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'Send in the Clowns': Sondheim's Greatest Hit

Sondheim headshot“Steve needs to write some hits. If he doesn’t, those shows of his are not going to make it,” predicted Broadway composer Jule Styne. Though now a living legend, Stephen Sondheim was first met with dire warnings demanding he write more “hummable” hits and pop chart cross overs. “He never said, ‘I have a melody here’ or ‘Wouldn’t this be a cute idea for a song?’ Steve could never write a song without some dramatic situation to base it on,” described writer Burt Shevelove. Sondheim credits his famous mentor’s influence, explaining, “I was essentially trained by Oscar Hammerstein to think of songs as one-act plays...The character singing goes through a development process and comes out with a conclusion emotionally different from where he began, so the song has a sense of moving the story forward.” The very characteristic that forecasted his doom has become Sondheim’s signature, and ironically, no song better encapsulates Sondheim’s commitment to songwriting as storytelling than his greatest hit, “Send in the Clowns.”

Weeks into rehearsal for the original production of A Little Night Music, Sondheim was still working on a crucial second act scene between glamorous aging actress Desiree Armfeldt and her married paramour Fredrik Egerman. “I always felt it was the leading man’s scene, and I was outlining a song for him. And Hal [Prince, the director] said, ‘Let me show you the scene,’” remembered Sondheim, who rushed down to discover Prince had, “directed the scene in such a way that even though the dramatic thrust comes from the man’s monologue, and she just sits there and reacts, he directed it so you could feel the weight going to her reaction rather than his action.” Glynis Johns, who originated the leading lady, recalled, “Steve arrived around 4pm and watched it. Then he went off, came back at 10am the next morning, sat down and played ‘Send in the Clowns.’ Len [Cariou, who played Fredrik] and I were standing by the piano, and he played the first half a dozen notes, if that, and I had tears in my eyes.”

Sondheim’s famous penchant for adding new material throughout rehearsal and even during preview performances allowed him to tailor each song to its scene, staging, and character. “As a writer I think what I am is an actor,” Sondheim reflected. “I write conversational songs, so the actors find that the rise and fall of the tune, and the harmonies, and particularly the rhythms help them as singers to act the song; they don’t have to act against it.” As Tony and Oliver Award-nominated performer Haydn Gwynne prepares to put her stamp on ‘Send in the Clowns’ as Desiree Armfeldt at the Huntington this fall, she has found, ‘where the song really works is in the context of the scene as a piece of emotional storytelling. I’m not going to be approaching it as a singer as much as from an acting point of view.’ Barbara Streisand agreed that embracing the song’s meaning is as essential as hitting the right notes, admitting, “I thought it was the most gorgeous melody, but I didn’t understand that kind of irony yet…the kind of cynicism that is inherent in the lyric. I wasn’t mature enough to sing it. It’s like growing into a part like Medea or Hedda Gabler; it’s not good when you’re twenty. You need to be older.” For Streisand, the character’s specific and vivid point of view were as essential as the notes in Sondheim’s composition.

Streisand featured “Send in the Clowns,” alongside seven other Sondheim titles, on her 1985 Broadway Album. Skyrocketing to #1, the record cemented the song’s popularity, established a few years earlier by Judy Collins’ Grammy-winning rendition and Frank Sinatra’s performance on Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back. From its overnight inception to its now more than 900 recordings, “Send in the Clowns” tells a story — and that’s how you know Sondheim made it.

– MOLLY FITZMAURICE


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