Claybourne Elder on covering Jake Gyllenhaal and his London cabaret, You and Me and Sondheim

IMG_4101CLAYBOURNE ELDER has just finished portraying the character of the soldier Napoleon in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park With George at the Hudson Theatre on Broadway – the first Sondheim production to ever gross more than $1 million in a single week. The fact that its leading man is Jake Gyllenhaal probably has something to do with its financial success, and Elder had the (unenviable?) task of covering for the Hollywood star.

Just before the show’s final matinee, under the din of the microphone tests – and the technical check for the incredible Chromolume light show invention that appears in Act II – Craig Glenday spoke to Elder about his experience on the musical, his history with Sondheim, and also his upcoming visit to London for a sold-out one-night-only cabaret entitled You and Me and Sondheim, scheduled for Sunday 30 April at Above the Arts in London’s West End.

You’ve reached your last performance of Sunday in the Park With George. How’s it all been?

It’s been fantastic. They invited us to do a one-night performance of this show back in November and said: “Look, it’s one night, there’s no way it’s going to go anywhere. Just enjoy the one night you’re going to have.” Then that basically extended into five performances and then in December they called really last minute and said to all of us: “Please tell us that your schedule is free for the spring. We want to put it up on Broadway for a short run.”

It’s the shortest planned run on Broadway of a musical ever. It’s only ten weeks, but that’s truly all they could get out of everybody’s schedules, and out of the theatre. So it just feels sort of magical, and we’re so lucky that we get to do it. It’s also my favourite show of all time, so just to get to do it on Broadway – and to get to do a cast album of it – is so exciting.

How did you get the job? Did you have to go through the regular audition process or were you invited to join?

I was just asked. I’ve played George twice before, in the Signature Theatre in Washington D.C. and then at the Kansas City Rep in Missouri. Steve [Sondheim] and James [Lapine] had known that I’d done it and they’d seen the video of it. They needed somebody who could stand by for Jake. Because I knew it so well, they were like: “Clay! Clay can do it because he knows it.” They just called and asked and I was like: “Yeah, sure.”

How is it understudying for Jake? Have you been on as George?

Gosh, understudying a movie star is so stressful! I haven’t gone on, and if I had gone on, it would probably be the worst day of my life because everybody comes to see a big movie star and I’d be like: “But I’m here!” Thankfully I’ve gotten to do it during the run in understudy rehearsals and stuff during the day, which has been fun.

C-X9khEUIAAYQU8Is there any chance of this production coming to London? The Hudson is an ATG theatre, isn’t it?

There were rumblings of that. Last night I was chatting with Jake and he mentioned that there was talk of it happening and they were figuring things out.

We filmed it for the Lincoln Center Archives a few days ago, and last night they filmed a really high-quality version with six cameras. These beautiful cinematic cameras came in to film. So if they want B-roll, it seems like there’s a good chance they’ll want to move it some place

In the meantime, you’re coming to London for cabaret. Tell us about You and Me and Sondheim…

Yes! I’m so excited. I first did this show a couple of years ago. I’ve done so much work on Sondheim shows, and I keep getting asked to do Sondheim things, so I talked to Steve about putting together a Sondheim cabaret. He said: “Mmm, you’re ridiculous, but all right.” And I was coming to London because it’s my 35th birthday. It was yesterday…

Happy birthday. You don’t look 35!

Thank you! So, I was coming to town and I wrote my friend Josh Boyd-Rochford an email and just said: “Hey, this is a ridiculous idea, but I’d love to do my show while I’m there. Do you think we could pull it off? With like three weeks notice?” And he sent me an email right away, and replied: ”“Let me check on some things and I will email you right back.” So, we put it up and we’re doing it for one night, just one performance.

What’s the idea behind the show?

I guess it’s about my life and my career surrounding all the Sondheim shows I’ve done, which basically have marked the big points in my career. My debut in the professional theatre was as Tony in West Side Story, Road Show was my first professional job in New York, and now I’m doing this on Broadway. So it’s these and all the shows in between that I’ve worked on. Lots of stories… lots of funny Stephen Sondheim stories. Then there’s some other music in the midst of it as well.

It says in the promotional material that you’re a Mormon…?

No, but I was raised Mormon. Then I married a man! The family weren’t crazy about that! But yeah, raised a Mormon. It’s funny…weird… I have three gay brothers. We’re like a big, gay clan!

Have the family been supportive? Have they come to see you here?

They have, they’ve all come.

ClayElder-724x1024Tell us about Sondheim. You’ve got quite a bit of history with him…

When I first worked with him, on Road Show, I was so young. I wasn’’t a teenager, but I was young in my career. I compare it to those young gymnasts – you know, those 13-year-old Chinese gymnasts that are in the Olympics and they’re doing back flips and then 10 years down the road, they look back and are like: “Oh my God, I was in the Olympics!?” That’s sort of what it felt like. It felt like: “Oh, this is how it goes. Stephen Sondheim’s there every day and he gives you notes. He hangs out.”

What are Sondheim’s notes like? Those would be interesting to see. 

You know, mostly on Road Show he would come up and sing his notes to me. And I would think: “I need a recorder, give me two seconds, please!” But also, I have a couple of notes that he’s written me. He sends a lot of handwritten notes, that he mails. So I’ve kept all of those, just because they’re sweet things. He’s gruff, but thoughtful.

How was it performing in a new original Sondheim musical? How did that feel, knowing that you were creating a character for the first time?

I remember listening to the cast album of Bounce [an earlier version of what became Road Show] as a senior in high school, and loving it and memorising every word of it. Then to imagine that I was the next person to do it and record it was really crazy. I don’t come from a family of performers – I grew up on a farm in Utah. Just the fact that I’m here and on Broadway is totally insane.

How did you get here then?

I know, exactly! How? That’s what I’ll tell you in my show! I just feel insanely lucky. People like [Road Show director] John Doyle took a huge chance on me. I owe him a lot for that. That’s sort of what put me out there professionally here.

Have you seen John Doyle’s Pacific Overtures yet?

No, but I’ve heard it’s beautiful. I’ll be seeing it once it opens, in May, I think. I did a gala for CSC [Classic Stage Company, who are staging the production] a few months ago where Steve and John Weidman talked about making the show, and then we sang some songs from it. Listening to them talk about making it, it was like: “I can’t believe you guys did this.” It’s such a strange concept for a musical. But I really love the music. I’ve never seen it before, so I’m really excited to see it.

What’s next for you?

That’s a great question! I’m having a baby in August, so that’s sort of my next job. I talk about that in the show too – the insane process of what that’s like to go through a surrogacy and have a baby.



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