As many showstopping ballads as there have been in the history of Broadway, very few have ever worked their way into the pop music world like “Send In The Clowns.” Although both Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand took a shot at Stephen Sondheim’s sublimely sad tale from the musical A Little Night Music, it was Judy Collins, with her vocals somehow both soothing and devastating all at once, who pushed it into the Top 40 after recording it on her 1975 album Judith.
It’s not for nothing that Collins is one of the finest interpreters of song in hers or any other generation, and, with “Send In The Clowns,” she had crackerjack material. On the stage, it was a lament by the heroine Desiree about finally realizing that the man who had wanted her for many years was indeed the one for her, only to find that he had moved on with somebody else.
You don’t need any exposition to understand the song’s emotional content, however, not with Collins’ understated delivery and the French horn and trumpet empathizing with her. Instead of ranting and raving about fate, the narrator simply shrugs at the ironies of the scenario, asking her former flame if he appreciates them too. In each case, she notes how the two have switched positions, somehow passing right by each other without connecting in the process.
In the bridge, the music swells out of its gentleness to allow some rawer emotions to enter the picture. “Just when I stopped opening doors,” Collins sings. “Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours.” Her chance in the spotlight is actually a cruel awakening: “Making my entrance again with my usual flair/ Sure of my lines/ No one is there.”
Although she writes off their constantly missed opportunities as nothing more than a farce, it becomes clear as the song progresses what she has lost, what they both have lost. The words she suggests as apt to describe this situation, such “rich,” “bliss” and “queer,” don’t quite cover how crushed she is. What makes it worse is the feeling that the chance to rectify the whole thing has passed her by, as she muses about “Losing her timing this late in her career.”
The title has baffled more than a few people throughout the history of the song. It’s a reference to the old showbiz trope of distracting audiences with slapstick when everything else on stage fails. When Collins sings, “Don’t bother, they’re here,” it’s an admission that the clowns have been in front of us the whole time. “As I think of it now, the song could have been called ‘Send in the Fools,’” Sondheim told The Guardian in a 2003 interview. “I knew I was writing a song in which Desiree is saying, ‘Aren’t we foolish’ or ‘Aren’t we fools?’ Well, a synonym for fools is clowns.”
Sondheim made the right choice, title-wise, and Collins made every possible right choice, vocal-wise, creating a beautiful, unexpected hit single. “Send In The Clowns” became a hit two years after its inclusion in A Little Night Music, proof that timing is everything. But then again, the content of the song already demonstrates that in heartbreaking fashion.