Claybourne Elder has been a professional actor in New York for only a few years, but his career has already been studded with milestones. He worked with Stephen Sondheim on his first job in New York, a featured role in Road Show that he got without an agent (he'd learned about the audition from a casting notice he saw at the Equity office). He has since costarred in two new musicals that generated buzz with their regional premieres—the Frank Wildhorn-scored Bonnie & Clyde and Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire's Take Flight—and been a leading man for Kansas City Rep, playing Cliff in Cabaret and Cinderella's Prince in Into the Woods.
Now Elder joins such legends as Marlon Brando and Laurette Taylor by originating a lead role to much acclaim in a Tennessee Williams play. He is starring off-Broadway as Ollie Olsen in One Arm, which director Moisés Kaufman adapted from an unproduced screenplay Williams wrote in the 1960s, based on his own short story. One Arm traces Ollie's journey from the Navy to death row, where he finds himself after being convicted of murder. Once the light heavyweight champion of the Pacific fleet, the beauteous Ollie turns from boxing to hustling—with a mostly male clientele—after he loses an arm in an automobile accident.
In reviews of One Arm, Elder has been lauded for his "simmering performance" (Entertainment Weekly), "considerable charisma" (Backstage) and "endearing sincerity and merciful restraint" (New York Times). But this young man who so poignantly conveys Ollie's melancholy and anguish is actually full of cheer off stage. "I'm a happy-go-lucky Mormon kid from Utah," Clay tells me. He's the youngest of eight siblings in a "yours, mine and ours" family, he says, adding, "I'm one of the ours." None of his siblings pursued performing as a career, although four of them became psychologists. Clay spoke more about his upbringing, his work so far and his current role in an interview with BroadwayWorld.
What have you discovered about One Arm and what it meant to Tennessee Williams?
The short story was published in 1942, and in '67 he wrote the screenplay. He and Elia Kazan planned on [producing] it. There were several drafts in the '60s. In the '70s, interestingly, he and Lanford Wilson collaborated on a screenplay—a totally different version that we didn't draw from. The year before he died, he was making handwritten changes to the screenplay, still trying to get it produced. That's 40 years of his life he was thinking about and working on this project. He said in a letter to Kazan that he thought the film could never be made in the United States, because it was too conservative.
When he was writing the short story in the early '40s, he went to Mexico to write for a while. He was coming back across the border with his trunk, and in his trunk was a stack of manuscripts he'd been writing. When he got his stuff on the other side of Customs, he was looking through the pile of manuscripts and One Arm was missing. He assumed they had taken it because of the subject matter. And he yelled—he tells this story in a letter—and screamed. The quote he said was "This is my life's work, and existence without this manuscript is unthinkable!" They were trying to appease him, they sent him back to the hotel to make sure it hadn't been left there. He decided to look through his trunk again, and he realized he had tucked it underneath, like, some pants somewhere else in his trunk. He was a very flamboyant person in communication, maybe known for hyperbole, sure. But it was that important to him.
So how did you find this perfect role for you in a play that didn't even exist?
Moisés and I had worked together on Into the Woods at Kansas City Rep, and during that time he was working on Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. He knew that I had studied dramaturgy in college, so he and I had some conversations about that piece and just started having some conversations that were really good. And he said to me one day, "I've been working on this Tennessee Williams screenplay for a long time, and I've been thinking about bringing it around again. I think you might be right for the part." It wasn't like: "Here, let's do this project together, kid!" He sent me the short story and the screenplay—I fell in love with them, of course—and a few months later we did a workshop of the play in New York for a week. Now here we are a year later, and it's up at the New Group. It's kind of amazing to me how it appeared out of nowhere.