For months, he pounded the pavement with only a handful of low-paying parts to show for it, and then one morning he decided to sleep in. That's when a friend called to tell him about an audition for Stephen Sondheim's new musical, "Road Show."
"Everything went wrong, from missing my time slot, to someone giving the casting director another actor's head-shot," Elder said. "When they called back to say I got the part, I thought it was a bad joke."
But he did get the part, which earned him an Off-Broadway debut in 2008 as Hollis Bessemer, a money man who becomes enmeshed in the adventurous fates of two brothers in turn-of-the-century America. In the audience one night was playwright and director Moisés Kaufman. Kaufman saw so much promise in Elder's performance that he asked the young actor to read his stage adaptation of Tennessee Williams' story "One Arm."
Like a bonanza following an initial gold strike, Elder secured that role and with it, the attention of theater critics. Writing for The New York Times, theater writer Ben Brantley described Elder's performance of boxer-turned-street-hustler Ollie Olsen as "embodied with endearing sincerity and merciful restraint."
These days, Elder is making his way through rehearsals as Marvin "Buck" Barrow for the upcoming Broadway musical "Bonnie & Clyde," set to open Dec. 1 at Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. Sipping licorice tea for his throat inside the Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan he bought this year, he claims no one would be more surprised at his incredible string of successes than himself.
"It does sound like the stuff of fairy tales," he admits. "It sort of is my fairy tale at least."
In Elder's case, it's also testament to the fact that there's no one route to success in the theater world. Bypassing the University of Utah's noted Actor Training Program for what he calls a "total" study of theater, Elder concentrated on dramaturgy courses within the department, graduating in 2006 with a degree in theater studies.
"Sometimes acting students don't learn how important it is to read a script as a whole, apart from their own roles, and also as something you can analyze and communicate your thoughts on," Elder said. "That's something I got through dramaturgy, and also, I'm sure, one reason Kaufman decided to cast me in the show."
He names U. assistant professor of theater Sydney Cheek-O'Donnell as an important influence. Yet his theater chops were seasoned by extensive travel over the years France as a teenager, Moscow and China in his early 20s. Plus, as he puts it, "a tour of almost every Utah college" until finally earning his degree.
He played bit parts in the Utah Shakespeare Festival while attending Southern Utah University, detoured to Utah Valley University, then studied musical theater for two years at Brigham Young University before landing at the U.
The last of eight children in a blended family, Elder started violin at an early age. His first theater role came at age 14 as Billy in a community theater production of "On Golden Pond" at Springville's Villa Theatre, today known by its historic moniker, Rivoli Theater. Thoroughly bit by the stage bug, Elder said he spent every after-school hour inside the theater's walls, whether it was arranging the lights, building sets, co-directing or even leading the orchestra.
"Everything I ended up doing drew me back to the theater or some aspect of it," he said.
Cheek-O'Donnell remembers him as one of the most engaged students she ever worked with. She still remembers watching his talent take flight as the Beast in Hale Centre Theatre's 2006 production of "Beauty of the Beast."
"Now when I go to dramaturgy seminars everyone talks about working with one of my students," she said. "It's always gratifying to hear. He was one of those students you're sad to see graduate but glad to see go out into the world."
Kaufman, one of New York City's most respected theater professionals who's directed Liev Schreiber, Jane Fonda and Robin Williams, has already tagged Elder "one of the best actors of his generation."
"He is a very smart actor who has incredible instincts and intelligence," Kaufman said in a statement.
It was always Elder's dream to come to New York City to originate a theater role. That he's about to launch his third character, now in a Broadway musical, after already creating characters in works by Stephen Sondheim and Tennesee Williams, is a reality that often takes time to comprehend, he said.
His Utah roots run deep, however. With the historic Rivoli Theater awaiting restoration in Springville, Elder said he plans on launching a fundraiser or two, even from as far afield as New York City, in a bid to save the hometown theater that first housed his passion.
"I'm still a Utah boy," he said. "Couldn't change that if I tried."
On Broadway: Claybourne Elder
Elder will play Marvin "Buck" Barrow in the Broadway production of the musical "Bonnie & Clyde," which opens Dec. 1.
When • Tickets on sale through June 9. Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Performance times beginning Dec. 5: Tuesdays, 7:30 p.m.; Wednesdays, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.
Where • Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St. (between 7th and 8th Avenues), New York City.
Info • $66.50-$226.50. Call 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250 or visit bonnieandclydebroadway.com for more information.