Claybourne Elder says Broadway is overrun with Utah actors.
“There are a lot of theater professionals in New York City from Utah — even if they’re not working on Broadway, they’re working — and the business is full of us,” he said. “Some of my friends joke that there’s a ‘Utah theater mafia.’ ”
Elder, who studied at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, is a certified Broadway star after creating lead roles in Frank Wildhorn’s “Bonnie & Clyde” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Road Show.”
Encounters with other Utahns on Broadway are not uncommon, Elder said.
“When I started ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ on Broadway and met my dresser on the first day at the theater, I was shocked to see that it was Jake Fry, an incredibly talented performer who is now one of the best dressers on Broadway,” Elder said. “We made the connection right away, but it wasn’t until opening night when I wrote him a note to let him know that when I was in high school, I saw him star in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ at the SCERA Shell (outdoor amphitheater in Orem) and was blown away. Truly, seeing him perform that summer made me want to be an actor, and there we were working on Broadway side by side.”
Elder also explained that actors in Utah with Broadway as their goal have an advantage.
“Studying theater in Utah was amazing because there are so many talented Utahns,” he said. “People often say to me that something must be in the water in Utah because everyone sings, dances, acts and plays musical instruments. And because there are so many amazing talents in Utah, there is a lot of opportunity for great training.
“Not only did I have amazing professors while studying in Utah, like Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell at the U. and Tim Threlfall at BYU, but I also got a lot of real-world training in the great local theaters, like Hale Centre Theatre.”
However, Elder would agree that two Utahns in a single Broadway cast is a welcome surprise. But given the number of Utahns pursuing New York City careers in the arts, it is more likely than a Monday matinee.
Experienced Utah actors Will Swenson and Keala Settle currently perform alongside each other in “Les Miserables” on Broadway, with Swenson playing Javert and Settle playing Madame Thenardier. (Although in September, Swenson will take a hiatus from “Les Miserables” for the premiere of a new musical, “Bull Durham,” in the lead role of Crash Davis at the prestigious Alliance Theatre.)
Additionally, Utahns Jeffrey Pew and Peter Nelson currently share the stage in “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” which premiered on Broadway in January 2013.
“It’s truly been a joy to have a fellow Utahn in the cast,” Nelson said. “While we were at BYU at the same time, prior to ‘Cinderella,’ Jeff and I had only shared the stage once briefly at Pioneer Theatre Company in ‘A Chorus Line.’ It’s been a rare privilege to have a lot of overlapping history with Jeff from our Utah times and also have our unique journeys and experiences to share. He has organically become a dear friend from our shared moments, old and new.”
Nelson and Pew recently shared their insights on leaping from Utah to Broadway with the Deseret News while backstage at “Cinderella.”
What was most influential about your training in Utah that helped lead you to become a Broadway professional?
Nelson: “It was the well-rounded training from Utah that made it possible for me to transition to Broadway. Utahns have a bounty of music and dance instruction that make this state the perfect training ground for a musical theater performer.”
Pew: “My training at BYU was definitely an integral part of my journey as a performer that has led me to be able to perform on Broadway. Voice lessons, dance classes and acting classes in the Music Dance Theatre program helped shape me into the artist that I am today. Sometimes I wish I could go back and work harder and take it all more seriously, but I suppose I’m doing OK so far.”
When people learn that you studied performance in Utah, how do they respond?
Nelson: “In recent years, the Broadway community has come to recognize the value of a Utah-based training. Utah performers are often easily pinpointed in the community. When I arrived in New York City clean-cut, fresh-pressed and bright-eyed, people said, ‘Of course that kid is from Utah.’ Utahns foster an unmistakable combination of self-discipline, accountability, hard work and enthusiasm. These are worthwhile and natural complements to the rigorous requirements of a Broadway actor.”
Pew: “The program at BYU has a good reputation of producing solid talent. I feel confident putting BYU on my resume and in my bio as the place where I’ve trained. Most people in the industry recognize BYU as a well-respected musical theater program.”
What advice do you have for Utah actors with Broadway aspirations?
Nelson: “Take the time to visit New York City and Broadway multiple times. See performances and the way they are cast, and plan objectively how you would fit into the puzzle that makes a spectacular show. Additionally, consider how your own experiences and ideas can create worthwhile material for the Broadway stage. Utah has terrific regional theaters like Pioneer Theatre Company and the Tuacahn Amphitheatre that hire New York actors. Take these golden opportunities to work with and observe them.”
Pew: “For anyone wanting to pursue a career in show business, I would say, ‘Go to dental school!’ No, I think sticking with it is the biggest key. Don’t move to New York or Los Angeles for six months and then give up if nothing has happened. Stick around. Let people get to know you, and allow time to be your ally. Little by little, casting directors, choreographers, music directors, directors and people in the business will get to know you. And be nice. Nobody wants to work with a jerk.”
Along with Elder, Swenson, Settle, Pew and Nelson, these other Utahns also have recent high-profile professional theater credits.
Talon Ackerman: “Bonnie & Clyde” (opposite Elder) and “Leap of Faith” on Broadway.
Natalie Hill: "Wonderland," "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Grease" on Broadway, Las Vegas company of "Jersey Boys," "The Most Happy Fella" at Goodspeed Opera House
Jeff McLean: “Legally Blonde” first national tour, “Tales of the City” premiere at American Conservatory Theater, “Spamalot” Nevada original cast
Preston Sadleir: Edward Albee’s “Me, Myself & I” off-Broadway premiere, “Next to Normal” first national tour
Danny Stiles: "Leap of Faith" (opposite Ackerman), "Sister Act" and "Wonderland" (opposite Hill) on Broadway, "Parade" and "Li'l Abner" at Musical Theatre Guild
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company