How a Complete Stranger's Generosity Changed Claybourne Elder's Life ... and Many Others | Playbill

Seth Rudetsky How a Complete Stranger's Generosity Changed Claybourne Elder's Life ... and Many Others

Plus, Seth shares his favorite Jackie Hoffman joke and where you can see him next!

Claybourne Elder Heather Gershonowitz

Hello from beautiful Provincetown!

I’m here with Melissa Errico, who begins her show in a giant pink dress and then turns her look into an homage to Barbie! Here’s a fun pic of us from the show. I will have fabulous videos and even more photos in my next column.

Seth Rudetsky and Melissa Errico Courtesy of Seth Rudetsky

After Ptown, I come back to NYC and then fly to the West Coast, where I’m making an appearance that is part lecture, part interview, and part concert about my book Musical Theatre for Dummies. It will be packed with lots of hilar Broadway stories and videos! Because the JCC has two giant grand pianos, I decided to end my show with my ol’ chestnut, “Rhapsody In Blue.” I just performed it at French Woods Festival of the Arts with their orchestra and members of the Pittsburgh symphony. Here is a clip of the terrifying moment when the first violin’s music went flying off the stand because we were outdoors and it was windy! I used our measures of rest to bend down and hand back the sheet music so we could continue the piece. I’m not saying I deserve a medal, but you do the math!

Come see if a similar emergency happens during “Rhapsody in Blue” at the San Diego JCC!

In last week’s column, I forgot to mention this fun story Mandy Gonzalez told me about her Broadway debut in Dance of the Vampires. Mandy played a young woman under the spell of a vampire played by Michael Crawford, and (spoiler alert) at the very end of the show, she became . . .a vampire! At the moment of conversion, Mandy would turn away from the audience and put specially-made vampire fangs in her mouth and then turn back around, shockingly revealing them! Well, the fangs were just a little longer than regular teeth and, as you probably know, Broadway musicals don’t have close-ups. So, when she would “reveal” the terrifying fangs, everyone past the fifth row would simply wonder, “Wait, what is she smiling about?” Then blackout.

She did, however, get to sing the big Jim Steinman hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” so it’s all good, right?

On Seth Speaks, my SiriusXM talk show, I had Jackie Hoffman on to talk about her new show at Joe’s Pub August 15. I spent the whole interview recounting all of my favorite Jackie stories. 

For instance, she was cast in Hairspray when she was 40 years old and had only worked Off-Broadway, in theatre that was decidedly low budget. When they first put on her wig for one of the three characters she played in Hairspray, she cried that there was no way she could ever do that herself. They explained to her that there would be someone at the show to put her wig on for her. Jackie replied through tears, with disbelief, “Every night?”

Seth Rudetsky and Jackie Hoffman Courtesy of Seth Rudetsky

I’ll also never forget how hilarious she was when she hosted the Artios Awards, which is the awards show for casting directors. She pointed out Bernie Telsey, the casting director for Hairspray, and said, “Bernie, because of you, I have been playing three different roles in Hairspray for the last two years!” Then she said, “And because of the rest of you, I have been playing three different roles in Hairpsray for the last two years.”

(If you can’t understand the joke without the line reading, she was busting the other casting directors for not calling her in for any other job. Hilar!)

Of course, I’m thinking of Jackie because I’m playing the JCC in San Diego. She says that whenever she plays a JCC, there’s always someone in the audience who yells out “Louder!” And, after the show, someone will undoubtedly approach and say, “Can I say something?” which, she claims, is Jewish for “I’m gonna say something!”

One of my absolute favorite Jackie jokes is when she was raging about someone from her childhood calling her when she was one of the stars of The Addams Family on Broadway. He left her a message saying, “Jackie, it’s Mordechai. I heard you’re in a show. I wanna see you in the show. Call me back and tell me how to get tickets to the show.”

Jackie would tell us the message and then yell, “I’m on Broadway! I don’t tell you how to get tickets, you go online, and you buy tickets to the show like everyone else who comes to a show on Broadway!” She continued with, “Do you think Bebe Neuwirth gets calls like that?” Then, in Bebe’s calm, measured voice, she’d go, “Hi, Mordechai. It’s Bebe calling you back. My show has 8 PM performances Tuesdays through Saturdays. There is also a 2 PM matinee on Wednesdays and Saturdays and then a 3 PM matinee on Sundays. You can get tickets at the box office or by contacting And now, Mordechai, I have to go. I have a lot more calls to make.”

I love it!

After Jackie, I had Claybourne Elder on the show—he also has a show coming up at Joe’s Pub that he’s taken around the country. His show is called I Want to Be Evil because he was told when he was growing up as a Mormon (which he is not anymore) that doing New York theatre and having a gay relationship were bad. So basically, everything he truly wanted was “evil.”

Seth Rudetsky and Claybourne Elder Courtesy of Seth Rudetsky

During the interview, he told me that when he was a student at Brigham Young University, someone saw his car in a gay bar parking lot and reported him. He was then kicked out of the school for being gay. After that trauma, Clay went with his then-boyfriend on his first trip to NYC. He got standing-room tickets to Spelling Bee and, afterwards, a man came up to him and told him he looked like he was loving the show even more than the people in the expensive seats. The man told him he should buy two tickets to Sweeney Todd saying it would “change his life.” The man then gave Clay $200! He didn’t want anything in return, but Clay asked if he could at least take a photo. Clay didn’t post it and “tag” him, because this was pre-obsessive social media. Well, Clay went to Sweeney Todd (the 2006 revival with Michael Cerveris, directed by John Doyle), and he flipped out. He had never seen anything so dark and so theatrical. It really did change his life because it made him fully commit to wanting to do theatre, and it disproved what he had learned growing up, that people in big cities, NYC, theatre, or outsiders were not kind. There actually were kind people all around the world.

So, flash forward. Claybourne moves to NYC and gets his first big job. Remember how he wanted to do theatre like Sweeney Todd? AKA a Sondheim musical directed by John Doyle starring Michael Cerveris? Well, Clay got a great role at the Public Theater in Road Show, which was a Sondheim musical directed by John Doyle starring Michael Cerveris! It was that literal! That’s not even the end of the story.

Years later, he got cast in the recent revival of Company, starring Patti LuPone. Company is another Sondheim musical, and Patti was the other star of Sweeney Todd! Even more full circle. Unfortunately, Claybourne got COVID and had to miss two weeks of performances. When he came back, he decided to do what the nice man had done for him years before. He bought two tickets to the show and offered them to someone who needed them. He made the announcement on Instagram, and he got requests from people who wanted the tix, but he also started getting donations from people to buy more tickets. Lots of donations! Clay started doing the ticket giveaways for more and more shows and eventually decided to turn the whole endeavor into an official organization. Patti’s lawyer offered free help so Clay could become a non-profit, and now his group has given away thousands of tickets to people “who can’t afford a Broadway ticket or don’t feel welcome in a Broadway space.” Follow, request, and donate at @CityOfStrangersNYC. Isn’t that great?!

Oh! And the best part is when he first bought those two tickets to give away, he told the story about the man at Spelling Bee on his Instagram and posted that photo of himself with the mysterious stranger. Well, Clay soon got a call from his The Gilded Age cast mate, Douglas Sills, who told him he actually knew the mysterious man! The man’s name is Mark Howell, and he owns an advertising agency in L.A. He and Doug have been friends for decades! Doug arranged a FaceTime call surprising Mark with Claybourne who was, of course, weeping! The whole thing needs to be a Lifetime movie ASAP! Well, as soon as the Writers Guild/SAG-AFTRA strike is settled!

Well, I decided the unsung hero of this story is Doug Sills. I looked for a video of something we’ve done together and found the quartet from the Actors Fund production of On The Twentieth Century, featuring Doug, Brooks Ashmanskas, Brad Oscar, Chris Sieber, Jo Anne Worley, and the late, great Marin Mazzie!


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