Send in the Clowns

Oh, and I forgot a little morning music. I’m not a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim (in fact, I’m not a fan at all); perhaps I’m just one of those philistines who likes the musicals of yore: Camelot, Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, and so on—and not the rarefied musicals for intellectuals. It seems to me that nearly every song in those old musicals was memorable, while in modern musicals there may be one (at most two) songs that become classics. This is one of them.

Sondheim was, however, the lyricist for one of the best musicals ever: West Side Story. And he wrote, I believe, both the lyrics and the music for a single unquestionably great song: this one, from “A Little Night Music” (1973).

In fact, the song is so good that it’s become a cliché, like White Christmas, even though most people don’t really know what it’s about.  It expresses a wistful longing for lost love, and the misery of the present, sung by a woman who meets an old lover after many years, finds him married to another, importunes him to leave his wife for her, and is turned down. It’s about as sad as can be.

Here it’s played by Sondheim on piano and sung by the incomparable Bernadette Peters.  Try listening with fresh ears, even though you’ve heard this a thousand times, probably most often in the famous cover by Judy Collins. It’s an amazingly complex song, but immensely moving.



  1. Robert Bray
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    This near-perfect song sings even without its so moving lyrics: I treasure the jazz-ballad version by multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan.

    • Merilee
      Posted May 7, 2014 at 6:37 am | Permalink

      Divine version by Divine Sarah Vaughan.
      I had never heard the Peters version but now agree it’s right up there. The Judy Collins version is bland bland bland, imho.

      I wore my vinyl copy of West Side Story completely out and have seen it live may times. Absolute genius! I don’t love all Sondheim but after seeing a recent PBS documentary on him rwalize what an interesting guy he is.

      Btw, thanks for starting my morning with tears 🙂

  2. uglicoyote
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Road.

  3. Posted May 7, 2014 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    I remember seeing Liberace play this on the Merv Griffin show or somewhere like that.

    I’ll get me coat. 🙂

    • Posted May 7, 2014 at 6:07 am | Permalink

      Yeah, that’s a good idea! And don’t forget your hat!

      Liberace! JEBUS!

    • merilee
      Posted May 7, 2014 at 7:07 am | Permalink

      what’s your hurry? Liberace…barf….although the Michael Douglas/Matt Damon flick on him was surprisingly good.

  4. Don
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    Peters is sublime.

  5. Grania Spingies
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    I’m the complete opposite: I love Sondheim but really don’t like this particular song. Although in it’s defense, probably because it has been performed too many times by people who aren’t up to the task.

    Anything from Sweeney Todd I will listen to ad infinitum though.

    • jesse
      Posted May 7, 2014 at 8:35 am | Permalink

      Grania, look on youtube for the Geo.Hearn and Angela Lansbury Broadway version which was televised in the U.S. in the 1980s. Someone uploaded the whole thing.

      Also, look for the concert version with Patti LuPone and George Hearn. It too has been uploaded in its entirety, and is excellent (except for Neil Patrick Harris’ whining version of the character Tobias). The exchange btwn. Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney after his major tirade is wickedly wonderful; LuPone is perfect here:

      • Grania Spingies
        Posted May 7, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

        Thanks Jesse

        I have seen the LuPone version, I’ve even seen snippets of the Lansbury version but I had no idea someone had managed to get the whole thing up onto YT.

        • jesse
          Posted May 7, 2014 at 11:51 am | Permalink

          The chorus member in the bowler hat at the beginning is especially good in this version. Also, the guy who plays the Italian/Irish huckster (who has the shaving competition with Sweeney) is incredible in this.

          • Grania Spingies
            Posted May 7, 2014 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

            Oh cool, thank you 🙂

  6. garman
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    My mistake. Reading the title, I thought the post was going to be about the Supreme Court. Or fundies. Or d*gs.

  7. Ken Pidcock
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    I first listened to this song attentively about a month ago. Wonderful lyric.

  8. Posted May 7, 2014 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    Though it could stand a bit of editing, I rather like Into the Woods.


    • Kevin
      Posted May 7, 2014 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      Into the Woods is tied with a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (movie). Despite my Zappa-esque dislike of Broadway, Sondheim’s stuff is pretty good.

      • Posted May 7, 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        When ASU’s Lyric Opera Theatre did Forum when I was there, I played in the pit. When we were striking the set after the last show on campus before we went out to the Sundome, the wardrobe lady handed me a small armful of fabric to take to the truck. I remarked that it looked like some of the girls’s costumes. She replied that it was all of the girls’s costumes.

        Because of the way the stage was set up at the Sundome, the brass section finally had a clear view of the stage; before, in the pit, the stage floor literally extended over our heads. By that time, we had the book memorized, which was a good thing, because we had our eyes on the stage for the entire show….


  9. merilee
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    Always loved Old Blue Eyes doing it. Here he is a little past his prime, but heartbreakingly beautiful with guitar:

    And a slightly older one:‎

    I loved the version on his LP that had It Was a Very Good Year on it.

  10. Carlos
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    Don’t much like Sondheim either. But this is a beautiful song. It has been recorded by our Renato Russo, who died too early.

  11. abrotherhoodofman
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Great song. Great singer. Very nice.

  12. Posted May 7, 2014 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Goes straight to the soul. I love almost every interpretation: as you say, great music is complex. Even a weak performance wouldn’t do too much harm.

  13. noncarborundum
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Strange. I don’t have anything in particuar against Sondheim’s music, but I absolutely detest Send in the Clowns. De gustibus and all that.

  14. Michael Bouchard
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    It’s a topic I can comment on! (As a stage actor and acting teacher, I usually have no expertise to speak on the topics you usually write about). When I teach musical theater I actually use Judi Dench’s version of this song as an example of why songs are still about the story being told. She doesn’t even really “sing” it in her version. It’s a perfect example of the rule that just because music appears, the story doesn’t go away. This is doubly true with Sondheim, as he spends so much time on every word. But it’s Sweeney Todd (not the execrable film version) that contains most of my favorite songs. I recommend seeing it highly. As for Camelot, I just did it in Arvada ,Colorado and while some of the music is lovely, the play is three hours long. That’s asking a hell of a lot from any audience. I think it’s best left as an album these days, without the full production.

  15. Posted May 7, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    I’m thrilled to read this. Without giving a mini-dissertation on why Sondheim is a terrific, if facile, lyricist but a tuneless tune writer… oh, well. That apparently is my mini-dissertation. (There’s another one, which I definitely won’t give, about why some people love Sondheim.)

  16. Joe L
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 11:49 am | Permalink


    You stated, “…perhaps I’m just one of those philistines who likes the musicals of yore…”.

    Yes, you are indeed a philistine if you’re not a fan of Sondheim. But, since Evolution Is True, we are looking forward to your further development! 🙂

  17. Posted May 7, 2014 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    And who could forget the divine version sung by Krusty on The Simpsons?

  18. Filippo
    Posted May 8, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Recommend a very nice three-part harmony version by The Lettermen, and a superb version by the piano duo Ferrante and Teicher, both easily found on Youtube.

    I suppose that I myself am a bit of a “Philistine” regarding songs in Broadway musicals. By my reckoning, if a musical has at least two songs which would be stand-alone hits in a vocal concert program, then it is at the very least a quite respectable show as far as I’m concerned.

    For example, “Carousel”‘s “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” “West Side Story” has at least two, “Maria” and “Tonight.” Regarding “South Pacific,” “Some Enchanted Evening” (I don’t care how maudlin the modern cynical sensibility considers it), “Younger Than Springtime,” “Bali Hai” (in the movie there is something numinous going on with the sailors on the beach gazing at the island); and “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” is a male chorus tour de force, which I loved to sing in the glee club during bright college years.

    • Merilee
      Posted May 8, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      I had NO idea that The Lettermen were still around. Fell in love many times to their songs in high achool. Their voices and harmonies are still good but I must say that I don’t think they work for this particular song in the same way that Judy Collins doesn’t. It needs the edge of Sarah Vaughan or Sinatra – or Bernadette Peters.

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