waiting list.”

Theater Geek
By Mickey Rapkin.
Free Press. $25.


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