Isn’t it rich?
His career arc stretches from writing the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy when he was in his late twenties to mentoring Jonathan Larson and Lin-Manuel Miranda in his seventies and eighties. His oeuvre encompasses the very best of modern musical theater: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Assassins. His trophy shelf boasts eight Tony Awards, eight Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize, an Olivier Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom—yet the most popular piece of Stephen Joshua Sondheim’s legacy is the ballad-turned-pop song most people can identify in four notes on an oboe.
“I’m not even sure how to put this,” said Library of Congress musicologist Mark Horowitz. “It always just bothers me a little bit, how much focus there is on ‘Send in the Clowns’ because it’s his hit song.”
Not because Horowitz, who met his mentor as a Sondheim-obsessed senior studying musical composition at Clark University in Worcester, MA, doesn’t think it’s wonderful—he does. But he’s concerned that the popularity of “Send in the Clowns,” which catapulted from 1973’s A Little Night Music into the pop music charts back in 1975 “unfairly eclipses other examples of his work. There’s just this ever-so-slight twinge about that.”
Horowitz first got to work with Sondheim during a production of Merrily We Roll Along at Washington, DC’s Arena Stage in 1980. Horowitz was assistant to the music director; Sondheim “ended up borrowing my rhyming dictionary, and he wrote in a few words that were missing.”
Their collaboration escalated over the years; Horowitz got the job at the Library of Congress in 1991 and invited Sondheim to the Library “to do a Show and Tell and discuss his papers coming to the library.” Sondheim was moved by the Show and Tell, agreed to his papers —music and literary manuscripts, letters, even his rare record collection—eventually coming to the library as a bequest, and signed on for a series of interviews that ultimately grew into Horowitz’s book, Sondheim on Music, and established the book’s author as a Sondheim expert.
“He’s always been so kind and accessible to me,” said Horowitz. “It’s just been sort of an ongoing and lucky thing.”
Not unlike “Send in the Clowns” itself. Coming late in the second act of A Little Night Music, it’s a lament sung by Desirée—the “sadder but wiser girl,” to borrow a song lyric from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man—to her former lover Fredrik, who she hopes will take her up on her offer to rekindle their affair after years apart and despite his marriage to trophy wife Anne. But the musical itself, inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night” and set in 1900 Sweden, doesn’t feature a single clown.
“If you’re in the circus and there’s an accident—say the trapeze artist falls down—they would ‘send in the clowns’ to distract the audience,” explained Horowitz. “I don’t think people get that, intellectually, but part of ‘Send in the Clowns’ is: this is a bad situation, how can we distract from it?”
It may be an atypical bit of imagery for a love song, but the element of surprise is what gives the work of Sondheim its distinctive identity. And whether or not the use of a circus as a metaphor for love resonates, the song conveys a deep sense of yearning with its questioning lyrics.
“It’s something of a torch song,” Horowitz explained. “I think it’s clearly romantic. It’s not quite an unrequited love, but a love that, for some reason, was unable to survive. It’s not anger—‘you done me wrong’—it’s more wistful, regretful. The love may still be there, but this relationship isn’t gonna work out.”
And though it was specifically written for actress Glynis Johns and her unique voice, “Send in the Clowns” started off as a song for Fredrik, not Desirée.
“They knew they needed a song in this scene, and the assumption was that it was going to be a song for Fredrik,” Horowitz explained. “Whenever possible, he tries to write his scores chronologically, so that number was going to be one of the later things he would compose.” But as director Hal Prince was rehearsing the script he realized that the song should be Desiree’s; Sondheim was brought in to watch and wrote the song shortly thereafter.
“Nobody thought it was going to be a hit song,” said Horowitz. “It didn’t occur to them. They thought it was so particular to that character and that moment, and probably wouldn’t make sense out of context.
“I think they were all taken by surprise.”
Because what happened next was, indeed, surprising. Horowitz pointed out that “in the forties and fifties almost all the songs that ‘everybody’ knew came from musicals,” but that had changed, along with so many other conventions, in the youth-centered upheaval of the sixties. Then pianist Bobby Short started performing “Send in the Clowns” at his legendary Carlisle Hotel cabaret; it was recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1973, and later by Bing Crosby, Barbra Streisand, Lou Rawls, and eventually hundreds of performers.
“It was Judy Collins, more than anything, that put it on the map,” said Horowitz, referring to the eclectic American singer who brought the ballad to the Billboard Top Singles chart twice, in 1975 and again in 1977, and whose version was named Song of the Year at the 1976 Grammys. “She was of the seventies, of the next generation, and the fact that it had her imprimatur on it—and Sinatra’s—meant that it crossed generations. I think that made a big difference.”
“I’ve always been a big fan of Sondheim,” said Jim Petosa, artistic director of New Rep Theatre in Watertown, MA and director of (and professor at) the School of Theatre at Boston University. “When I was first beginning to consider theater as an important part of my life, I remember seeing the original Broadway production of Follies in my high school years—that was an extraordinary production; I remember being really overwhelmed by its power.”
In his early college years he saw the original production of A Little Night Music, then Sweeney Todd and Merrily we Roll Along. Petosa, who grew up a piano-playing kid in a musical family, said he “found it exciting how music and a narrative could combine in a kind of unique storytelling mode. Sondheim became an exemplar of how to take that form and do something really powerful with it.”
Sometimes too powerful.
“When his work was fresh and new it would often be ahead of the audience’s ability to take it in,” said Petosa, who recalls watching a preview of Sweeney Todd at the Uris Theatre where “easily 50% of the audience bailed” at intermission in clear discomfort. By the time the musical opened to very positive notices, Petosa said, no one in the packed house left before the curtain call—and now Sweeney Todd is a beloved touchstone of musical theater. “People come to Sondheim and develop an appreciation for him over time,” he observed. “I think sometimes the first taste can be acidic, in a form that had grown up giving people a sense of comfort.”
Sondheim has a way of skewering what’s expected, and daring to tell stories that challenge the audience with more than a high kick and a happy ending. A Little Night Music is no exception.
“When I think about how the show works, and how that moment works: A Little Night Music is such a complicated score, all written in ¾ time or multiples of ¾ time—an unending waltz, and some of the most complex medleys. I think of ‘A Weekend in the Country,’ that incredible piece of writing in which a whole story moves forward through this musical number, complicated, funny ironic and bittersweet.”
He described the character of Desirée as “one of the most complicated people in the play.
“And at the climactic moment of her story, when she’s left just completely self-aware of her own circumstance—what she’s lost, and what she never really had—she sings this simple, simple song. I think the contrast of that moment with everything else that’s going on in that musical, it’s so arresting to suddenly hear that song.”
Sondheim, he said, knew who he was writing that song for.
“Glynis Johns was many, many things,” he added, “but operatic singer was not something you’d put on that list. She had a unique instrument, and a unique color and character to her voice, and he needed to write a song that that actor could really land.”
And land it she did, as have hundreds of recording artists and some of the most celebrated stage actors, from Judi Dench to Jacqui Dankworth. Petosa points out that even Judy Collins has roots deep in theatrical traditions. “You’ve got to credit Judy Collins,” he said, “but it’s not so much of an accident. I first became acquainted with the writing of Bertholt Brecht and Kurt Weill in her recordings of songs like ‘Pirate Jenny.’ She popularized very unusual pieces out of theater—she turned the music from ‘Marat/Sade’ into a suite and put it on an album, and of course Sondheim—by creating these beautiful renditions and putting them on her albums.”
Macon Prickett is 23, an auditioning actor who’s a triple threat as well as a musical theater enthusiast and blogger. He lives in New York’s Hamilton Heights, but grew up on a farm in Alabama—“very different than where I am now.
“But my mom saw The Phantom of the Opera when I was maybe six, and brought home the soundtrack, the cast album.” At 13 he saw Wicked on Broadway and he knew: “This is it.”
Like many millennials, he fell in love with the movie version of Sweeney Todd.
“That was my ‘gateway drug,’” he laughed. “I didn’t know, at that point, why—but then I got into college and had musical theater professor who really loved to banter back and forth about Sondheim and how brilliant his works were.”
Prickett said he soon determined that Sondheim was “a whole level above musical theater.” And A Little Night Music, he said, is where Sondheim gets real.
“Even Into the Woods, with its life lessons and darkness, has a fairy tale aspect kind of sprinkled all over it,” he explained. “Yet when you sit and you watch A Little Night Music, these are not fairy tale characters. We all know a Desirée, we all know a Henrik—we know all these people in the show, and we can identify ourselves in at least two or three of them.”
To Prickett, the way the characters reflect reality is just part of why “Send in the Clowns” remains popular.
“Yes, this song is written for these two characters in the show,” he said. “But you can completely take the show away and still know exactly what these people are talking about. It can have a whole life outside of the show itself.”
Which it has, of course. And Prickett has a theory about why.
“The simplicity of it,” he said. “With most ‘diva anthems,’ especially in musical theater anthology, you have ‘Memory’ or ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ and they’re huge, big, dramatic numbers. The reason it’s so beautiful, the reason people relate to the song so much, is because it’s the end of Act II, you’re expecting this huge thing, and then this oboe plays, and it’s just ‘Send in the Clowns.’ This very simple, beautiful, question-asking song. It’s very striking, but in the most simple way.”
Horowitz’s theory about “Send in the Clowns?”
“It’s funny, I put it in the category of two other songs that I think are among the biggest ‘hits’ ever,” he said, noting that “Over the Rainbow” and “Summertime” are wildly successful pop songs that originated in musical theater and went on to transcend the genre. “There’s just something about those three songs that just connects with people,” he said. “It may be just musical, it may be that the primary images just get an emotional response from people. What’s interesting to me is that all three have a yearning quality—and everybody yearns.”
For whatever reason, he added, “Send in the Clowns” engages people, however unexpectedly that might be.
“That’s the magic of songs, sometimes.”
Chris Slattery is an arts, entertainment and travel writer based in the DC area.