Arts News

Broadway star Claybourne Elder to perform with the Utah Symphony

And exclusively shares plans to bring his ‘Evil’ cabaret act to SLAC.

“It is just a dream come true,” Claybourne Elder says. “It sounds like hyperbole, but it’s true. To be performing in Utah, for the first time in 15 years, and with this tremendous symphony, really is a dream come true for me.”

The Broadway star and out Utah native is referencing his Abravanel Hall concert with the Utah Symphony’s Holiday Pops Extravaganza on Dec. 15 and 16.

Elder has invited his friend, Broadway actress Sara Jean Ford, to join him for the two-performance event.

“In the show we’ve written, we’re going to share stories, tell jokes, and sing wonderful songs. It’s going to be a really personal, fun evening,” Elder said.

The versatile actor has garnered accolades for performances in professional productions, including most recently in Beauty and the Beast at the prestigious Muny Theatre. According to one reviewer, “The dashing and muscular Clayborne Elder is superb as the cheekily arrogant Gaston. His rich baritone is lush and resonant.”

Other reviewers have called him “handsome and intense,” “tough and tender,” and “stupidly funny as he is drop-dead buff.” See accompanying photo. (There are similar bare-chested photos that prompted Instinct magazine to write that his Instagram followers are “thirsting for more.”)

I was able to enjoy his performance as a himbo flight attendant, wardrobed in only blue briefs, being objectified by the female lead, Tony-winner Katrina Lenk, in the genders-reversed landmark production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, as Andy, a character originally written as April. The Washington Post wrote that he hilariously played the role “with savage acuity.”

He’s been naked in Angels in America, the film Flatbush Luck, and most famously in the post-coital bedroom scene that opens Sondheim’s Tony-winning Passion.

I explain that it’s been great fun to follow his career, beginning with his New York debut at the 2008 Public Theatre’s premiere production in Sondheim’s Road Show, a much anticipated musical because the show was heavily revised and in earlier incarnations had been titled Wise Guys, Bounce, and Gold!
Quite remarkably, it was a lead role he was cast in, without agent representation, at an open call, waiting in line for hours with other nonunion actors, for a brief audition with casting directors. There were frequent callback auditions, but he could never allow himself to believe he’d be cast. But he knew it was serious when Sondheim had joined the show’s management to see him try out for the role.

The opportunity to work with Sondheim and Director John Doyle made an enormous impact on his career. It means something to be “in the Sondheim club,” he says.

Mentioning that I’ve been anticipating seeing in Utah his cabaret act that he’s toured across the county, he gives a (Christmas) gift, allowing me to make an exclusive announcement.

“I want you to be able to include this in your article,” he explains, with me holding my breath. “I’ll be bringing four shows — it’s just me and a piano — to Salt Lake Acting Company, March 21-24, 2024.”

My phone drops, along with my jaw.

“It is this weird cross between stand-up and a one-man show and a cabaret act, so you’ll be able to see me twice in Utah,” he explained.

Five times, I respond. “Deal,” he delights me. “I’ll make sure you’ll have tickets.” (Are you reading this, Cynthia?) Being a theater writer has its rewards.

He’ll be performing the show he’s titled “I Want to Be Evil,” which has been reviewed as a “hilarious, heartfelt, and surprisingly filthy evening” and “a wonderful showcase for his enormous interpretive talents as a singer.”

In the show, Elder reviews — through his favorite music, from Sondheim to the Great American Songbook to Whitney Houston — personal topics, including sex, fatherhood, and being gay in Utah.

“The surprising thing to most people about Utah is how gay it is,” he says. “The gay community in Salt Lake City is huge and thriving and active and incredible. I performed at the Equality Utah Gala in October, and it was one of the most fun events I’ve ever been to anywhere.”

For Elder, being raised gay in Utah, though not without challenges, was a rewarding experience.

“People think, when they learn I’m from Utah, that I was the only gay person I knew. And I’m, no. There are tons of fantastic gay people in Utah. I had bad things happen to me, but I really loved growing up in Utah and being gay — when it wasn’t repressive. It was a relatively safe place to grow up and be gay, and I’m very thankful for that,” he said.

Elder began his studies at BYU, but he transferred to the more welcoming U of U. It was just before he was to be booted from the church-owned university when a love note he thought hidden was photocopied for the Honor Code Office.

He has served as a performing missionary, as Elder Elder, in Nauvoo. He earned his BA at the U. and has starred on Broadway in Bonnie and Clyde, the Sunday in the Park with George revival, and Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song, along with Sondheim on Sondheim at the Hollywood Bowl.

His resume lists significant off-Broadway shows that include Tennessee Williams’ One Arm (Drama Desk Nomination, Best Actor) and in the revivals of Allegro (Lucille Lortel Nomination, Best Actor), Two by Two (with Utah resident Jason Alexander), and Do I Hear a Waltz? He has premiered works by Sondheim, Frank Wildhorn, Bill Finn, and the Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens partnership.

Also, uniquely with other Broadway actors, Elder has become widely known for playing John Adams IV, a respectable son of the presidential Adams family, with a secret male lover, in HBO’s hugely popular The Gilded Age.

At age 16, he forged his parents’ signatures to successfully apply for a scholarship to study for a semester in France. He then spent the subsequent summer with a friend in Moscow and nearly a year backpacking around southeast Asia.

There was always a love for live theater.

“As you know, Utah loves the arts, much more so than in other places,” he says. “I had so many incredible opportunities to perform on the violin and be in community theater shows. It was great to be involved in so many different art forms, all very accessible.”

One of his first principal roles was Billy Ray in On Golden Pond at Springville’s Villa Theatre. The drama famously includes these lines:
The elderly Norman Thayer Jr. to teenaged Billy Ray: “You like that word, don’t you. Bullshit.”
Billy Ray: “Yeah.”
Norman: “It’s a good word.”

Elder has received wide recognition for creating his City of Strangers charity, giving away Broadway tickets to students, educators, and other applicants who would not otherwise be able to afford the expense.

On his first visit to New York City, he was able to purchase standing-room tickets to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. A total stranger, seeing that he was “enjoying the show more than the people in the expensive seats,” gave him and his then-boyfriend $200 if they would promise to use the money the next day to buy tickets to the Sweeney Todd revival, because “it will change your lives.”
His life was changed. The show cemented his aim for a Broadway career.

“I think generally I fall into the do-gooder category of person, probably because I grew up in Utah and grew up learning about service, serving your community and things like that. But I didn’t really set out to have this be a long-term thing. It was just going to give away two tickets this one time,” he said.

More than 3,000 lucky individuals have since been able to enjoy their first Broadway show.

He’s aided in charities, including the Covenant House’s Broadway Sleep Out and Live Out Loud, among others. Elder flew to San Francisco with just five days’ notice to perform, gratis, at a benefit for the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

Elder’s greatest passion is fatherhood. His family consists of his husband Eric Rosen and a red-headed-charmer son — also named Claybourne, a family name, but known as Bo.

It’s a challenge to find balance with their thriving careers, he explains. Eric is an esteemed director, playwright, and producer who was recently named artistic director of the venerated Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Mass., his third career appointment as an artistic director.

With my enthusiasm evident, he relates charming stories in confidence. I listen intently about invited visits to Sondheim’s upstate New York residence near his death in late 2021, Bo palling with the child of one particular Broadway luminary, and fascinating theater-insider tidbits. He laughed heartedly when I share a joke about Young Ambassador members being gay that replaced an obscure reference in Utah Repertory Theater Company’s staging of a musical called Title of Show, with the playwright’s approval. “That is great; that’s the perfect joke about the Young Ambassadors,” he says amid our chuckles. And he allows me to brag about a significant theater-career achievement of my New York City-living son Cooper.

I’d known that Elder is very approachable, but was overwhelmed by his kindness, generosity, and modest responses to me extolling his theater achievements.

And, oh yes. Also about his favorite Christmas. Elder had COVID during the run of Company, so without planning, he sequestered at the couple’s woodsy 1940s home (surprising to him, featured in Architectural Digest) they are renovating in a small Hudson Valley town I can’t reveal. Their unexpected stay extended into Christmas.

“When you’re in a Broadway show at Christmas, it’s fun, but also you’re working the whole time, so you don’t get to really have a big fun Christmas, and that’s fine; you know that going in,” he said. “I’d been spending so much time away from my son to rehearse and put the show together. We got to go to our house upstate and have our Christmas, where we spent 10 days together. And it was really magical.”

“We usually are able to come home to Utah for Christmas because I have a big family. Christmas is usually this big family event. But that year, we had this little Christmas. Our neighbors brought us over a tiny tree they had chopped down for us. We decorated it with popcorn strings because we didn’t have any Christmas decorations there. We had a few presents, but it was a very simple, little Christmas, and I’ll never forget it.”

Welcome back to Utah, Clay. We hope you bring Eric and Bo with you.

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