Claybourne Elder Enthuses On His Multiple Collaborations With Stephen Sondheim & Moisés Kaufman

Gil Kaan

Writer, Registered Critic

The Hollywood Bowl will be producing a one-night-only event of SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM to benefit the LA Phil’s flagship program, Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), and other LA Phil educational initiatives. Partaking in this Sondheim songfest on July 23rd will be (in alphabetical order): Lewis Cleale, Sarah Uriarte Berry, Phillip Boykin, Carmen Cusack, Claybourne Elder, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jonathan Groff, Ruthie Ann Miles, Solea Pfeiffer and Vanessa Williams. Amongst this Broadway-star-studded cast, we got the chance to nab the always-working Broadway staple, the talented Claybourne Elder to chat on his extensive theatre resumé, which includes three Sondheim shows and multiple opportunities of performing incredible Stephen Sondheim compositions.
Thank you Claybourne for taking a break from your rehearsals for this interview.
Have you worked with anyone in this show before?
I have! The theatre world can be so small sometimes, I’ve actually worked with almost everyone at some point. Ruthie and I were in a production of TWO BY TWO with Jason Alexander a few years back. Groff and I did a gala for the Public Theatre. Vanessa Williams and I just sang at Lincoln Center together. Plus Carmen, Phillip, Solea, Ruthie and I all worked with our director Sarna Lapine on SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. So it really feels like a reunion!
Which songs would you have on your wish list to sing? Would any be from the three Sondheim shows you’ve already performed in?
I always love singing “Talent” from ROAD SHOW, though it isn’t in this version of SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM. They’ve cut the show down quite a bit from it’s over two-hour original version. So things have been moved around and added, I think it’s a very concise and dynamic evening. I do get to sing “Finishing the Hat” which holds such a special place in my heart.
Was your role as Hollis Bessemer in the world premiere of ROAD SHOW at the Public Theatre in 2008 your first Sondheim show?
It was, and it was my first professional job! I had just gotten my equity card and moved to NYC. I had no agent or anything, and so I went to the open chorus call for the show. They kept calling me back and I kept thinking, “Oh, this is so nice of them, but they’re never going to give me this job.” And then, after several call backs, Sondheim was suddenly in the room, and I thought, “Oh, they’re serious.” John Doyle and Steve really took a chance on me, and I will forever be grateful. So paying tribute to Steve in this show feels wonderful.
There were originally 40-plus Stephen Sondheim songs in SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM. Have you already been given a clue on which songs you’re singing? 
Yes! The really great thing about this show is that we all sing in almost all the musical moments. It’s not just a review with solo after solo. The arrangements and “medleys” (though I kind of hate that word. Ha, ha!) involve many people of the whole company. Steve is really the star of the show and we get to be his voice for the songs he is talking about in the interview sections.
Do you remember the feelings you had being in a world premiere of a Sondheim musical?
I do not. Ha, ha! I was so overwhelmed. I always compare it to those 15-year-old gymnastics Olympians who are just out there doing back flips in front of the whole world, and then suddenly, a decade later, say to themselves, “Oh, my God! I was in the OLYMPICS!” Everyone was so kind and lovely to me that I never felt like I was out of place. Steve treats everyone the same, whether you’re Liza, Barbra, or some kid named Claybourne Elder.
ROAD SHOW‘s “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened” and, originally “Talent” were included in SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM. Which songs did you sing as Hollis?
Both of those were songs I sang! One funny story about “Talent” – rehearsal for ROAD SHOW was full of exploration. We never just showed up and blocked things and ran things like you do in rehearsal. Every day felt like we were all figuring something out together. And unbeknownst to me – or rather unperceived BY me – Steve was changing the key of “Talent” every day to see where he liked it best in my voice. Just little half steps, so I never really noticed. Then one day, we were going along, doing the show and we got to the end of the song and, as I was singing, I thought, “I’m not going to be able to hit the high note at the end of the song,” and I had no idea why. So right before the note, I stopped and said, “Whoa, is this higher?” Everyone laughed and Steve said that we had found the key.
Your working with your INTO THE WOODS director Moisés Kaufman (Kansas City Repertory Theatre 2009 production) must have been most favorable as you teamed up with him again in 2011 in the Tennessee Williams’ ONE ARM. What directorial notes did he give you that has stuck with you throughout your performing career?
Moisés has truly been a champion of my career. He is an incredible man and artist, and I owe as much to him as I do to Steve and John Doyle, so it’s perfect that you bring him up. I actually met him right after I’d been cast in ROAD SHOW when the Public Theatre asked me to sing at a private fundraising event that Moisés attended. This was long before rehearsals for ROAD SHOW started. After the performance, we ended up chatting, and he complemented me on my performance. He said he would like to work with me some day. I sarcastically thought, “Sure you do.” A year later, he cast me in INTO THE WOODS and while we were working together on that, he said that he had been working on a Williams play for a long time and he thought I might be right for the lead character. I read it and fell in love with it and that year we did a workshop which then led to the production.
What I love most about working with Moisés is that he believes deep within his soul that anything is possible. I have heard many times actors or designers say to him, ” Well, obviously, we can’t do that.” To which Moisés responds, “Why not?” It makes you challenge the things you take for granted or decisions you feel like you’ve made and forces you to really open up. I love it. I find it to be the most free and creative way to process and form plays. 

Some actors when they’ve been cast in a role, avoid seeing the role previously performed. Unless you’re cast in an original musical (as you were in ROAD SHOW); odds are, with any Sondheim material, you would have seen a role performed, or, at least, heard a stand-alone Sondheim song. What school of thought do you adhere to: avoid previous interpretations or seek out performances for learning tips?
I think it’s best to know the rules before you break them. So, in that respect, if I get cast in something, I like to watch the videos, go to Lincoln Center archives and watch past performances. But then, once rehearsals are about to start, I put that all away. I essentially try to forget everything I’ve learned, ha, ha! It seems counter-intuitive, but you won’t always forget everything and the things that you absorb will return in some way to your performance. You can’t ever “copy” someone’s performance, because you are you. Not them.
What Sondheim tunes did you perform at last year’s Signature’s annual Sondheim Award Gala?
I sang “Beautiful” from SUNDAY and “Worthy of your Love” from ASSASSINS with Karen Ziemba (who I secretly worship).
Did you also perform at the Gala the year before when they honored James Lapine?
I did! And I sang songs from SUNDAY which we had done that year at Signature.
You were the Soldier and Alex in both recent productions of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE with Jake Gyllenhaal. In a 2014 production, you played George and sang “Finishing the Hat,” “Sunday,” and “Beautiful.” What was it like playing different roles in SUNDAY? Different perspective? Easier the second time as you already knew the show?
I had never played a different part in a musical that I had already done. But in the same manner that I try to forget things I’ve learned previously about a show, this was a whole new production and experience, and so I just put that all away. I did have several moments though the first few weeks of rehearsal where I would hear a music cue and panic a little thinking, “Ah! I should be singing right now!” And realize that it was George’s cue.
Which role in a Sondheim musical would you still love to tackle? And what songs would your character would be singing?
I’m dying to play Bobby (in COMPANY). I wish it every day. I’ve sang “Being Alive” many times before, but getting to sing it in the context of the show would be wonderful.
What words of wisdom has Stephen Sondheim shared with you?
Ha, ha! Well, there are great pieces of advice, and then there are some great stories. “Just sing the words” has always really stuck with me the most. On opening night of SUNDAY IN THE PARK at the Signature in which I was playing George, he sent me a telegram (an actual telegram!) that said “Sing out Louise.” Then while working on SUNDAY on Broadway where I was playing the Soldier, I had decided that make the soldier a little more…how to put this…”light in the loafers” than in previous productions. After a run-through in the theatre, he walked past me and patted me on the shoulder, and said, “It’s getting a little gay, Clay,” and walked away. 
What was your very first audition song and do you still bring it out in a pinch?
I sang “On The Street Where You Live” for one million auditions and I still sing it today. I just love singing the song. Sometimes I get tired of it and I put it away. But it keeps coming back. 
Thank you again, Claybourne! And break a leg at the Hollywood Bowl!
For ticket availability for this one-night benefit performance of SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, log onto

Gil Kaan, a former Managing Editor of the now-defunct Genre magazine, has had the privilege of photographing and interviewing some major divas in his career, including Ann-Margret, Diana Ross, Faye Dunaway, Carol Channing, Shirley MacLaine, Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minnelli, Sandra Bernhard, Anna Nicole Smith, Margaret Cho, and three Catwomen—Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether and Julie Newmar. He had the fortuitous opportunity to conduct Lily Tomlin’s coming out interview. Gil has since reviewed movies and theatre for a number of local and national outlets.
A photo montage of Gil’s Halloween Carnavale photos through the last decade was recently included in the WeHo@ 25 juried exhibition.