Broadway star reunites with stranger who gave him free tickets to a show 15 years ago

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Fifteen years ago, Claybourne Elder was a twentysomething from Utah, standing in the back of a Broadway theater watching "Putnam County Spelling Bee," when a random act of kindness opened up a door to new possibilities.

"This man and woman came up to me and said, 'Hey, are you from out of town?' And I said, 'Yeah, I'm just here visiting.' And the man handed me $200 and said, 'You looked like you were having more fun than the people in the expensive seats. Go buy yourself a ticket to 'Sweeney Todd' tomorrow. It'll change your life,'" Elder told CBS News correspondent Vladimir Duthiers.

Elder never got the man's name — just $200 and a photo.

"When I got the money, I was like, 'Wow, I'm really, I'm, like, really poor. I could use this for a lot of other things,'" he said.

Elder had never seen "Sweeney Todd," so he bought "a great seat" in the mezzanine. Starring in that production was the legendary Patti LuPone.

"That did not seem real. Patti LuPone … she seemed like a person you read about in a book or heard about somewhere, but not someone you saw perform. You know, not for me — not for a kid from Utah," Elder said.

LuPone is now his co-star in the hit musical "Company" — a twist of fate that goes back to the stranger who gave him the means to watch one of Broadway's biggest productions.

"It takes that kind of generosity to show you what generosity can be, to turn around and do it again," Elder said.

Giving back is now a big part of his life. Once a month, he and his 4-year-old son pay for a stranger's meal at their local diner. Recently, he's started giving away free tickets to his show through social media. When he shared the backstory, people reached out to donate money, giving close to $10,000 so far, he said.

Then, he found the stranger who started it all. Elder recently reunited with Mark Howell, who lives in Los Angeles, via Zoom.

"The minute he said 'Putnam County Spelling Bee,' it all came back … that night, the whole experience came back," Howell told CBS News. "It's been really overwhelming. I couldn't talk about this for the first three days without, you know, sobbing. It's been really inspiring and overwhelming. It still … it makes me cry."

Elder told Howell that his random act of kindness has made him a better person.

"You had no idea that what you did was so much more than that. And made me a person who is kinder because of what you did," Elder said.

After every performance, Elder takes a picture with the strangers he buys tickets for and hangs the photos in his dressing room.

"I hope that it awakens something in them, just like it did in me, that, 'I have the power to actually touch someone, to change someone's life with a small gesture,'" he said. "What I hope happens is that these people are shown some sort of genuine kindness from a stranger and hopefully in turn go out and do something strange and kind for somebody who they don't know."

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