It’s a Broadway story that if you saw it in a show or movie you’d think, “Well, that couldn’t happen in real life.” And yet, it really happened to Claybourne Elder…and it changed the course of his life.
Today, Elder, now a star on stage and screen, is in the hit, gender-reversed revival of Sondheim’s Company on Broadway as Andy, the handsome but no-so-bright flight attendant. He is featured in the HBO Max series The Gilded Age. Fifteen years ago, however, Elder was a hopeful actor, and on a visit to New York was only able to afford standing room on Broadway.
As he tells it, “I saw a show, and a stranger walked up to me after the show and said, ‘You looked like you were having such a good time, here’s two hundred dollars, go buy yourself a ticket to Sweeney Todd with Patti LuPone, and that was it.
“He didn’t want anything, and I was like this kid from Utah, and I was ‘uh-okay.’ Can I take a picture with you? So, we took a picture, he said goodbye, and that was it. I went and bought a ticket.” The production starred LuPone and Michael Cerveris, and it was directed by John Doyle.
Fast forward to a move to New York, and in 2008 Elder was cast in the Sondheim musical Road Show, directed by John Doyle and starring Michael Cerveris. So, as Elder explains, “the next time these people worked together, I was in the room with them.” Elder would go on to work with John Doyle again in a revival of Allegro at Classic Stage, for which he received enthusiastic reviews. He would star in the Sondheim show Passion at Signature in Washington, DC, and receive a Drama Desk nomination for his role in the Tennessee Williams play One Arm. And, he adds, there was no way his mysterious benefactor would have ever known how his career had taken off from that chance encounter.
COVID-19 happened, and Elder got sick, and he decided that since he had no way of thanking the man who had given him that gift, when the production resumed, would buy two tickets to Company and give them away on Instagram, which he did. At the same time, he posted the picture from 15 years ago. He picks up the story, “All of a sudden, a guy reaches out to me and says he would like to give me more money so I could buy more tickets to give away. Then my Venmo account got leaked, and all these people were giving me money to buy tickets to give away, and now I’m giving away about 60 tickets to the show.”
As wonderful as that is, the story doesn’t stop there. Elder’s friend, actor Douglas Sills, sees the picture, and contacts Elder saying, “Contact me right away.” Not knowing what the matter might be, he did, and Sills told him, “I know that guy. I can connect you.” From there, a Facetime call put Elder and his benefactor together. “I got to tell him fifteen years ago you walked up to me outside a theater…and he immediately started crying. I started crying, and I got to tell him he actually changed my life. And now because of what he did, 60 people are going to get to see Company for free, people who couldn’t afford theater otherwise. That’s the only stipulation is that you couldn’t afford to go. And now we’re in constant contact, and I’m going to buy him tickets to the show. It’s one of the strangest coincidences, and one of the most heartwarming things that has ever happened to me.”
COVID-19 did stop the production of Company for nearly 18 months, and during that time, Elder got to be home with his husband and his now 4-year-old son. They restored a house, and through a chance through a set of seemingly random events, Elder became a social media food influencer and spokesperson for the Dash brand of kitchen equipment.
Yet he was thrilled to return to Broadway where Company is playing again to packed houses—and with Patti LuPone headlining the cast. And so, it all comes full circle in the kind of story that well, backstage legends are made of.
You can hear my entire conversation with Claybourne Elder, and hear this and many other great stories on the Voice Out Loud Podcast, which you can find on ctvoice.com and on most major podcast networks.