Send in the Clowns
"Send in the Clowns" is a song written by Stephen Sondheim for the 1973 musical A Little Night Music, an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night. It is a ballad from Act II in which the character Desirée reflects on the ironies and disappointments of her life. Among other things, she looks back on an affair years earlier with the lawyer Fredrik. Meeting him after so long, she finds that he is now in an unconsummated marriage with a much younger woman. Desirée proposes marriage to rescue him from this situation, but he declines, citing his dedication to his bride. Reacting to his rejection, Desirée sings this song. The song is later reprised as a coda after Fredrik's young wife runs away with his son, and Fredrik is finally free to accept Desirée's offer.
Sondheim wrote the song specifically for the actress Glynis Johns, who created the role of Desirée on Broadway. The song is structured with four verses and a bridge, and uses a complex compound meter. It became Sondheim's most popular song after Frank Sinatra recorded it in 1973 and Judy Collins' version charted in 1975 and 1977. Subsequently, Sarah Vaughan, Shirley Bassey, Judi Dench, Cleo Laine, Grace Jones, Barbra Streisand, Zarah Leander, Tiger Lillies, Joyce Castle, Ray Conniff, Glenn Close, Cher, Bryn Terfel, Plácido Domingo, Madonna, Mark Kozelek, Rose Jang and many other artists recorded the song and it has become a jazz standard.
Meaning of title
The "clowns" in the title do not refer to circus clowns. Instead, they symbolize fools, as Sondheim explained in a 1990 interview:
I get a lot of letters over the years asking what the title means and what the song's about; I never thought it would be in any way esoteric. I wanted to use theatrical imagery in the song, because she's an actress, but it's not supposed to be a circus [...] [I]t's a theater 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."
In a 2008 interview, Sondheim further clarified:
As I think of it now, the song could have been called "Send in the Fools". I knew I was writing a song in which Desirée is saying, "aren't we foolish" or "aren't we fools?" Well, a synonym for fools is clowns, but "Send in the Fools" doesn't have the same ring to it.
In an interview with Alan Titchmarsh, Judi Dench, who performed the role of Desirée in London, commented on the context of the song. The play is "a dark play about people who, at the beginning, are with wrong partners and in the end it is hopefully going to become right, and she (Desiree) mistimes her life in a way and realizes when she re-meets the man she had an affair with and had a child by (though he does not know that), that she loves him and he is the man she wants."
Some years before the play begins, Desirée was a young, attractive actress, whose passions were the theater and men. She lived her life dramatically, flitting from man to man. Fredrik was one of her many lovers and fell deeply in love with Desirée, but she declined to marry him. The play implies that when they parted Desirée may have been pregnant with his child.
A few months before the play begins, Fredrik married a beautiful woman who at 18 years old was much younger than he. In Act One, Fredrik meets Desirée again, and is introduced to her daughter, a precocious adolescent suggestively named Fredrika. Fredrik explains to Desirée that he is now married to the young woman, whom he loves, but who is still a virgin and refuses to have sex with him. Desirée and Fredrik then make love.
Act Two begins days later, and Desirée realizes that she truly loves Fredrik. She tells Fredrik that he needs to be rescued from his marriage, and she proposes to him. Fredrik explains to Desirée that he has been swept off the ground and is "in the air" in love with his beautiful, young wife, and apologizes for having misled her. Fredrik walks across the room, while Desirée remains sitting on the bed; as she feels both intense sadness and anger, at herself, her life and her choices, she sings, "Send in the Clowns." Not long thereafter, Fredrik's young wife runs away with his son, and he is free to accept Desirée's proposal, and the song is reprised as a coda.
Sondheim wrote the lyrics and music over a two-day period during rehearsals for the play's Broadway debut, specifically for the actress Glynis Johns, who created the role of Desirée. 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" and the song's melody is within a small music range:
- We hired Glynis Johns to play the lead, though she had a nice little silvery voice. But I'd put all the vocal weight of the show on the other characters because we needed somebody who was glamorous, charming and could play light comedy, and pretty, and to find that in combination with a good voice is very unlikely, but she had all the right qualities and a nice little voice. So I didn't write much for her and I didn't write anything in the second act.
- And the big scene between her and her ex-lover, I had started on a song for him because it's his scene. And Hal Prince, who directed it, said he thought that the second act needed a song for her, and this was the scene to do it in. And so he directed the scene in such a way that even though the dramatic thrust comes from the man's monologue, and she just sits there and reacts, he directed it so you could feel the weight going to her reaction rather than his action.
- And I went down and saw it and it seemed very clear what was needed, and so that made it very easy to write. And then I wrote it for her voice, because she couldn't sustain notes. Wasn't that kind of singing voice. So I knew I had to write things in short phrases, and that led to questions, and so again, I wouldn't have written a song so quickly if I hadn't known the actress.... I wrote most of it one night and finished part of the second chorus, and I'd gotten the ending.... [T]he whole thing was done in two days.
The lyrics of the song are written in four verses and a bridge and sung by Desirée. As Sondheim explains, Desirée experiences both deep regret and furious anger:
"Send in the Clowns" was never meant to be a soaring ballad; it's a song of regret. And it's a song of a lady who is too upset and too angry to speak– meaning to sing for a very long time. She is furious, but she doesn't want to make a scene in front of Fredrik because she recognizes that his obsession with his 18-year-old wife is unbreakable. So she gives up; so it's a song of regret and anger, and therefore fits in with short-breathed phrases.
Meter and key
The song was originally performed in the key of D flat major.
The song uses an unusual and complex meter, which alternates between 12/8 and 9/8. These are two complex compound meters that evoke the sense of a waltz used throughout the score of the show. Sondheim tells the story:
- When I worked with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story, one of the things I learned from him was not always necessarily to think in terms of 2-, 4- and 8-bar phrases. I was already liberated enough before I met him not to be sticking to 32-bar songs, but I tend to think square. I tend to think ... it's probably because I was brought up on mid-19th and late-19th Century music, and you know it's fairly square; there are not an awful lot of meter changes.
- You often will shorten or lengthen a bar for rhythmic purposes and for energy, but ... when you switch in the middle [of a song], particularly when it's a modest song, when you're not writing an aria, you know ... [I mean,] if you're writing something like Sweeney Todd, where people sing at great length, you expect switches of meter, because it helps variety. But in a little 36- or 40-bar song, to switch meters around is almost perverse, because the song doesn't get a chance to establish its own rhythm.
- But the problem is, what would you do?: Would you go, "Isn't it rich? (two, three) Are we a pair? (two, three) Me here at last on the ground (three), you in mid-air." Lenny [Bernstein] taught me to think in terms of, "Do you really need the extra beat (after 'ground') or not." Just because you've got four bars of four, if you come across a bar that doesn't need the extra beat, then put a bar of three in. So ... the 9 [beat bars] and 12 [beat bars] that alternate in that song were not so much consciously arrived at as they were by the emotionality of the lyric.
"Send in the Clowns" is performed in two completely different styles: dramatic and lyric. The dramatic style is the theatrical performance by Desirée, and this style emphasizes Desirée's feelings of anger and regret, and the dramatic style acts as a cohesive part of the play. The lyric style is the concert performance, and this style emphasizes the sweetness of the melody and the poetry of the lyrics. Most performances are in concert, so they emphasize the beauty of the melody and lyrics.
Sondheim teaches both dramatic and lyric performers several important elements for an accurate rendition:
The dramatic performer must take on the character of Desirée: a woman who finally realizes that she has misspent her youth on the shallow life. She is both angry and sad, and both must be seen in the performance. Two important examples are the contrast between the lines, "Quick, send in the clowns" and "Well, maybe next year." Sondheim teaches that the former should be steeped in self-loathing, while the latter should emphasize regret. Thus, the former is clipped, with a break between "quick" and "send," while the latter "well" is held pensively.
Sondheim himself apologizes for flaws in his composition. For example, in the line, "Well, maybe next year," the melodic emphasis is on the word year but the dramatic emphasis must be on the word next:
The word "next" is important: "Maybe next year" as opposed to "this year". [Desirée means,] "All right, I've screwed it up this year. Maybe next year I'll do something right in my life." So [it's] "well, maybe next year" even though it isn't accented in the music. This is a place where the lyric and the music aren't as apposite as they might be, because the important word is "next", and yet the accented word is "year". That's my fault, but [something the performer must] overcome.
Another example arises from Sondheim's roots as a speaker of American rather than British English: The line "Don't you love farce?" features two juxtaposed labiodental fricative sounds (the former [v] voiced, the latter [f] devoiced). American concert and stage performers will often fail to "breathe" and/or "voice" between the two fricatives, leading audiences familiar with British slang to hear "Don't you love arse?," misinterpreting the lyric or at the least perceiving an unintended double entendre. Sondheim agrees that "[i]t's an awkward moment in the lyric, but that v and that f should be separated."
In the line of the fourth verse, "I thought that you'd want what I want. Sorry, my dear," the performer must communicate the connection between the "want" and the "sorry". Similarly, Sondheim insists that performers separately enunciate the adjacent ts in the line, "There ought to be clowns."
In 1973, the musical, with the song, debuted on Broadway. The song became popular with theater audiences but had not become a pop hit. Sondheim explained how the song became a hit:
First of all, it wasn't a hit for two years. I mean, the first person to sing it was Bobby Short, who happened to see the show in Boston, and it was exactly his kind of song: He's a cabaret entertainer. And then my memory is that Judy Collins picked it up, but she recorded it in England; Sinatra heard it and recorded it. And between the two of them, they made it a hit.
In 1973, Frank Sinatra recorded "Send in the Clowns" on his comeback album, Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back, which hit gold status. Gordon Jenkins arranged the song. It was also released as a single, with "Let Me Try Again" on side B.
Two years later in 1975, Judy Collins recorded "Send In the Clowns" and included it in her album, Judith. The song was released as a single, which soon became a major pop hit. It remained on the Billboard Hot 100 for 11 weeks in 1975, reaching Number 36. Then, in 1977, the song again reached the Billboard Hot 100, where it remained for 16 weeks and reached Number 19. At the Grammy Awards of 1976, the Judy Collins performance of the song was named "Song of the Year".
In 1985, Sondheim added a verse for Barbra Streisand to use in her concert performances and recording, which was featured on The Broadway Album. In 1986, her version became a Number 25 Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary hit.
The song occurs on over 900 records by hundreds of performers in a wide variety of arrangements. Among these are:
- 1973: Frank Sinatra recorded it on his album Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back.
- 1974: Cleo Laine (wife of British jazz composer John Dankworth) on the album "A Beautiful Thing".
- 1975: Shirley Bassey recorded Arthur Greenslade's arrangement of the song on the album Good, Bad, but Beautiful.
- 1975: Judy Collins recorded the song on her album Judith (arrangement by Jonathan Tunick). Her version is the most commercially successful, reaching number 36 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Upon re-release in the fall of 1977, it reached number 19.
- 1975: Bing Crosby, at the age of 71, recorded it for his album That's What Life Is All About.
- 1975: Zarah Leander, who played Madame Armfeldt (Desirée's mother) in the German production of A Little Night Music recorded a German version titled "Wo sind die Clowns?"
- 1975: Frida (Anni-Frid Lyngstad) of ABBA recorded a Swedish-language version called "Var är min clown?" ("Where Is My Clown?" with Swedish lyrics by Mats Paulson) on her solo album "Frida ensam".
- 1976: Lani Hall (wife of Herb Alpert) on her album Sweet Bird.
- 1976: Stan Kenton on his album Kenton '76.
- 1976: Jazz guitarist Pat Martino recorded an instrumental version of the song for We'll Be Together Again.
- 1977: Jazz vocalist Lorez Alexandria recorded an uptempo version for her album From Broadway to Hollywood which subsequently became popular on the UK jazz dance and soul scenes, eventually being rereleased as a 7 inch single on Jazzman Records in 2000.
- 1977: Guitarist and educator Ted Greene arranged the song for his Solo Guitar.
- 1977: Grace Jones recorded a disco version of the song for her debut album, Portfolio.
- 1977: Spanish singer Raphael recorded the song in Castilian on the album El cantor ("The Singer").
- 1977: Elizabeth Taylor, although thitherto not a singer, recorded the song for the film adaptation of A Little Night Music, in which she played Desirée.
- 1977: Mel Tormé recorded an uptempo version for his album The London Sessions, arranged by Christopher Gunning. Taken at a sprightly pace, with a bright, slowly building big band arrangement and a joyous saxophone solo by Phil Woods, it would seem at cross purposes with the material, but Tormé gives a suitably wry reading which highlights the absurdity happening around him.
- 1978: Frida Boccara recorded song on her album An Evening with Frida Boccara (Live at Dallas Brooks Hall, Melbourne).
- 1978: The pop group Brotherhood of Man recorded a largely a cappella version for their album Twenty Greatest.
- 1978: Frankie Laine recorded the song for his British album Life Is Beautiful. It was issued on a single in England.
- 1979: Walter Jackson included an R&B version of the song on the album of the same name.
- 1981: Jazz vocalist Carmen McRae recorded this song on her album Live at Bubba's.
- 1981: Sarah Vaughan with The Count Basie Orchestra - Send in the Clowns (1980)
- 1981: Argentine music hall vocalist Nacha Guevara recorded this song on her album Aqui estoy.
- 1983: Angela Lansbury sings the song live on the CD A Stephen Sondheim Evening, with Sondheim accompanying her on the piano.
- 1983: Elaine Paige recorded a version for her album Stages and Love Can Do That.
- 1985: Barbra Streisand recorded Jeremy Lubbock's arrangement on The Broadway Album.
- 1989: Roger Whittaker performed the song live at the Tivoli, Copenhagen, Denmark on March 27. This live performance was later released as an album Live and is also available on video.
- 1991: A version was recorded by Bryan Ferry during sessions for his abandoned album Horoscope, but this version has not been legitimately released. Some bootleg editions of the album contain the song as the final vocal track. Twenty-three years later, Ferry released a revised version of the performance on his 2014 LP Avonmore.
- 1992 Barry Manilow combined the song with Looks Like We Made It during his tour to support his 1991 Showstoppers album. A live version was released on the box set The Complete Collection and Then Some...
- 1992: Glenn Close performed the song live at Carnegie Hall in the concert Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall. Her performance was seen on the subsequent televised version of this concert, and can be seen on the CD and DVD releases.
- 1993: Krusty the Clown of The Simpsons covered the song on the soundtrack Songs in the Key of Springfield.
- 1994: Renato Russo, a Brazilian singer, recorded it on his solo album called The Stonewall Celebration Concert.
- 1995: Roger Whittaker recorded the song for his album On Broadway.
- 1995: Howard Keel recorded the song and it is available on the album The Best of Howard Keel.
- 1998: Judi Dench performed the song during "Hey! Mr. Producer", an evening celebrating British theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh.
- 1998: This song was covered by Jazz pianist Eric Reed for his album Pure Imagination.
- 1998: Tom Jones recorded the song several times between 1998 and 2005.
- 2000: Sumi Jo recorded the song on the album Only Love.
- 2000: The song was covered by the Tiger Lillies on their album Circus Songs.
- 2002: Mandy Patinkin performs the song on his album Mandy Patinkin Sings Sondheim.
- 2003: Jean Shy performs a unique version of the song with the JBBO on their album The Other Side of Blue.
- 2004: Olivia Newton-John's version appears on the album Women of Song.
- 2005: Bobo Stenson & Anders Jormin & Paul Motian Jazz Trio version appears on album Goodbye.
- 2006: Opera Babes performed a classical version of the song on their album Renaissance.
- 2007: Peter Criss on his album One for All.
- 2008: Mark Kozelek recorded this song and released it on his album The Finally LP
- 2008: Patricia Kaas recorded this song in German ("Wo sind die Clowns?") and French ("Faites entrer les clowns") and released it on her album Kabaret. French lyrics by Stephane Laporte.
- 2009: All Angels recorded a four-part version of the song for their third album.
- 2009: Catherine Zeta-Jones performed the song in the role of Desirée in the 2009/2010 Broadway revival of A Little Night Music directed by Trevor Nunn
- 2010: Barbara Cook recorded the song for the original cast album of Sondheim's musical revue Sondheim on Sondheim.
- 2010: Judi Dench sang the song on BBC Proms for Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday celebrations.
- 2010: The song was the subject-matter of the BBC Radio Four series Soul Music.
- 2011: Mathilde Santing recorded this song version for her live album Luck Be a Lady.
- 2011: Sandi Patty recorded this song on her album, Broadway Stories.
- 2011: Woody Lissauer recorded an upbeat version of this song on his album Adventures and Misadventures in Loveland
- 2012: Mike Doughty recorded an acoustic instrumental version on his cover album The Flip Is Another Honey.
- 2013: Matthew Morrison recorded the song on his album Where it All Began.
- 2013: Toni Lamond for ABC Classics as part of a compilation album, I Dreamed a Dream: The Hit Songs of Broadway
- 2014: West End star Louise Dearman recorded a full orchestral version of the song for her album It's Time
- 2014 Bryan Ferry recorded the song on his album Avonmore.
- 2015 James Anthony recorded the song to release on his upcoming 2nd album - This Lonely Town
- 2016 Madonna performed the song in Melbourne, Australia during a live intimate performance for fans called Madonna: Tears of a Clown.
Other versions and parodies
- Van Morrison frequently performed the song in his live set. A live version from Ronny Scott's in London with Chet Baker was released on the album Nightbird.
- Carol Burnett performed the song on January 19, 1974 on "The Carol Burnett Show".
- In 1977, Florence Henderson performed the song on an episode of The Brady Bunch Variety Hour as the Brady Kids pantomimed in clown makeup.
- Stars of the Lid recorded a version called "Don't Bother They're Here" for their 2007 album And Their Refinement of the Decline.
- The Santa Clara Vanguard uses an instrumental version as its official corps song, which is played at the anniversary dinner, as well as in encore performances.
- The song was performed as a snippet during the song "The Electric Co." on the U2 release, Under A Blood Red Sky. However, the band did not have the appropriate licensing and did not pay the required royalties and were fined $50,000 (US) and had to make sure any further pressings of the release had an edited version of the song.
- In the twenty-second and final episode of The Simpsons' fourth season, entitled Krusty Gets Kancelled, Krusty the Clown sings the altered lyrics: "Send in those soulful and doleful, schmaltz-by-the-bowlful clowns" in a musical number of his comeback special.
- The song figures prominently in a plotline on the daytime soap opera Ryan's Hope in October 1988 when villain Max Dubujax plants a bomb in a music box that plays the tune. Before he dies from a gunshot wound, he tells his ex-wife Siobhan Ryan, the intended victim, about "losing my timing so late in my career". The bomb detonates in November 1988, killing Siobhan's husband Joe Novak. Tichina Arnold sings a version of the song that is used throughout the storyline.
- On July 30, 2009, a Broadway-style dance version of "Send in the Clowns", choreographed by Tyce Diorio, was shown to open So You Think You Can Dance (Season 5 Episode 21) Top 6 Results.
- 'Over the Rainbow' contestant Jenny Douglas performed her version of 'Send in the Clowns' during the 2010 talent contest to find a leading lady for the Wizard of Oz, in musical theatre week.
- Voice actress Brina Palencia performed a version of "Send in the Clowns" at the convention Anime Central in May 2010.
- 'Send in the Clowns' is an important piece to the character of Switters in the Tom Robbins novel Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates.
- Comedian Will Ferrell performed the song on the Late Show with David Letterman on 2 August 2010
- German Moreno (Kuya Germs) had used this as his main birthday song since his movie Payaso (1986) up to present.
- The song is performed on an episode of the US sitcom Newhart, leading the dim-witted character of George Utley (Tom Poston) to say, "I never realized what that song was really about! It's about clowns, and when to send them in."
- In December 2010, Stephen Colbert wrote and performed an "extended ending" to 'Send in the Clowns' to composer Stephen Sondheim when he appeared on Colbert's program, The Colbert Report. "Where are the clowns?/I booked them for eight/Oh wait that's them on the phone/Saying they're late/Traffic was bad/The tunnel's a mess/All twelve of them came in one car/They lost my address/You just can't trust clowns/That's why they're called clowns"
- In 2011, Paul Harper adapted the lyrics as a parody of bad English usage for Glam Jam, A West End Show, entitled "Send in the Nouns"
- In 1997 at the opening of the Sydney parliament the NSW Police Band performed a Hollywood theme medley with a solo oboe rendition of 'Send in the Clowns.'
- Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine reference the song on 'Billy's Smart Circus' from their 30 Something album, released in 1991.
- Performed by British Singer Anthony Newley
- It was used by 2010 Olympic figure skating champion Kim Yuna as her short program music for the 2013-14 figure skating season.
- It was used by figure skaters Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy as their short program music for the 2009-10 figure skating season.
- The song is featured in Starsky & Hutch (film) during the duo's undercover mission at a Bat Mitzvah.
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