E. Clayton Cornelious flew off the Woodland Hills High School stage as "John" in the 1993 production of "Peter Pan."
He landed last Friday back on the same stage, 20 years later, to talk about his successful Broadway career with students in this year's musical production and performing arts class. His credits include six Broadway musicals and eight national tours.
Cornelious was in town last week, performing as "Sweaty Eddie" Souther in "Sister Act" at the Benedum Center. He brought with him to Woodland Hills two of the show's actresses—Diane J. Finlay, who plays "Sister Mary Lazarus," and Lael Van Keuren, who portrays the young nun "Mary Robert"—to add their perspectives on the business.
"This high school made me do what I do," said Cornelious, who also appeared in Woodland Hills' "Lil' Abner" in 1992 and "Annie Get Your Gun" in 1994.
During high school, Cornelious not only worked with Woodland Hills musical director Tom Crone, but participated in Gargaro Productions (Pittsburgh Musical Theatre) before studying theater arts at Point Park University.
"I never really had a problem working in theater," Cornelious said, humbly. "I've pretty much hopped from show to show from the time I was 19 years old."
The actor said while he "went in for everything at first," he also set goals for himself as he began his career.
"I used to have little goals like that: I want to do a Broadway show by the time I'm 21. And I would walk down Broadway and I would go, like I'd pray to God, ok, I'm going to be in next year's season. And then I was in next year's season."
Finlay, who was seated next to Cornelious on stage, added praise for her fellow cast member.
"You've got to remember something," Finlay said. "This man is extremely talented and versatile."
During his career, Cornelious has been an ensemble member, standby, understudy and dance captain. Crone pointed out that, as an understudy for "The Scottsboro Boys," Cornelious never got to actually perform, but had to be ready for many roles, including a female part.
The actor's Broadway credits include "A Chorus Line," "The Music Man" and "The Lion King." He was also in national tours of "Jersey Boys," "Dirty Dancing," "Hairspray," "The Lion King" and "The Wiz." He also portrayed Sammy Davis Jr. in the London production of "The Rat Pack: Live From Vegas!"
While normally he tries to find a way to make a character his own, despite who has played it before, "The Lion King" proved to be a different challenge in that, as the understudy for Simba, he had to make his portrayal just like that of his predecessors.
"It's a machine," he said of the Disney musical productions. "They like it that certain way."
Finlay and Van Keuren shared that they both went directly from high school into acting, though Finlay encouraged Woodland Hills students planning to pursue theater careers to go on to college. Finlay also suggested having something else to do to make money between projects.
After the discussion, the actors took seats in the front row of the auditorium as cast members from this year's production of "Young Frankenstein" took the stage. They offered some instruction and pointers, as well as encouragement, for the performers.
To see a clip of Jordan Potter and DeVaughn Robinson, who portray Frederick and Igor, respectively, perform "Together Again" for Cornelious, Finlay and Van Keurer, click here.
To see Marika Countouris, who is cast as Elizabeth, get some instruction from Cornelious, then perform "Please Don't Touch Me," click here.