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The Kindness of Strangers… And Back Again

Photo: Matthew Tyler Priestley

by Lee Roscoe

Claybourne Elder has come a long way from the mountains of Utah where he was brought up, a descendant of an old Mormon family, the youngest of eight siblings, whose great-great-grandfather (also Claybourne Elder) had twelve wives. In fourth grade an orchestra came to town, and the classical music moved him to take up violin. (He also plays ukulele and banjo.) His father was a builder; his mother, a teacher, photographer, and personal essayist, and she inspired him to tell humorous stories. 

He started acting and singing from an early age. Although he knew no one who did it professionally, he always knew he wanted to do it. But he grew up being taught pretty much everything he was, and wanted to do, was bad, not just being gay, but acting – that actors had to do immoral things to be on Broadway. Kicked out of Brigham Young University for being gay, he chanced a trip to New York, putting aside his fears of the big, bad city.

There in a sense he came to embody the famous line, “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers,” as a man who saw him at a standing-room-only Broadway show said he seemed to be enjoying himself more than anyone, and he gave him 200 dollars to see Sweeney Todd, starring Patti LuPone. That was it. Elder says, “It did change my life in a couple of ways. One, in that it was such a weird production and I loved it and it was so strange and I was like, ‘this kind of weird theater is not happening in Utah. I wanna do this stuff.’ And I took it as a sign that this stranger in this city that I thought was supposed to be scary and bad walked up to me and handed me money and did this incredibly kind thing.” 

Photo: Austin Ruffer

This began the turnaround of his take on life. “I thought that what was bad and what was good was really simple when I was young. It’s such a big question.” And that’s what his show, which opens Mark Cortale’s renowned Town Hall Series on July 7, is about: good and evil. His, and our, take on that. 

Later, as his lucky fate and talent would have it, Elder acted in Company with LuPone (and they became friends), and he reconnected with the generous stranger 15 years later, through a photo he had taken of him that fateful night years back, posted on social media. Elder has paid it forward, giving tickets away to strangers himself. Word got out and other strangers started donating money so he could continue to give tickets to yet more strangers. Now his nonprofit, City of Strangers (named for a lyric from a song in Company) has given away tickets to 3,000 people who could not otherwise afford them—young, old, artists, and not.

In the beginning, he says, “I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have an agent, and I just started going to open chorus calls for shows. I did that for months.” Eight months in, almost too tired to bother, he auditioned for Road Show by Stephen Sondheim at the Public Theater. “And they called me back and called me back. And I thought well this is very nice but I’m nobody and I’m never going to get this job. Then the casting director called and said, ‘I don’t know if I should call your agent or manager, but I wanted you to know you got the job.’” Elder thought it was for the understudy, but was gobsmacked when it was for the lead. “I owe a lot to Sondheim for that,” he says.

Since then, his career has taken off. He’s done a ton of film, TV, and theater in the past 16 years. He especially loved playing in Company. And now he is about to film the third HBO season of The Gilded Age in New York and Newport, with many theater friends in the cast, playing John Adams. “The character is an amalgam of several descendants of the [presidential] family. Several were unmarried and one could have been gay,” as is the character he plays. Working with Julian Fellowes, who created Downton Abbey, Elder comments that “in a world where there are ten writers in a writers’ room, Julian writes every single word himself. He really trusts actors; he says they are the caretakers of the characters, and so he wants feedback” to make sure the characters feel right.

Though this is his Town Hall debut, he says, “I was at the Art House last year and had two shows there and such a fantastic time. I’m very excited to be at Town Hall. I’ve seen shows there, and it’s such a great, historic venue.”  He says, “I wanted to write a show that is hopefully very funny but also very vulnerable.” With some gender-bending and some mildly off-color stories and songs (“Not filthy, but PG-13— I get on it”), his show is “half stand up, and half singing.” Songs might be from just about any genre. “One, will definitely be ‘Paving the Runway,’ a lullaby I sing to my son every night.” He’s performed and perfected the show around the country at least 20 times, from San Francisco to Joe’s Pub in New York; it’s sold out – and now he is booked through 2025!

Photo: Matthew Tyler Priestley

Some of his subject matter of course is his life: what it’s like to be married for 11 years to his Jewish producer husband and to be gay parents, and how his own family reacted. “My parents have been so supportive. It wasn’t always easy. But now they really love my husband and my son.” Elder has relished learning about the cultural history of Judaism, while his husband learns about Elder’s heritage—and celebrating all the Mormon, “Christiany,” and Jewish holidays with their soon-to-be-seven-years-old son.

First meeting before marriage was legal, the pair didn’t know how to create a family. “We just said, ‘let’s get started down this road.’” At last, they did a surrogacy. “It took a village. So many people helped us out. People ask me if I think everybody should have kids.” He pauses. “Absolutely not. Please by all means don’t.” He laughs, “But I love it. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the best thing I’ve ever done.”

He has only been to Provincetown and the Cape a few times to perform and visit. With his husband recently becoming artistic director of Cape Playhouse, Elder is really looking forward to living in Dennis for the summer, and taking his son swimming, kayaking, out for ice cream, and to “do all the outside things. The Cape is so beautiful. It’s such a magical place.” And Elder should know about magic. His life seems to be full of it.

Mark Cortale presents the Town Hall debut of Claybourne Elder on Sunday, July 7, 8:30 p.m. at Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St. For tickets ($50 – $150) and information visit This show is part of the Town Hall Series, which is raising funds for Sandy Hook Promise (

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Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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