In March 2020, things were looking pretty great for Utah native Claybourne Elder. Not only was he in previews for a Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” but he’d been cast in a big-budget HBO series from the creator of “Downton Abbey.”
And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shutting down both productions.
“I lost my job on Broadway and my television show job at the same time,” he said. “So now finally having ‘The Gilded Age’ come out — it feels like I’ve been waiting forever.”
Claybourne and the rest of the enormous cast of “The Gilded Age” were able to begin filming the series in February 2021, under strict pandemic protocols. He has a recurring role in the HBO series playing John Adams — the great-grandson of the second president of the United States — in 1882 New York. And he stars as Andy in “Company.”
“This probably will never happen again in my life,” he said with a laugh. “I get to be in a Broadway show and on television at the same time.”
Living in ‘The Gilded Age’
Elder, 39, was born and raised in Springville, and said he “always wanted to be in a period television show or film. And then when I started hearing about who else was getting cast in the show — that it was full of Broadway people, I got excited about it.”
The cast of the show, set amid the upper crust of 1880s New York, includes Carrie Coon, Christine Baranski, Morgan Spector, Audra McDonald, Kelli O’Hara, Denée Benton, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Debra Monk and Donna Murphy — who all have all starred on Broadway.
Elder auditioned for a different role, and didn’t hear back. But “months later, they called back and just offered me this role.”
And, Elder said, he can relate to his character: John Adams is a gay man in a secret relationship with Oscar (Blake Ritson), the son of Agness van Rhijn (Baranski) and the cousin of Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson). Oscar is hoping to marry Gladys Russell (Taissa Farmiga), daughter of the robber baron who lives across the street from his mother, for her money, although he had no intention of giving up his relationship with John.
“I think that for any gay person or queer person, we have experienced what it’s like to need to hide in the shadows at some point in our lives,” Elder said. “That’s very easy to connect with, no matter what the time period.”
After he got the role, Elder started doing research and was surprised to discover that “there was such a thriving scene already at this time of gay parties and people, and I’m really glad that it’s something they chose to represent in the show.”
New episodes of “The Gilded Age” air Mondays at 7 p.m. on HBO. All episodes are available on-demand and streaming on HBO Max.
SUU, BYU and the U. of U.
Elder took classes at Southern Utah University and acted with the Utah Shakespeare Festival, then spent a year at Brigham Young University. “I was kind of bounding my way across campuses in Utah and gleaning all the education that I could get,” he said with a laugh.
At BYU, he took any upper-level classes he could in the music and theater department. But to graduate, he was going to have to go back and take a lot of lower-level, required courses. So he left for the University of Utah.
His decision was influenced by the fact that BYU — owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — isn’t exactly gay-friendly. Also, Elder was eager to study with Sydney Cheek O’Donnell, then a professor in the U’s theater department and now its chair.
“I love studying musical theater, but I also was really interested in theater in general and the history and the concepts,” he said. Cheek O’Donnell became “sort of my mentor. I ended up getting a degree in dramaturgy from the University of Utah, which has been infinitely helpful in my career.”
According to Cheek O’Donnell, Elder was “smart as all get out. Just a really keen mind.” She was teaching him dramaturgy and history, and was a bit surprised when she went to see him perform at Hale Center Theater in Orem.
“I was, like, ‘OK. This kid is the full package,” she said. “I mean, he’s very talented as a performer, but also super-smart. And he has a really good head on his shoulders. He’s the real deal.”
His degree is not in performing, it’s in dramaturgy and directing. “Some people call themselves an actor-singer-dancer,” Elder said. “I call myself an actor-dramaturg, because I inform a lot of what I do on history, and I like to do a lot of research and reading and things about my character.”
In 2019, the U.’s College of Fine Arts presented him with its Horizon Award, as a mid-career alum on the rise. “I’m like a proud mama,” Cheek O’Donnell said. “I can’t say enough great things about him.”
Growing up gay in Utah County
Elder said he’s “extremely lucky” he grew up with supportive parents. His mother and father remain strong Latter-day Saints — he says he’s long been agnostic — but his parents and siblings support both him and his next-older brother, who are both gay and married.
In 2012, Claybourne married Eric Rosen, a theater director and playwright. They became parents in 2017, when their son was born through surrogacy.
Elder credits his parents for making it easier to grow up as a not-altogether-closeted gay kid in strongly conservative, overwhelmingly LDS Utah County.
“It’s a community unlike any other in the nation,” he said, “There aren’t a lot of places that are dominated by one religious party.” There were “wonderful things about it that made for a great childhood, combined with the things that made it not a great childhood.”
Not everyone was as accepting as his family. And Elder’s escape was — you guessed it — the theater.
”People say things like, ‘Theater saved my life.’ I don’t know that that’s always true,” he said. “But I will say that from an early age, I started doing community theater. And in Utah, there’s such a thriving community theater life.”
He started out selling concessions at the Villa Playhouse in Springville, and moved on to working backstage doing lights and sound before he started acting. “I was there every night from 15 to 18.”
He was involved with the drama program at Springville High and moved on to the Hale in Orem, where “people made me feel welcome. They made me feel like I had a family. And I was OK. I don’t think I would have experienced that if I hadn’t had that outlet to go to — if all I had was going to school, I’m sure I would have felt like I didn’t connect with people.”
What’s in a name?
Elder is the eighth Claybourne in his family, dating back to a polygamist ancestor who joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1840s, lived for a time in Nauvoo, Illinois, and immigrated to Utah in 1850.
The Claybournes aren’t all in a direct line from father to son, but Elder’s father’s name is also Claybourne. He’s the youngest of eight children in a blended family, so why did his father wait so long to pass on the name?
“My dad said that he worried that it was egotistical to name a son after himself,” Elder said. “He said, though, that when I was born, he just knew that I should be named Claybourne.”
His 4½-year-old son is named Claybourne Rosen-Elder, and nicknamed Bo. “And, technically, my son is named after my father. I mean, yes, he’s named after me, too, and it’s in our family line. But I think of him as being named after my dad,” Elder said.
Elder spent a lot of time at Orem’s Hale Center Theater growing up; one of the other recurring guest stars in “The Gilded Age” is Audra McDonald — who is married to actor Will Swenson, the grandson of Hale Theater founders Nathan and Ruth Hale. Elder and Swenson are longtime friends.
“Actually, this is crazy, but working at ‘Company’ right now, there are four people from Utah in the building,” he said — Elder, two hair people and a dresser. “It’s the most Utahns I’ve ever worked with in a Broadway theater.”
And it’s a little coincidental that he’s on Broadway in a cast that includes Patti LuPone. About 15 years ago, Elder was visiting New York and went to see “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” but he could only afford standing-room-only. “And a man walked up to me afterwards and said, ‘You looked like you were loving the show more than most people. Here’s $200. Go buy a ticket to ‘Sweeney Todd.’ It’ll change your life.’
“I went to see Patti LuPone in ‘Sweeney Todd,’” Elder said. “And now to be working on a Sondheim show on Broadway with her — it is the craziest coincidence of my life. And definitely one of the more moving things that has ever happened to me.”
By the way, the title role in that “Sweeney Todd” revival was played by Michael Cerveris, who appears in “The Gilded Age” as the valet to robber baron George Russell.
Elder himself recently donated tickets to “Company” to those “who could maybe not afford to come to the show otherwise,” which prompted others to do the same.
And Elder finally met the man who gave him that $200 for the ticket 15 years ago. Douglas Sills, who plays the Russells’ chef in “The Gilded Age,” is friends with the man — and he arranged the meeting.
Gender reversal in ‘Company’
A number of the characters in “Company” have switched genders for the current Broadway revival. The original 1970 production, which won six Tonys, was a series of vignettes featuring Robert — including three that paired him with a different lover, including a sort of dumb blonde flight attendant named April.
In the current revival, Robert is now Bobbie (Katrina Lenk), and Elder plays Andy — a sort of dumb blond flight attendant.
“I tell people it takes a really smart person to play dumb,” he said with a laugh. (Notably, actors who have played the part in past revivals, as April, include “30 Rock’s” Jane Krakowski and “Mad Men’s” Christina Hendricks.)
Also, Elder appears in his underwear — which is relatively rare on Broadway. At least for men.
“A play or a TV show or movie in which there’s a fully clothed male and a girl in her underwear is something we see all the time. We don’t often see a fully clothed woman and a guy in his underwear being objectified, sort of,” Elder said. “If you were to set (’Company’) today with the original genders, it would be pretty offensive, I think.
It’s not the first time he’s been on Broadway in his underwear. “There was one time I was in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ when I accidentally didn’t do up my suspenders in a performance,” Elder said.
A humble man
Starring in both a Broadway show and an HBO series is “a singularly crazy accident … that doesn’t happen very often. And it is the culmination of 20 years of work,” Elder said. “I didn’t go to Juilliard” and, he said, nobody thought he would be a “surefire success.”
He arrived in New York without an agent and “didn’t know anyone or anything. I just started going to open calls. Just the fact that I’ve ever been on Broadway is a total miracle to me, let alone in a show that I really think is great.
“There’s no reason I should have made it,” he said with a laugh. “At every turn, and it should have been, like, ‘Oh, you’re just going to end up working at Home Depot. Not that there’s anything wrong with working at Home Depot. But a person with dreams of being an actor oftentimes does not become an actor.”
According to Cheek O’Donnell, Elder’s humility is genuine. “Part of the reason people love him so much is he’s incredibly modest, and very kind, and gives credit to other people a lot,” she said. “He’s one of those people that everyone wants to work with because he’s just a delightful, lovely human.
“It helps that he’s very talented.”
Fatherhood and Family Home Evening
Starring on Broadway and parenting a preschooler requires a good deal of planning and prioritizing, Elder said. He and his son spend time together every day between when Bo gets home and Claybourne has to go to the theater. And between the Wednesday matinee and evening performances, his husband and Bo meet him for dinner and they “hang out between shows.”
“We still have Family Home Evening, because Monday is Broadway’s night off,” Elder said. “We do a good, old-fashioned Utah family home evening — have dinner, play a game, have a treat, talk about things we’re thankful for. It’s our special family night.”
Like virtually every other parent, Elder worries that he’s not doing enough for his son.
“It took me a long time to realize that just because he is not having the childhood that I had, it doesn’t mean he’s not having an amazing childhood,” he said. “Before the pandemic, he was backstage at my Broadway theaters in the dressing rooms, hanging out with stars, crawling around on the floor with people. And he will be backstage again — hanging out, doing his homework, I’m sure — as he grows up. And what a dream that would have been for me. I would have done anything to be backstage at a Broadway theater,” he said.
But he’s determined not to push his son toward a career in the theater.
“I won’t stop him, but the last thing I want him to be as an actor,” Elder said. “We joke that in our house, we’re going to pretend that it’s the town in ‘Footloose’ and there’ll be no dancing and no singing. We’re going to lie to him and tell him that we’re scientists that work at night. Eventually, he’s going to figure it out.”
Re-establishing his Utah roots
When the pandemic hit, Claybourne, Eric and Bo came to Utah to spend the summer, “which was so magical and so great for Bo to be with his grandparents and his family. And now he has a connection to the place as well.
“I love Utah,” Elder said. “Now it doesn’t feel to him like a place we visit. Now when we go home, he runs to my parents’ house. He knows we go to the dinosaur museum and he knows Thanksgiving Point. He knows Utah now, which is great.”
Elder is a New Yorker now, out of necessity — though he also loves the city.
“I could so easily live in Utah if there were things for us to do” professionally, he said. “Unfortunately, I have spent all my career earning a currency in something that exists only in New York.”
And he wants kids in Utah — especially gay kids — to know that it’s possible to build a happy life doing the thing you love, even if you have to move 2,000 miles away to do it.
“You don’t know something’s possible until you see it done,” he said. “I’ve done it. It’s worked out better than I ever thought it would.”
Returning for Season 2?
HBO recently renewed “The Gilded Age” for a second season, and Elder said he would “absolutely” be interested in returning.
He’s not saying if he’ll be back, because he doesn’t know.
“When they cast these things, they say, ‘You’re a recurring character and we want you for multiple seasons.’ But you know that in the eighth episode, you could get hit by a carriage and die.” He joked that could “neither confirm nor deny” whether there’s a carriage headed his way, but quickly added, “that doesn’t happen to me.”
Elder said he anxiously read each script to see what would happen next “because if you’re not a regular character on the show, anything can happen to you. … They’ve definitely expressed interest in me for a second season, which is great, so we will see what happens.”