Having spent seven years at a non-theater sleep-away camp before transitioning to working as a camp counselor, Mark Sonnenblick was an ideal candidate to write the catchy-and-comedic songs of Searchlight Pictures’ Theater Camp. Sonnenblick’s camp nickname was Renegade, and there’s no better moniker for someone with aspirations to break highly competitive world of film and Broadway.

Sonnenblick majored in American Studies at Yale before racking up some incredible credits, including being a Emmy and Drama Desk-nominated writer. Sonnenblick, alongside Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, Greatest Showman), wrote the songs for Apple’s holiday musical Spirited.

Sonnenblick was shortlisted for an Oscar for best original song for Spirited. The film, which starred Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, and Octavia Spencer, became the most streamed movie ever on Apple TV+.

In addition to co-writing the original songs for Theater Camp, Sonnenblick co-wrote the score and arranged and produced the soundtrack. The film, starring Ben Platt, Molly Gordon,
Noah Galvin, and Jimmy Tatro, was a critical and audience smash at Sundance.

Sonnenblick spoke to Awards Focus about returning to the familiar camp world of his youth, crafting the songs with this incredible group of collaborators, and witnessing the cast capture the lyrical rhythm and complex choreography amid the short film shoot.

Awards Focus: Tell us a bit about how you got involved in this project?

Mark Sonnenblick: I knew Julia Hammer, one of our incredible producers at Picturestart. She knew my background was in musical theater so she connected me with Ben, Molly, Nick, Noah, who aside from starring in it, wrote the screenplay with Molly and Nick directing. They were all co-writing the songs too, and they’re not only genius musical theater performers but they also understand the genre and canon so, so well. In their script, they had written a hilarious paragraph or two outlining the concept of every song, each of which parodies a kind of classic Broadway style, and I was losing it reading stuff like “cue cocaine.” So it felt like our sensibilities would click—we wrote Women Cannot Read as a kind of trial run and they did.

Awards Focus: Your Oscar-contending song this year is “Camp Isn’t Home” – can you tell us more about the creative development of this project and its role in the film?

Sonnenblick:There was a scene in the script where Rebecca-Diane improvises the big finale for the camp’s musical on the spot. She’s been pretending to write it the entire film and Amos finally calls her out—the kids need to hear it because the show opens the following night. Scrambling, she starts randomly singing words about camp and Snapple and things and it’s absolutely terrible. But when the musical is performed at the end of the movie, those random words have become an anthem—she finished the song and the terrible lyrics have become moving. It’s hilarious but also threads a lot of the story points together.

That setup is a gift because you know it’ll be a fantastic moment if we get it right. But it’s also a puzzle—how do you write something with “bad” lyrics that also says the perfect heartfelt thing for the end of the movie? The other songs had direct musical theater references for the kinds of jokes we wanted to land (Jewish immigrant heys! Wall Street lingo!) but the task here was a little more open ended.

As we wrote it, Molly actually did just start improvising lyrics that Rebecca-Diane might say. And from there we grabbed the lines that could function in both moments, the ones that felt like they actually could sing, and shaped it into a song. We knew if Noah was gonna go off on a wild “but in the glass isn’t alcohol” tangent, the next section had to really lock in, etc.

And of course on set, when Molly filmed that initial Rebecca-Diane scene, the song was already written so she could improvise a version that would set up the polished version at the end.

Awards Focus: This project saw the reunion of many creatives who have worked for years. Who are some of the other Theater Camp creatives who you have worked with before?

Sonnenblick:This was my first time working with everyone—felt very lucky they let me be part of their longtime labor of love!

Awards Focus: Last year, you were Oscar shortlisted for your work on “Spirited” – how did the musical approach for “Theater Camp” compare to this project?

Sonnenblick: Well Spirited was a full blown musical where the songs are integrated into the action—we were writing what the character would actually feel or say in that moment. So the challenge is to write material that rings true to how the characters speak…and also have the songs rhyme/scan/be catchy/etc. Fortunately I was working with Pasek and Paul, who are just beyond brilliant at that.

In Theater Camp, the songs are all from the ridiculous musical-within-the-movie that the kids are performing, so we had more freedom from reality. But they also needed to function on a few levels—like telling Joan’s story in the show so it affects Troy outside the show—and Camp Isn’t Home in particular had to tie a bunch of story points together while also existing within the world of the terrible musical. Just a different task.

Good time to say that we were very lucky to have Bill Sherman and Will Van Dyke as our executive music producers and they helped make everything sound gorgeous. Check out the soundtrack! It has the full versions of all the Joan Still songs.

Oh also the budget of Theater Camp was like 3% of Spirited’s so that also affected how many orchestras we recorded. For Theater Camp it was zero orchestras.

Awards Focus: Tell us more about the kid stars in Theater Camp. How did they do in terms of bringing your songwriting to life?

Sonnenblick: Haha, they were incredible!!! As I think the movie really showcases. You’ll be seeing more of them, in theater and everywhere. They’re all triple threats who learned the music in a weekend, learned the staging for the songs in a week. And I have to give a shout out to incredible choreographer Maud Arnold. The actors performed flawlessly on set and a lot of their vocals are live… honestly couldn’t have dreamed up a better cast.