Stephen Sondheim wrote A Little Night Music around the time I was born, so “Send in the Clowns” had been around for about 7 years when I first heard it.
My siblings and I reached a rare consensus — this song mentions clowns, and clowns are creepy. We didn’t like it.
It wasn’t until 1990 that I would face my learned fear of the song. By then, I had discovered Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods and found out Sondheim was the man responsible for “Send in the Clowns”.
A New York City Opera production of A Little Night Music, broadcast on public television, put the song in context.
The creepiness my 7-year-old brain perceived was actually bittersweetness — a haunting recognition of opportunity passed.
“Send in the Clowns” is Sondheim’s biggest hit, a tune so part of the pop culture lexicon, it may even overshadow its own author. (Nine years passed after I first encountered the song when I learned it was written by Sondheim.)
And it is a very good song — concise but evocative, unsettling but appealing.
But according to various accounts of its origin, “Send in the Clowns” was a last-minute addition. Sondheim wrote it in a single night after a run-through of the show, in which a gesture by one of the lead characters clarified the essence of the scene.
Compared to the rest of the score, “Send in the Clowns” does feel like a rush job.
A Little Night Music is probably the most amiable of Sondheim’s works. It’s no less impressive than Sweeney Todd or Sunday in the Park with George — and no less technically demanding either — but it’s a score with an appeal that’s immediate.
(That’s a roundabout way of saying you don’t need a college degree to like it.)
Sondheim’s wit is in incredible form on this work. “Remember” strings a number of suggestive reminiscenes, leaving more than enough room for the listener’s imagination to fill in. “What we did with your perfume/Remember? Remember/The condition of the room/When we were through”.
“It Would Have Been Wonderful” humorously posits what would have happened if the lead character Desiree hadn’t charmed the two men vying for her affection. “If she’d been all a-twitter/Or elusively cold/If she’d only been bitter/Or better looked passively old/If she’d been covered with gltter/Or even covered with mold/It would have been wonderful”.
Even “The Miller’s Son”, a song sung by a side character (Petra, the maid), displays a painstakingly crafted architecture. “It’s a very short road from the pinch and the punch/To the paunch and the pouch and the pension/It’s a very short road to the 10,000th lunch/And the belch and the grunt and the sigh”.
“Send in the Clowns” is no less a powerful song, but it doesn’t display the same kind of mastery. It still works, though, for the fact that it does capture the plot.
It’s a conundrum — musically, it sticks out, but dramatically, it fits right in.
The original 1973 cast recording was remastered back in 1998, and the sound quality does the score justice.
The role of Desiree Armfeldt was originally supposed to be a non-singing part, but the untrained reedy vocals of Glynis Johns conveyed a glamour that Sondheim and director Harold Prince couldn’t pass up.
All that to say her reading of A Little Night Music’s signature song may not be polished, but it’s far and away more affecting than performances by Judy Collins, Barbara Streisand or Frank Sinatra.
A reworking of “The Glamorous Life”, taken from the film version of the show, is an interesting bonus track but doesn’t work. What was once a whimsical scene turns into a nervous solliloquy.
A Little Night Music is as old as I am — which is a disturbing sentence to write — but it’s a score that resonates even today. Sondheim would go on to write incredibly challenging works, but this one shows he can handle that precarious balance between intellectual artistry and human drama.