PITTSBURGH — How E. Clayton Cornelious got Nick Jonas to produce his new Broadway play is a textbook case of how reciprocating kindness can pay dividends down the road.
Over the last two decades, the 44-year-old has been involved with eight Broadway shows and nine national tours. Cornelious’ latest ventures include his on-stage work in the musical “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations” and his first lead producing credit on the play “Chicken & Biscuits.”
He met Jonas and his wife, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, in Cleveland while filming “Jersey Boys Live!,” in which Jonas plays Four Seasons crooner Frankie Valli. Cornelious noticed that Jonas would throw get-togethers for the cast and crew and usually picked up the tab. So he wrote him a small thank you note and included an “expensive chocolate bar” as a token of appreciation.
Cornelious wasn’t sure Jonas had gotten his note until he was invited to dinner with Jonas, his wife and two other “Jersey Boys” actors. During the meal, Chopra Jones thanked Cornelious for the note and mentioned that Jonas had been carrying it around ever since he received it.
“I think that was how I broke the ice with Nick and how he accepted me into his heart,” Cornelious said. “Ever since then, we’ve been close and the whole cast has been close. That’s how I got the closeness to ask Nick and Priyanka to be producers [on ‘Chicken & Biscuits’].”
“Chicken & Biscuits” had the misfortune of opening about two weeks before COVID-19 shut down Broadway in March 2020, Cornelious said, but it restarted this fall at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York City. Unfortunately, a recent COVID outbreak among the cast and crew forced the production to close again. The producers now plan to end its Broadway run on Sunday.
Producing presented a new challenge for Cornelious, who got his start participating in musicals at Woodland Hills High School and studying musical theater at Point Park University. He landed his first stage-acting job when he was 19, his first Broadway show when he was 21 and has been living in New York City ever since.
As a kid who spent two summers performing at Kennywood, Cornelious doesn’t take his Broadway successes for granted.
“To go from taking my costumes home from Kennywood and washing them to performing on Broadway and now overseeing shows as an investor and producer, it’s mind-blowing how a young, Black kid from Rankin is now a lead producer on a Broadway show,” he said.
He’s always been interested in more than acting. In addition to Point Park, he was also accepted to Duquesne University for music education and to Slippery Rock University’s business school. As Cornelious put it, he “has another brain in there” for business and an entrepreneurial side.
FULL TIME PRODUCING
At this point, he’s still performing in “Ain’t Too Proud,” a production he has been working on for almost five years. Cornelious said he’s “losing that fizzle” for acting, though he plans to stick with it until he can move into producing full time. He tried to instill the value of developing interests in other areas of the theater world in a recent talk at Point Park.
“I know for certain just from my experiences of living in New York that our students don’t have the business education,” he said. “We’re not really teaching that on the collegiate level. How do we maintain a business sense throughout our creative career? I really tried to infuse that in my speech.”
His first effort in that space was “Chicken & Biscuits,” a play starring “Jersey Boys” alumnus Michael Urie, Norm Lewis and Cleo King about members of a Black family working out some of their dysfunctions at a funeral. Cornelious said the show is relatable to anyone because it’s ultimately about “families coming together with love and messiness and working out all their stuff.”
It was also a unique Broadway production in that it came from a creative crew that is entirely Black, indigenous and people of color. It served as the Broadway debut of 30 people across all departments, Cornelious said.
“I really want to be a producer that shapes and changes the face of Broadway,” he said. “I now know what we’re lacking. Having to fight over one role at a time, I know we’re lacking diversity and BIPOC stories. We’re starving.”