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saw Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night
Music at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
sometime in the 1970s or early 1980s (it was revived there again in 2002). I
can’t at all recall who say the lead role of Desiree Armfeldt, but I did respond
to several of its excellent songs, particularly “Every Day a Little Death,”
which usher-friend Don Duncan was rather shocked to hear me humming as I
excited the theater. But, of course, the far most memorable son from this
less-than-perfect musical (although the original Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night is one my very
favorites), is “Send in the Clowns,” created by Sondheim especially for the
original Desiree, Glynis Jones.
Jones’ raspy voice and her slow tempo
performance of the song is truly wonderful, especially when she reprise’s it
with Len Cariou near the end of the musical. The lyrics and rhythms create one
of the most ironic and age-weary songs ever performed.
Are we a
at last on the ground,
keeps tearing around,
are the clowns?
when I'd stopped opening doors,
knowing the one that I wanted was yours,
my entrance again with my usual flair,
you love farce?
thought that you'd want what I want.
where are the clowns?
send in the clowns.
bother, they're here.
And over the years, numerous great
performers have sung the same work in various ways, including Frank Sinatra—whose
immediate embracement of it brought the song immediate renown—Barbra Streisand,
Julie Andrews, Angela Lansbury, and the always brilliant Bernadette Peters.
Yet, for all that, I think the song is best sung by altos, who shift the tonal
registers a bit from higher registers to the powerful lower (perhaps aging)
menopausal-influenced voices. For me, Judy Collins and Glenn Close are my
favorites. They simply nail the song in a way that the others, all singing
wonderfully, simply can’t.
I also must admit that, for some years, I
could hardly bear this song, hating clowns as much as I do; but then I realized
upon rehearing the song endlessly, that the sad actress was not calling forth “real
clowns,” but simply farcical fools, representations of her own and her lover’s
failures in love. It often happens that love for two lovers simply doesn’t
happen at the same time, and that is their dilemma. They belong together, and
they are clearly the perfect pairing, but he wasn’t right for her early in her
acting career, and she is not right for him after he as seemingly found the
young woman for who he has long been looking. Fortunately, fate—the loss of his
young, still virginal wife to his own son—my bring them back together at the
near-end of their lives. They have been fools, clowns so to speak, figures
right out of the Shakespeare comedy from which Bergman’s film emanated.
Listeners might dive in anywhere they
want, even to marvelous Judi Dench version. But, in this case, I suggest
listening from beginning to end, and if desired, adding in a few others such as
Placido Domingo, Cher, or Shirley Bassey.