Send In The Clowns

Clown Couture, Coco Rocha

When I was young, I remember my grandmother had a delicate music box with a clown ballerina in the middle, dancing to Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns”.  (It was the only clown of my childhood that didn’t haunt me with reoccurring nightmares — unlike It and Polkaroo.  *shudder*)

At the time, I didn’t know the context of the song, but I knew that it was a sad story…and I am always enchanted when I hear it.

“Send In The Clowns” is a ballad from the 1973 musical A Little Night Music.  Sondheim wrote the song specifically for actress Glynis Johns, who created the lead role of Desirée on Broadway.  Glynis was chosen because she had the glamour and charm for the dark, comedic role, even though she didn’t have the strongest voice.  This is what led to those magical, short-breathed phrases.  According to Sondheim, “Glynis had a lovely, crystal voice, but sustaining notes was not her thing.  I wanted to write short phrases, so I wrote a song full of questions.”

What questions you ask?  Well if you don’t know the story of the play, Judi Dench, who performed the role Desirée in London, describes it as “a dark play about people who, at the beginning, are with wrong partners and in the end it is hopefully going to become right.  She (Desirée) mistimes her life in a way and realizes when she re-meets the man she had an affair with and had a child by (and once proposed and she declined), that she loves him and he is the man she wants.”  So, although he is now in a new marriage with a much younger woman, Desirée proposes marriage to ‘rescue’ him from his situation, but this time, he rejects her.  And then she sings.  She sings a song of a woman who finally realizes that she has misspent her youth in a shallow life of theatre and men.  Full of regret, too upset and too angry to say much else.

The “clowns” in the title don’t refer to the circus clowns so many of us are terrified of (and don’t find the least bit funny), instead, they symbolize fools.  Sondheim explained in a 1990 interview:

“I wanted to use theatrical imagery in the song, because she’s an actress, but it’s not supposed to be a ‘circus’.  It’s a theatre reference meaning ‘if the show isn’t going well, let’s send in the clowns’; in other words, ‘let’s do the jokes’.  I always want to know, when I’m writing a song, what the end is going to be, so ‘Send In The Clowns’ didn’t settle in until I got the notion, ‘Don’t bother, they’re here’ which means that ‘We are the fools’.”

And that’s what Desirée is saying, “aren’t we foolish” or “aren’t we fools?”  So sad.  So poignant.

Isn’t it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air.
Send in the clowns.

Isn’t it bliss?
Don’t you approve?
One who keeps tearing around,
One who can’t move.
Where are the clowns?
Send in the clowns.

Just when I’d stopped opening doors,
Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours,
Making my entrance again with my usual flair,
Sure of my lines,
No one is there.

Don’t you love farce?
My fault, I fear.
I thought that you’d want what I want.
Sorry, my dear.
But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don’t bother, they’re here.

Isn’t it rich?
Isn’t it queer,
Losing my timing this late
In my career?
And where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.

From the stage to pop hit and even jazz standard, “Send In The Clowns” has been performed and recorded by so many of the best, Angela Lansbury, Glenn Close, Bernadette Peters, Judy Collins, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Sarah Vaughan, Kenny Rogers, and Lou Rawls…

Who’s your favourite Desirée?


About karenoke

One-time karaoke champion blogging about curiosities and cravings for music, food, design, and other sweet pleasures.
This entry was posted in Musical and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Send In The Clowns

  1. Ruth says:

    I saw Bernadette Peters do it on Broadway last year!!

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