It uses a circus theme as a metaphor for dealing with the difficulties and wrong choices of life. Early in Sayer's career, he performed it dressed and made up as a pierrotclown. The opening motif quotes Julius Fučík's "Entrance of the Gladiators" which is commonly associated with circus clowns.
In Sayer's version, the last line of the chorus is "I won't let the show go on". Three Dog Night sang it as "I must let the show go on", which Sayer was reportedly not happy about.
Three Dog Night's cover of "The Show Must Go On" became their last Top 10 hit in the U.S., where it reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the Cash Box Top 100, as well as in Canada, where it reached number two. It also reached #11 in the Netherlands and #12 in Germany.