More than 20 years into his career on Broadway, E. Clayton Cornelious is just entering his second act. The theatremaker has made his mark on Broadway as a performer—starring in shows such as The Lion King, A Chorus Line, and currently Ain’t Too Proud—but in the 2021-2022 season, Cornelious finds himself taking on his largest role yet: the lead producer of Chicken & Biscuits on Broadway.
As a lead producer, Cornelious has been tasked with shepherding Douglas Lyons’ comedy from paper to patron, supporting the artists creating the work while also supporting the show financially. And then, nightly, he shifts to his life as a performer in the hit Temptation’s musical, where he must be fully present onstage, making the world of another production come to life.
It’s an impressive feat of fortitude and organization, all fueled by the Broadway veteran’s passion for the theatre.
Ahead of Chicken & Biscuits’ closing at the Circle in the Square Theatre on November 28, Cornelious gave Playbill an inside look at how he came to producing two decades into his career, producing in the pandemic, and how he is juggling it all.
With your role as lead producer on Chicken & Biscuits, you are diving into a new territory in your career, more than 20 years after it began. But to go back to the beginning, how did you discover theatre in the first place?
I have wanted to be in theatre ever since I was in 4th grade. I started playing instruments, getting into music in school and singing in the choir, you know, how we usually start. I went through high school and then found the theater bug. I did Li’l Abner as my first musical. And one of the teachers who came to the show saw me in the ensemble—I played a small feature—was like, “Oh, you're really good.” That took me into a whole high school career of doing it.
I've always been sort of eclectic, so I've always done a lot of things. Because I did so many different things, I got accepted to business school, I got accepted to music education at Duke University, and then theatre at Point Park University. I ended up going to Point Park, but left early and came to New York when I was 19. I got my first Broadway show when I was 21 and then I just literally never stopped working. From that point, I just kept going from show to show.
Looking at your resume, it has been, like you said, show after show with Broadway and touring and other contracts. It’s been a long career but up until recently, it has always been as a performer, correct?
Primarily. I mean, being a young Black kid coming into the performing world in the 90s, there was only so much you could do in order to hit the scene. And I got my foot in the door. Back in the day, there were singer calls and then there were dancer calls. You didn't have to do everything. If you were good at one thing, you could get your foot in the door. And I did it all—singing, dancing, and acting—well across the board. But it's been a long road. I started in the ensemble and understudying, and then I was a standby in my first Broadway show. I ended up breaking out in that way because they trusted me. They trusted that I would do the work. That was sort of the beginning of me putting my mark on Broadway, saying “Oh, this guy, E. Clayton Cornelious, he really knows what he's doing.”
You have made your mark on Broadway as a performer, and now you're starting to make your mark in the producing field. When did you first realize you were interesting in producing?
My father is a big entrepreneur and he's a big business guy so I've always been pushed in that way. I guess it starts there. But I was doing the revival of A Chorus Line, and my partner at the time was a makeup artists and worked for Prescriptives. It’s high-end makeup and high-end skincare. And we had this idea: Mac used to be a sponsor on all the shows back in the day, and I had this inkling to call up [A Chorus Line’s] marketing firm and say, “What about Prescriptives being a sponsor on this show rather than it always being Mac?” And they said, “That's great!” And all of a sudden I was scheduling meetings! I had no idea what I was doing! And I called my father, and I asked what do I do? And it goes, “Well, create an LLC and become the liaison." We had been giving them information and doing one-sheets… and I was trying to hide my identity as an actor at the time. I was literally looking up everything that they were asking, trying to just copy and put together the stuff of my own to help this transaction happen. I guess they were impressed, but they were basically like, “How did we get here? Like, how do you know the show” And [finally] I said, “Well, actually, I'm an actor in the show.”
Nothing really ever became of that, but that was sort of my first inkling of ever wanting to participate in producing or even bring a sponsor on a show. I got to go to a lot of meetings, and it was just very interesting. It wasn't until I stepped into the room for Ain’t Too Proud after 23 or 24 years of performing. I walked into the rehearsal room for Ain’t Too Proud, realized what the show was about and the talent and what could come of this show. And I just said, “I need to be an investor on it.” And that was the start of this four or five year journey now.
Can you tell me more about what that spark was with Ain’t Too Proud that specifically made you say "I need to do this right now." A Chorus Line was in 2006 I believe—you've performed in many shows since, but it sounds like there was a crystallizing moment with Ain't Too Proud.
I think I was almost 40, and I was sort of at that transitional point of like, “I don't know if I want to keep performing. I want to do something different.” And my entrepreneurial self was itching. And when I walked into that rehearsal room and saw what we had, I said, "I have to be a part of this in some way." And since I had developed a really close relationship with the cast and with the producers and with everybody who worked on that show, I wasn't afraid to ask questions. My manager, Richard Chambers, is actually a producer himself. He came [to the theatre industry] as an entertainment lawyer and he's a manager, and I'm one of his clients. So he's sort of double dipping his toe as well. And he came up to me after seeing one of the workshops and said, “Oh my God, I need to be on this project as well.” So we kind of helped each other in that way: he doesn't come from the performance side like I do, and I don't come from the business side of the world like he does. So I introduced him to the producers to possibly be a co-producer on the show. And I said, “If you hear about getting in the door, I want to throw some money at this.”
Also, I have a business partner: Pamela Ross. She lives in Vegas, but we met on the First National Tour of The Lion King. We both had that business mind and we vowed to each other if we ever wanted to start a business, that we would connect and invest and produce on Broadway. Well, this was the time. So I called her and I told her about the show and she was like, “I'm in, let's invest in this.” So we put together a production company—EclayRossie Productions—to start investing in shows.
How would you describe the role of lead producer?
The lead producer basically finds the project. They are the creative brain of producing the project and are hired on to partner with the writer or the creator of that project. They are under contract with the creator and your job is to find a platform for that project and to put the show out into the world somehow, whether it be a reading, a workshop, regionally, and being in charge of all the financial aspects of getting that show to that platform.
As well as being financially responsible and finding investors, you also can find co-producers on the show who help you fundraise toward that. But usually, co-pros don't come into play until you get to a bigger platform like Broadway. With regional or any smaller theatres, you're working with an organization to put up the show. And investors invest money into the show.
And with Chicken & Biscuits, this marks your first time lead producing a show rather than investing or co-producing. How did you become the lead producer on this project?
I’ve been with the show for maybe three years now, since 2018. I saw the show in a reading form when they were looking for producers. And I have an eight year relationship and friendship with Douglas Lyons. We were in Beautiful: the Carole King Musical together. Sitting right next to him in the dressing room, he was getting his writing bug as I was getting my investor and producer bug. I've always been in support of Douglas. I think he's fantastic. His brain is insane, and I really loved his hustle and he loved mine.
I always said, “We're going to work together one day and he goes, “We better!” And so I would always go see the stuff that he was sort of pushing out into the world, all the readings and all the wonderful things that he was doing, and when I saw Chicken & Biscuits, I connected with it so much.
Not only is this business is so up-and-down, we're in the age of COVID, and a big part of the job is getting butts in seats. What has it been like for you lead producing during this time?
It gives me agita and I'm stressed daily [laughs]. You know, I'm a very positive person. I really am. And I think that because I am a performer, I love people. I am sort of a chameleon when it comes to sort of getting out and talking to others. And I think that's a great aspect for a producer: being able to talk to all different types of people, being that bright light in people's world. But this COVID is really... Oh, man. We are maneuvering through these hard times. I'm seeing every show struggle in their own way, even hit shows. It's been very difficult.
So instead of just doing this standard Broadway angle with marketing and press, we are directly going out, going to organizations and groups and saying, "Hey, we want to invite you to Chicken & Biscuits.” I made it my personal mission to now go after church groups and invite them personally to the show. I think people need an invitation rather than just seeing something on a billboard or just seeing regular marketing tools. [Covid] has hit everybody's pocket financially, you know. So we can't expect everybody to just flock back into the theatre. We have to come up with other ways of reaching out.
With these personal invitations—welcoming people and communities back into the theater after this challenging period—as you talk to them, why do you tell them people should come see theater during this time?
Especially with our show, that's pretty easy: it's a show that really brings people together. It's a laugh. it's hysterical. But it also teaches you. This show is bringing cultures together, people of all different types of backgrounds together. It hits every possible emotion for people. I know a lot of people who come see the show say [beforehand], “Oh, I didn't know what to think. It looked over the top, and it’s Tyler Perry-esque, and I don't know if it's for me.” Theater is for everybody. It's not just one thing for somebody. And then they would come to see the show and go, “Oh my God, I had no idea it was about this! I enjoyed it! And I laughed and I cried.” That's exactly what we need coming out of this pandemic right now. But also, people can't be afraid to enjoy all types of theatre.
You’re on both sides of the table as a producer and as an actor. How is it juggling both at the same time?
It’s exhausting. [laughs] I already am a person who does a lot of that. I’ll be in a show and being in a scene and thinking about, “Oh, I wonder what the count was for Chicken & Biscuits today.” It’s a lot of juggling, a lot of multitasking. But I think we do that to ourselves as performers. We're always reaching out, we're always going. It's literally driving me mad, but it's a lovely problem to have.
I tell people all the time, “you really have to throw yourself into everything” and that's what I do. I try to throw myself into every situation as much as possible.
For someone who is interested in diving into producing for the first time, what advice would you give them?
Ask questions. Find a mentor. I don’t think he knows this, but Hunter Arnold is a mentor for me. I am just honored that I get to work with him on this project. I get to see him in his element, and I get to hear him in the meetings and I'm absorbing like a sponge. And also, if you're interested in producing, learn every aspect of a show. You should be an investor before you're a producer so that you understand what the investor goes through when you go to people for money and fundraising. Even if it's on a small scale, invest in something.
As Chicken & Biscuits’ journey to Broadway comes to an end, looking at the process as whole, how would you describe your first experience as a lead producer on Broadway?
It has been a thrilling roller coaster of emotions and also very challenging to navigate in these very rough waters and high tides we are living in at the moment. I am receiving an outpouring of love and messages, telling me that no matter what happens that I have to remember that I was a lead producer and made it all happen during the most difficult times Broadway had ever faced. Chicken & Biscuits has great plans coming for the near future. I am saddened but excited for what is next to come. This is only the beginning!
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.