Claybourne Elder Source: Julian Vankim

EDGE Interview: Claybourne Elder Wants to Be Bad


Editor's note: introduction by managing editor Robert Nesti.

If you watch "The Gilded Age" or were fortunate enough to see "Company" on Broadway, you likely know Claybourne Elder. On the lavish HBO drama, he plays John Adams IV, a relation of the second president of the United States who is having an affair with the reckless scion of an Old Money family. He is often seen hunched in a chair holding a cigarette in a late 19th century version of a gay bar. In "Company" he was far more animated, playing Andy – the himbo Bobbie beds in a hilarious second act scene. "Claybourne Elder, daft and deadpan," wrote Variety in their rave of the gender-turned revival.

Elder also made headlines while in "Company" when he returned an act of kindness that was crucial to him becoming an actor. It was at a performance of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" some 17 years ago that Elder attended on one of his first trips to New York. He was in standing room. When the show ended, a stranger approached him to compliment him on his enthusiasm for the show and handed him $200 with the stipulation Elder see "Sweeney Todd" that night with Patti Lupone.

"I was deciding whether or not I wanted to move to New York," he told People Magazine. "I grew up in Utah, and I was thinking New York is this big, scary city. Having this stranger do this thing is one of the reasons that led me to think like, 'It's going to be okay, and I should move to New York.' "

Jump to 2021. Elder is playing a goofy New York transplant in the hit revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Company" and seeks out his generous patron and give him tickets to see him on Broadway with Patti LuPone. He asked friends on social media ""If you know this guy - let me know. I would love to thank him." It turns out the degrees of separation weren't many and Elder was able to catch up with Mark Howell on a video call along with the friend who knew them both.

"[Claybourne] just started telling the story and said, 'We went to see 'Putnam County Spelling Bee.'' And as soon as he said that, I just said, 'No way,' " Howell told People. "Because I knew exactly who he was."

This led to Elder to start an initiative called "City of Strangers" to provide free tickets to Broadway shows for artists who might not have the means. They have given away over 1,400 tickets and have gained unexpected attention nationally being featured on CBS This Morning and This American Life.

He got his start playing "Hollis Bessemer" in "Road Show," Stephen Sondheim's last musical in its off-Broadway production directed by John Doyle in 2008. Since then he has played major Sondheim roles, including Georges in "Sunday in the Park with George" whom he understudied on Broadway after having played the role in the concert performances in October 2016 at New York City Center.

This week the handsome, buff Elder takes to the stage in his New Orleans debut in his autobiographical show "I Want to be Bad" as part of the Broadway @ NOCCA series, produced by Mark Cortale. He performs on Thursday, April 18th at 7:00pm in NOCCA's Lupin Hall. He will be accompanied by Rodney Bush at the piano. This performance will benefit the NOCCA (the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts) Foundation.

Claybourne has been touring the show since January. The New Orleans date follows the show's recent run in Salt Lake City, which Tyler Hinton from Broadway World wrote: "Claybourne Elder's burnished vocals, gentle manner, and sharp humor combine to create a distinctive experience that feels close to home for Broadway fans in Utah. It's very funny, artistically fulfilling, and emotionally uplifting."

On May 4 he brings the show to the Buck County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania for two shows. (For ticket information, follow this link. And this summer he joins the talented line-up Cortale is bringing to Provincetown's Town Hall with his "Summer 2024 @ Town Hall series. He brings "I Want to be Bad" to the venue on July 7. For more on this date and the series, follow this link.

EDGE spoke to Elder about growing up conservative in Utah, his wanting to be bad, his ticket giveaway org, and life in "The Gilded Age."

EDGE: Tell me a bit about your background.

Claybourne Elder:: I was born and raised in Utah. I'm the youngest of eight kids and I was raised Mormon in a very conservative Mormon community. I was attending BYU when I came out and subsequently was kicked out. I finished my degree and came to New York to be an actor and I've been in New York for 15 years.

EDGE: What was your experience growing up gay in Utah?

Claybourne Elder:: I feel like I had a very lucky experience for two reasons. One is because I have parents who are really incredible and open-minded. For them, it was a simple question "Do we love our kids or not?" The one thing my mother always has said to me is, "I don't really care. I just want you to be a good person." One of my older brothers is gay as well, so I always had kind of a partner in crime even when we were young. We didn't know about each other until college. It felt like there was somebody I was like that made it much easier to grow up.

Growing up in a very conservative community is the same as growing up in a conservative community whether it's in Minnesota or Florida. You are an outsider in a lot of ways, and I experienced some bullying and feelings of just being very different than everyone. I think sometimes it halted my growth and, in some ways, made me grow up faster. I have a complicated relationship with Utah, but I still love it very much.

EDGE: You will be making your NOLA series bow on April 18th for one show only. Tell us about the show.

Claybourne Elder:: The show is called "I Want to Be Bad." The thing about me being bad is pretty funny because I am generally known for being a nice gay, a very nice guy, and a do-gooder. My "bad" is not as bad as most peoples' "bad". So, it's sort of a joke that I'm known as being this kind of 'golly gee willikers goody two shoes' guy. Part of the show is about how I've always wanted to be worse than I really am, but I also have sort of a dark side underneath that people don't know about. It's funny because I've heard is it appropriate, it is mean, or am I going to be offended? It is none of those things. The show is about how I started doing this show right after I finished doing "Company" on Broadway. Being on the road for long periods was not what I wanted to do as a dad. It's much harder to take shows out of town because I don't want to be away from our son. Creating this show was a good way to do something of my own.

When I started writing it, I knew that I wanted to write something that wasn't just another cabaret show. I really wanted to write something meaningful to me, so I wrote the show first and then I added the songs. There's no narrative to it. It's like a standup show where I weave in and out of topics, but it is generally about goodness and my desire to sometimes be badder than I am.

EDGE: If you could be bad, what is something bad you'd want to do?

Claybourne Elder:: That's a great question. I wouldn't steal or hurt anybody's feelings. What's something bad? I guess eat bad things. That's just bad for me. If I did do something bad it would be hard to admit, because I wouldn't want anyone to know.

EDGE: What can people expect when they come to this show?

Claybourne Elder:: Again, when I started writing it, I desired to write something a little more meaningful than just a history of my life and some songs from my career. So, I thought, what are the three things I'm most scared to talk about in front of people? This show is very honest and sometimes very emotional for me because I am going to talk about those things. There will be a lot of laughs. I hope people will laugh. There'll be some very dirty jokes and some very dirty stories I tell about my life and my sex life. In addition to that, some very heartfelt things about my belief system and being a dad. Hopefully, the audience will see something in themselves, learn something, and feel something.

EDGE: As a fan of Sondheim, what are some characters from the Sondheim canon you'd like to play? And some of your favorite of his songs?

Claybourne Elder:: He gave me my first job ever, which was in "Road Show," which was his second to last new musical. My first job ever in New York was working with him every day. And because of that and because I love his work so much, most of the work I've done in my professional career has been his. I've performed in "Passion," "West Side Story," "Sweeney Todd," and "Sunday in the Park with George" four times. There are so many of his songs that I love and there are so many of his songs that I have loved to sing in front of an audience. I love to sing songs that are not meant for a person who looks or sounds like me. To take his songs that were written for women or other characters and reimagine them a little bit is so much fun. I believe he was so great at allowing his work to be reinterpreted, and it's one of my favorite things to do with it.

Ashlie Atkinson, Claybourne Elder and Blake Ritson in a promotional photo for "The Gilded Age"
Source: Facebook

EDGE: What was it like living in "The Gilded Age?"

Claybourne Elder:: It was amazing to be on such a wonderful show. In real life, it was tough, dirty, and smelly. It was very laced up and tight and there were lots of rules. That said, I did a lot of research about the gay and queer communities at that time. In New York City, there was a vibrant gay nightlife that people from the upper classes participated in, but when they started adding the words, "no homosexuals" into some of the laws things suddenly became a little more conservative. For me, there was a lot of exploration and freedom and there weren't as many labels. People didn't have to define themselves. Back then you could have an open interpretation of who you were. By no means did it mean freedom, but some things were more open than we imagined them to be.

EDGE: Are we getting a third season of "The Gilded Age" and will you be returning as John Adams?

Claybourne Elder:: We are getting a third season. They announced it over Christmas, and we will start filming this summer. It was pushed back because of the recent strikes. I'm so excited to be back. I can't wait. During the second season, I was in "Company" on Broadway, so they cut out a lot of my storyline. With this new season, I'm hoping for more of a storyline.

EDGE: Tell us about your organization, "City of Strangers."

Claybourne Elder:: It's one of the stories I tell in my show because it's maybe the craziest thing that's ever happened to me. I started "City of Strangers" to help people who can't afford to go to a Broadway show. We partner with community organizations to bring people into the space who don't always feel welcome. It's a way to get people excited about the theater and give people the chance to do something in their city that they love. To date, we've given away over 3,000 tickets. The tickets are not free. We pay for them. They're all paid for by a stranger. We're not like a ticketing service that's trying to give away tickets to shows that people don't want to see. We are giving away tickets to all the bestselling shows on Broadway.

EDGE: In July, you will kick off Summer 2024's Broadway @ Town Hall in Provincetown. What do you most enjoy about performing there?

Claybourne Elder:: I'm excited about it this summer particularly because my husband just took over the Cape Playhouse. He's the new artistic director. I am very excited to spend all summer as a Cape resident. Last summer, I did my show in Pt
own at the Art House, and it was supposed to be with Seth Rudetsky. On the morning, we went out there, Seth canceled because he got Covid. I did my show by myself, and it sold out both performances and it was great, but I didn't have a chance to bring people in to see it. I am excited to get to do a now-finished version of the show this summer at Town Hall. I love P-Town so much. My favorite thing about the audiences in P-Town is that they are generally the people I'm writing for.

Watch Claybourne Elder perform "Finishing the Hat" from "Sunday in the Park With George:

For more on Claybourne Elder, visit his Instagram page.

For more on "City of Strangers," visit this Instagram page.

For tickets to Claybourne Elder "I Want To Be Bad," April 18 at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), New Orleans,LA. follow this link.

For tickets to Claybourne Elder "I Want To Be Bad," May 4 at the Buck County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania for two shows. (For ticket information, follow this link.

For tickets to Claybourne Elder, "I Want To Be Bad," July 7 at Provincetown's Town Hall, click here.

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