Thursday, April 3, 2014

Send In The Clowns

On Monday when I wrote about the Top Ten Songs of All Time, I went to YouTube to find examples of a few of the songs by female vocalists to link to and share. When it came to Judy Collins I had a hard time with my decision, but upon finding Send in The Clowns I decided to share this song as a separate blog entry.

I encountered difficulty when I tried to decide which version of the song to present here, the version Collins recorded or the one she performed live with the Boston Pops. But then, I noticed all the other performers who had a go at it and felt there were others worth sharing as well.

The song comes from the 1973 musical A Little Night Music. It's a ballad in which the central character Desiree reflects on the ironies and disappointments of her life.

The song has been recorded or performed by numerous artists. If you have time, I'd like you to listen to a number of these versions (you can find links below after the lyrics) and compare them. Most are female vocalists, but this intro by Old Blue Eyes was especially poignant:

"This is a song about a couple of adult people who have spent, oh, quite a long time together, till one day one of 'em gets restless and decides to leave. Whether it's the man or woman who left is unimportant. It's a breakup... It's a lovely marriage of words and music, written by Stephen Sondheim."

Send In The Clowns

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.


Stephen Sondheim, winner of more Tony awards than any other composer, explained the intent of the song like this: 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."

Here's Frank Sinatra's version of the song, which I felt most heartbreaking.

I listened next to Dame Judi Densch and Barbara Streisand, but when I heard Shirley Bassey it seemed these felt pale. If you are unfamiliar with Shirley Bassey,

Many Americans may not know who Shirley Bassey is, a Welsh singer who was very popular in England. Most Americans, however are more than familiar with her pipes, as she delivered to us the very famous soundtrack title song for Goldfinger, as well as Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker.

Here is one of several wonderful versions of Shirley Bassey performing Send In The Clowns.

And finally, as a closer, here is Bernadette Peters performing a simple, most elegant version with Stephen Sondheim himself on piano. Oh so beautiful.

Thank you, Mr. Sondheim.

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