Claybourne Elder's I Want to Be Bad | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly

Claybourne Elder's I Want to Be Bad 

Utah native actor finds comedy (and music) and being a basically decent person

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The title of Claybourne Elder's I Want to Be Bad might suggest a super-risqué theatrical experience, but its creator doesn't want to give a false impression. Indeed, in discussing the show, Elder spends a lot of time clarifying what I Want to Be Bad definitely is not.

There are certainly some assumptions that could be made about what to expect based on Elder's background. Raised in Springville, Utah in the LDS church, Elder subsequently came out as gay, and has found success on Broadway (including the 2021 revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company) and television (including the HBO series The Gilded Age). So naturally, we're looking at a one-man show focused on the gay Mormon experience. Right?

Not so fast. For one thing, Elder balks a bit at the "one-man show" designation, and some of the assumptions that can accompany it. "I'm allergic to that kind of show," Elder says. "They make me very uncomfortable. I have a lot of friends who do them, friends that I love, and they're incredibly talented. But it can feel very egotistical. I did a show a number of years ago, and didn't do a solo show again, because I didn't really like the form."

Instead, Elder describes I Want to Be Bad as something more akin to stand-up comedy, though it also happens to include songs. "When I approached this show, I wrote the script first, then added songs into it that fit," he says. "People who come expecting a cabaret show will be surprised at how much talking I do, and people who come expecting stand-up will be surprised at how much singing there is."

It's also not fundamentally about being a gay Mormon, as it turns out. Elder notes that he was approached by veteran stand-up comedian Lisa Lampanelli to talk about what she saw in the earliest version of the show, and came to a lunch meeting "with 12 pages of handwritten notes," he says. "And we started working together. She really helped me shape the comedy of the piece. I thought this was going to be about a gay Mormon kid. My experience as a gay Mormon really is only a tiny portion of this show. ... I don't think I ever make fun of anything about Mormonism, but I do tell funny stories about things that happen. It will be strange to do [the show] in Utah, where people know, for example what a fast and testimony meeting is."

As for the idea that it's particularly naughty, Elder laughs that the title of the show is kind of a self-aware recognition that "I'm sort of known for being a sort of nice, do-goodery sort of person. I was instilled with really good values because of my family. My 'bad' is not very bad. ... There may be something [in the show] that's a little tiny bit dirty. But people will come to the show and ask, 'Where's the dirty part?'"

Instead, Elder describes the show as essentially warm and heartfelt, dealing with issues like his spiritual journey and how he has conveyed his values to his own son. "Like a lot of stand-up shows, it is thematic," he says. "And it's about goodness—about what it has meant for me to come out, to re-define my belief system as a person, and as a parent."

It might seem easier for Elder to have that positive view of the world, considering the elements of his personal and professional story that almost sound like a fairy tale. Elder has shared in the past a tale about having a stranger gift him a ticket for Sweeney Todd while Elder was visiting New York from Utah, and feeling that this was a sign that he should move to New York and pursue theater full-time; his reunion with that good Samaritan years later became something of a viral news item in early 2022. "I think I would have come to New York, and I would have been actor [even without that event]," Elder says. "That's not what that story is about. That experience, I took it as a sign at the time that this was where I needed to be, and what I needed to be doing. It could have been instead that I opened up a fortune cookie. But I do think that things happen for a reason, and I think we can affect other people."

But Elder also acknowledges that it may be part of his basic personality that he's able to see those positive signs—the part of him that even though his show is somewhat-ironically titled I Want to Be Bad, demonstrates the way he fundamentally sees the world as good. "I think of it as one of the really positive things I got out of growing up Mormon: Listen to the spirit, be open to experiences," he says. "Maybe because of the way I was brought up, I was open to things like that."

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About The Author

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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