Monday, December 07, 2009

About that Clowns song

“It’s not a torch song, it’s not a stand-and-deliver. It’s a song very much in context, and you have to be truthful with it. What you mustn’t do is say to yourself, ‘I’ve got to knock people’s socks off, bring the house down.’”

That's how director Trevor Nunn describes the Stephen Sondheim ditty Send in the Clowns, from the 1973 musical A Little Night Music. The occasion for Mr. Nunn's appraisal of the song is the revival of the musical, which opens on Broadway on December 13. Catherine Zeta-Jones reprises the role she first played in London--Desiree, the actress at a crossroads who gets to sing Send in the Clowns at a pivotal moment in Act 2.

Sondheim wrote the song in 2 days--one of the quickest I've ever written, he said. On first or even second hearing, it can also be his most enigmatic. What does the title, and those lyrics, mean? I became familiar with the song in grade school via a version sung by the Ray Conniff Singers. Ugh--but then, as the NYTimes' Charles McGrath puts it, the song happens to be the only one that has escaped from the orbit of the show and become a pop standard. It remains the most recognizable song in the Sondheim repertory, though not many people humming it may know it's actually by Sondheim.

The lyrics, he would reveal, were meant to be in service to the character of Desiree, who is from the theater world. I wanted to use theatrical imagery in the song because she's an actress. But it's not supposed to be a circus; it's supposed to have that circus reference--but a theater reference, meaning, if the show is not going well, let's send in the clowns. In other words, let's do the jokes.

Hence the theatrical patois: Making my entrance again with my usual flair / Sure of my lines. Or, Losing my timing this late / In my career?. It's not meant to be a soaring song but a song of regret and anger, and therefore fits in with short, brief phrases, said Sondheim.

He offered more details about the song and the story behind it in another interview before an adoring British audience (which isn't available on YouTube, so I'll rely on my memory here). He said that while he was writing the song, the voice of Glynis Johns, the original Desiree in the first Broadway production, was already playing in his ear. Johns, 49 at the time, had a thin, silvery voice that couldn't sustain long notes; Sondheim then phrased the song accordingly, viz., Isn't it rich? [beat, beat], Are we a pair? [beat, beat], and so on.

In context, explained Sondheim, “It's the song of a lady who is too angry and too upset to speak, meaning to sing...” In other words, the song cannot be pretty--it's the cry of a woman receiving the full wallop of a breakup from her lover. In this YouTube clip, the Broadway conductor Paul Gemignani is shown rehearsing Sally Anne Howes, who reflexively begins singing Send in the Clowns in a bravura, mellifluous way, only to be told to “approach it from no singing at all.”

Catherine Zeta-Jones got the same stark advice from Sondheim himself: “Just speak it.”

Judi Dench did precisely that, cracked voice and all, in her shattering performance of the song in the 1998 concert Hey, Mr. Producer:

For the 1993 Sondheim anthology concert at Carnegie Hall, Glenn Close, then already recognized as a brilliant actress but still years away from her definitive Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, offered a quietly intense, ironic reading of Send in the Clowns:

And in her 1986 One Voice concert, Barbra Streisand, true to diva form, dared to deconstruct the song by bringing it out of the theater hall and into an urban, contemporary context. She asked Sondheim to re-arrange the verses and write additional lyrics for her own interpretation, now marked by striking emotional directness and rueful feeling. Then, willing herself to interpretive stillness on top of a stool, she had the camera zoom in on her face and stay there while she acted out the drama of a Send in the Clowns quite unlike any that had been heard before. It's a virtuoso performance--a reinvention that can stand side by side with the original.


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Anonymous said...

I love these three ladies. But for me Dame Judi performed it best by emotionally conveying the essence of the song. Glenn has a good voice but she sang it too strongly. It lacked vulnerability. As for Barbra, she is a great singer and she knows how to sell the nuances of the song.

beektur said...

all three failed miserably to convey the message, story and moral lesson of the song. where is kuya germs' version? THAT one is rich.

Moiko said...

The one by Judi Dench is the best by far. Hindi pa ako nakakarinig ng kahit na anong version ng kanta that surpasses Judi Dench's version. Barbra Streisand's is too "egoistic" for me.

Laura said...

I love Dame Judi. And on a kind of related note, my favorite Barbra performance has to be her rendition of "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered." I enjoy watching the younger Barbra than the older one. I find her then self simpler once it comes to singing.

Anonymous said...

I have the judi dench album cast of a little night music. magaling siya doon.

didinskee said...

I also agree that Judi rendered the song all the more potently by simply sticking to that dialogue-style. She sent such a strong message by contrasting her indignant and sarcastic requests for clowns against the frailty of her own voice: a sort of hard shell-soft heart dynamic that can't fail in drawing an audience to tears.

But musically, Barbara's won out. She turned it into a true song and her decision to place the most ironic line as the last added so much more meaning and drama. It is definitely a bit more showbiz and almost contrived, but the emotion cannot be denied either.

This is an old song, for sure, and I thought it was one of those stereotypical diva songs or matrona-in-distress monologues. But thanks for making a case out of it and proving there's so much meaning, and that there's nothing funny about these particular clowns.

And of course, it's a Sondheim.

Oscar Wilde best explained the universal truth of this song, I think. And to quote: "There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution."

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