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.