Actors live at the intersection of luck, talent, and hard work. At least that’s been the experience for Claybourne Elder BA’06. And he ought to know. This summer, he finished playing a leading role in the five-time Tony Award-winning revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, and he has recently been busy filming season two of HBO’s Emmy-nominated The Gilded Age. “Studying at the U gave me the skills I needed as an actor, but it was up to me to go out there and put them to use,” notes Elder, who was the U’s 2019 Horizon Award recipient from the College of Fine Arts.
What are some of the unexpected challenges of being on Broadway?
It’s both thrilling and exhausting. Lots of people must do their jobs when they’re sick, but in theater you have to do it with a big smile on your face. As an actor, you’re lucky if you’re in a Broadway show every three to four years, though, so you enjoy it while you have it.
What was it like to film The Gilded Age while also being on stage every night?
It was funny to spend the day in 1880s New York and be in a present-day musical on Broadway at night.
On The Gilded Age, my character, John Adams, is part of the wealthy New York elite but has a deep secret: he’s gay. Being gay was still illegal at this time, and so the danger of being discovered was real. He must balance his love and his desire to live an authentic life with obligations to his family and societal pressures. Being a gay man myself, it was easy to draw from my personal experience for this role.
Do you make it back to Utah often?
I love coming back to Utah! When I do, I teach a master class for the acting students because I want them to know that it’s possible. Also, I feel like I am reminded who I was and where I came from, which is always a good thing.
Was being in a Tony Award-winning Sondheim production on Broadway with an absolute legend (Patti Lupone) everything you thought it would be?
When I was a kid, I dreamed of being an actor on Broadway. But to be honest, I never thought it would happen. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who knew anyone who was a professional actor. So I just didn’t know how to make it happen. Studying at the U gave me the skills I needed as an actor, but it was up to me to go out there and put them to use. When I moved to New York, I just started pounding the pavement and going to as many auditions as I possibly could, sometimes two or three a day. I made friends with all the other people auditioning and learned everything from how to do a good audition to where to get a great survival job.
The thing about getting an acting job is that it’s really the intersection of luck and talent. Everyone is talented, but you have to walk in the right room at the right time. I know a lot of incredibly talented people who just never got their break. So, I feel incredibly lucky to be working, and to have been working lately on two projects that I really love.
It sounds like you have grown close with Ms. Lupone.
During the first week of rehearsal, we were all sitting around at lunch chatting and the subject of birthdays came up. I knew that Patti and I had the same birthday, but I played it cool. When she said April 21, I chimed in, “Oh! That’s my birthday, too.” She turned to me, put her hand on my cheek and said, “That means we’re soulmates.” It was amazing. We have become close. We went out to belatedly celebrate our birthdays because COVID interrupted our first plans. She’s also been renovating her house, so we’ve been texting about tile and paint colors. She’s an incredible talent and an incredible person.
Can you talk about the gender reversal with this production of Company? Were you aware of that from the moment of audition? How was that received?
Company was first on Broadway in the 1970s, and though the themes are still relevant, some of the material has aged. The original show was about Bobby, a man turning 35. On his birthday, his married friends get together and try to convince him that it’s time to get married. In our production, the director chose to make the leading character a woman and therefore changed the genders of many of the other characters. It really gave the show new life. It’s a true revival in the sense that it is a total reimagining of the material, which is so thrilling. The concepts about relationships and the joys and challenges of marriage are the same, but those things have very different meanings for a man in 1970 and a woman in 2022.
How difficult is it to balance an extremely active calendar with fatherhood?
The Broadway schedule was brutal—eight shows a week with only one day off. And our workday ended at 11 p.m. Once you get home and wind down it can be 1 or 2 a.m. And you know who doesn’t care what time you went to bed? Your four-year-old son. Broadway shows I’ve done in the past, I sleep in and spend the day resting before my show, but not anymore. Luckily there were lots of parents in our cast to offer advice on being a Broadway parent, and you figure it out. It was wonderful to have him around the theater. He even came to see the show. I sat him in a box so he could move around a little, but he sat through the whole three-hour show.
Tell us more about working on The Gilded Age.
It’s a dream job. The cast is full of theater stars, so coming to set is kind of like going to a family reunion. And [creator/head writer] Julian Fellowes writes such complex people while still allowing for so much interpretation. When we started working on the scripts, he said in the first read, “You must be responsible for your own storyline. Take your story as you see fit.” Usually, writers can be so precious about how they want something played, but Julian is really open and trusts actors.