Behind The Song: “Send In the Clowns” with Judy Collins

Judy Collins is an all-time American performer, songwriter, and, frankly, storyteller. She’s regal, like United States royalty; one could curl up next to a giant fireplace and hear Collins recount story after story, casually dropping friends’ names like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, not to mention countless other writers, directors, and producers.

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But Collins, who has a new live album, Live At Town Hall, NYC, released on August 27, is not from any blue blood lineage, per se. Her father, who was blind from the age of four, was a singer, songwriter, and radio host. He was a hardworking man who taught his daughter the value of sweat equity and laying a good, solid foundation.

Perhaps the songwriter’s biggest hit is her recording of “Send In the Clowns.” Penned by famed stage lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Collins’ rendition went on to earn her a Grammy nomination (and win for Sondheim) and, in many ways, is credited with putting the song (and Sondheim) on the map. Here, we catch up with Collins to go behind the song of “Send In the Clowns,” which charted for 27 weeks and appeared on Collins’ 1975 album, Judith.

American Songwriter: When did you first hear the song?

Judy Collins: I was sitting in this apartment in 1973 and I got a call from my friend Nancy Bacal, whose friendship was a gift from Leonard Cohen because he introduced me to two of his best friends and Nancy and a friend of his from Montréal. Nancy and I became very close friends and she knew me very well and she knew that I was in the process of looking for new material for a new album.

It was ’73 and I was kind of at a loss, really, I must say. And she called me up and she said, “I’m sending over an album and you have to play it, you have to put the needle on the cut that says, ‘Send In The Clowns.’ And I did that and I played it and then I said, “Oh my God!” I called [musical theater director] Hal Prince and I said, “Mr. Prince, you have a wonderful’—he answered my phone call, which I was thrilled about—and he said, “Oh, I know you. You’re the one who had the big hit with ‘Amazing Grace.’”

And I said, “Yes.” And I said, “You’ve got a really good song on this album,” which was A Little Night Music, the cast album. He said, “Yes, it is a good song, isn’t it?” And he said, “You know, 200 people have already recorded it.” And I said, “I don’t care. I have to record that song.” [Laughs]. I said, “Who would you recommend that I get to orchestrate it?” And he said, “Jonathan Tunick, he’s the one who did it for the record.”

And quite frankly that was the best advice one ever could possibly get from Hal Prince. I became friendly with Hal Prince in the last three or four years of his life. I was devastated when he died two years ago. And he tells me in these years, where we’ve become friends, that my recording of “Send In the Clowns” saved the show and also put Stephen Sondheim on the map.

AS: Wow!

JC: Yeah, so I was always happy to hear it from the horse’s mouth. But it was, among other things, similar to the time in 1967 when Al Cooper called me on the phone at three in the morning and said, “I’m here with this girl who said she wrote songs and I thought you’d like to hear this.” And he put Joni Mitchell on the phone and she sang me “Both Sides, Now.” So, these are gifts from a far-off place, which must be run by somebody who has my future in mind.

AS: Did you talk with Stephen about your version at all?

JC: No, no, no. The song, as Yoko Ono is fond of saying, the song has its own life, it has its own determined future, it has a path to follow that has very little to do with whoever wrote it. No, I don’t need Sondheim’s advice about anything, thank you.

AS: The song was nominated for a Grammy—was that a surprise, or did you know it was that good?

JC: No, no, it was a huge surprise and also a wonderful thing to have happened.

AS: What do you love most about the song today?

JC: Well, it lasts. It has mileage to go. And it’s funny because, you know, he hated the song. He wrote it—Elaine Paige—they needed another song for Elaine Paige in the musical and, so, everybody said, “Ah, that’s a crummy song that’s in there, why don’t you go home and write a song tonight.” So, he [Sondheim] did. He went home and wrote this song and he brought it back to Hal and he said, “I want you to know, I don’t think much of this song. It’s not a very good song.”

He never liked the fact that it was a big hit for me. I don’t know, something about it rubbed him the wrong way. And he said, you know, he dissed the song when it was written, and then he paid very little attention to it when I had the hit with it. He thinks that Frank Sinatra had the hit. I don’t know who he’s been talking to or whether he wants to be part of the Rat Pack, or what his problem is.

But he obviously doesn’t read because I did have the hit with it, which was an extraordinary, extraordinary piece of luck and, of course, a sign of people’s acknowledgment that everything about the song is divine and wonderful and, you might say, that’s why the people who write the material don’t really know what they’re writing, what they’re doing. I mean, it’s for the audience to judge. It’s for the life of the song to judge. And, obviously, the song has proven itself to be worthy of its pay, as the old saying goes.

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