Claybourne Elder: gay Broadway star plays two Bay Area shows

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday February 14, 2023
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Claybourne Elder in a recent performance
Claybourne Elder in a recent performance

In December 2021, Claybourne Elder had just gotten over a case of COVID-19. About to return to his role in the acclaimed Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Company," Elder — who will debut his new cabaret act at the Calmére Estate Winery in Napa on February 19 and bring it to Feinstein's at the Nikko on the 22nd — posted an Instagram story offering a pair of free tickets to a follower who couldn't otherwise afford them.

Claybourne Elder  

That initial gesture has since blossomed into a formal ongoing initiative, City of Strangers, run by Elder and his husband, fellow actor Eric Rosen (The men are fathers to a five-year-old son).

Their fundraising efforts have led to over 2,000 Broadway tickets being purchased and distributed to students, educators, artists, and others.

The founding of City of Strangers generally echoes Elder's instinct to share his successes and support those in need (Two summers ago, he flew to San Francisco with just five days' notice to perform, gratis, at a benefit for the Matthew Shepard Foundation). But the initiative also reflects specific elements of a remarkable Broadway backstory.

Katrina Lenk and Claybourne Elder in 'Company'  

Behind the curtain
In 2006, Claybourne Elder was convinced he had HIV.

After he and his first boyfriend had sex for the first time, they went to the health department in Salt Lake City to get tested. It was more about asserting their identities than about any real medical concern. Elder explained in a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

"I tested negative," he recalled. "But my boyfriend tested positive, and the doctor said that given the circumstances and the incubation period, it was fairly certain that I had it too."

"We were devastated," recalled Elder, who had been raised in a large Mormon family but was later kicked out of Brigham Young University for being gay and stepped away from the church. "But I decided that I was not going to just wallow in misery and let things fall apart. I was going to do things that I'd always wanted to do."

Elder had long been passionate about travel. At age 16, he forged his parents' signatures in successfully applying for a scholarship to study for a semester in France. He spent the subsequent summer with a friend in Moscow.

He'd also always been crazy about theater.

"Mormons love the performing arts and I feel very lucky that they do. Growing up, there wasn't bullying because you liked to sing and dance. And there are certain select musicals that are really popular with Mormons. Of course, shows like 'A Chorus Line,' 'Rent' and 'Hair' are forbidden. But they love 'Les Miz' and 'Phantom' and 'Fiddler.'"

Wait. "Fiddler on the Roof"?

"Yeah," explained Elder. "I don't exactly understand why, but Mormons are very Jew-thusiastic. The community theaters all seem to do 'Fiddler' once every few years."

Claybourne Elder and Blake Ritson in 'The Gilded Age' (HBO)  

And so, the wanderlusting theater geek's stunned, reflexive reaction to his putative HIV diagnosis was to drain his bank account on a pair of plane tickets to New York, a few nights in a cheap hotel room and $20 rush tickets to whatever he and his boyfriend could get their hands on.

Between performances of "Spamalot," "Jersey Boys," and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," Elder was doing research and making phone calls about how to get into experimental drug trials.

The inspiring stranger
The young men's head-spinning escapade became even more so when, out front of the Circle in the Square Theater after "Spelling Bee," a stranger approached them.

"He told us that he'd been watching us take in the show from our standing room seats," Elder recalled, "And that we looked like we were enjoying the show more than anyone else in the theater."

"Then he said he wanted to give us $200 if we would promise to use it the next day to buy tickets to 'Sweeney Todd' and that it would change our lives. I was very suspicious at first. We were having a great time and the guy seemed sincere, but all my life I'd been told that New York was the center of evil, so I felt uncertain."

Claybourne Elder and Mark Howell, in 2022 and 15 years ago  

With a little prodding, Elder accepted, but only after insisting on buying the stranger an ice cream cone in gratitude.

Some kismet-kissed combination of Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris' performances in "Sweeney Todd," an unexpected phone call from their doctor explaining that Elder's boyfriend's test result had been an error, and the whole perspective-shaking experience of that wildest of weeks indeed changed Elder's life.

"Perhaps," he recalled thinking, "New York wasn't so evil after all." Perhaps he could make a good life there, performing in musicals more nuanced and sophisticated than "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and other Latter Day Saintly fare.

Serendipity and Sondheim
In short order, Elder decided to bite the Big Apple full-on, moving to the city and, without any professional representation, going to every open chorus call he could find.

"To 'make it' in New York theater really means having an unlikely crossing of talent and luck," Elder noted, with gratitude. "Everyone at those auditions is talented."

Elder's big break was being cast in the 2008 Public Theatre production of "Road Show," the shape-shifting Sondheim musical that had, in earlier incarnations, been titled "Wise Guys," "Bounce," and "Gold!" That production's leading man? (Cue eerie music): Michael Cerveris.

Having that opportunity to work with Sondheim, director John Doyle and casting director Jordan Thayer made an enormous impact on his career. It means something to be "in that Sondheim club," noted Elder.

Claybourne Elder and husband Eric Rosen with their son  

In the 15 years since "Road Show," he has played roles in Sondheim works including "Do I Hear a Waltz?", "Sunday in the Park with George" (three productions, including understudying Jake Gyllenhaal on Broadway), "Passion," "Sondheim on Sondheim," and, most recently, "Company" with (eerie music again) Patti LuPone.

Full circle
When Elder, who can currently be seen as gay character John Adams in HBO's "The Gilded Age," made his first offer for free "Company" tickets on Instagram, he included not just the story of the giveaway's inspiration, but a photograph taken 15 years prior after that fateful "Spelling Bee" performance.

Shortly after posting, he received a message from a Broadway colleague who recognized Elder's long-ago patron as a friend of his named Mark Howell and set up a Facetime call to introduce the two men. The tearjerking conversation was recorded and has subsequently been broadcast on public radio's This American Life.

In his upcoming cabaret performances, Elder will sing "Something's Coming" from Sondheim's "West Side Story." It's a song that suits the singer almost perfectly; an ode to harbingers, premonitions and, ultimately, optimism.

Claybourne Elder "If the Stars Were Mine," Feb. 19, 3pm. $95 includes wine tasting. Peju's Calmére Estate, 2750 Las Amigas Rd, Napa.|

Feb. 22, 8pm. $65. Feinstein's at the Nikko, 222 Mason St. (866) 663-1063

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