Send in the clowns

It's hard to explain your love for something, isn't it? Like trying to taste air or describe a color. And yet there's the urge, and here the means.

From Jonathan Tunick, the orchestrator:

"Send in the Clowns" was orchestrated overnight in a hotel room in Boston in between orchestra rehearsals. The orchestration for strings, harp, and solo clarinet is quite conventional, and most of the night was spent in deciding between the solo clarinet and cello to play the now familiar unaccompanied introduction and the subsequent obbligato. I chose the clarinet for its haunting, lonely effect in its low register.

It was also written for an actress who—gasp!—couldn't sing:

... Sondheim thought of it as a nonsinging role. But then he discovered that Glynis Johns was rather musical and had a small, silvery voice, but could not sustain a phrase, so he deliberately wrote a melody with a lot of pauses for breath. "One of the reasons I like the song is that nobody can sing it as well as she." When it became a hit and was recorded by Cleo Laine, Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins, and others, who were real singers, they tended to lengthen the phrasesbut the song lost some of its rueful, biting quality. One had to be able to throw away the first line, "Isn't it rich?" and that is why he used the closed-off consonants of ch. He said, "You don't use open vowel sounds. You use little cut-off things so that the audience doesn't think it's the actress's fault. And that makes the song specifically for someone who can't sing."

—Meryle Secrest, Stephen Sondheim: A Life

It’s the setup to a hundred jokes, overdone times a thousand, stripped of its simplicity in countless cabarets, the apex of Krusty’s comeback.

But here's the thing I didn't understand until I finally heard "Send in the Clowns" in context—that it's part of a conversation. And if you miss the conversation (the brilliant book is by Hugh Wheeler), you lose the heart of the song.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

So? It's turn of the century Sweden. Summertime. An aging actress—warm, flighty, self-involved—has invited to her mother's country house for the weekend the man she loved and lost years ago, has recently rediscovered, and unbeknownst to him is planning to marry. A lawyer. That he has brought with him his 18-year-old wife doesn't concern her in the least; the wife is "a tiny snag," nothing more. The actress has a talent for complications and is accustomed to getting her way. The presence of her married lover and his wife are, likewise, merely a nuisance.

Late at night, and with the sun not quite setting, there is a long, uncomfortable dinner with all parties in attendance. The music chimes, prettily, ominously, as they take their places at the table.

Perpetual anticipation’s a delicate art,
Playing a role,
Aching to start.
Keeping control
While falling apart.
Perpetual anticipation is good for the soul
But it’s bad for the heart…

Thinly veiled advances are made, accusations sting, and wine glasses are smashed. The fun is all in watching civilized people grow uncivil, the knives come unwrapped. Finally the lights go down and the actress retreats to her bedroom. The lawyer follows. They are easy together. Natural.

DESIRÉE: What in god's name are we laughing about? Your son was right at dinner. We don't fool that boy, not for a moment. The One and Only Desirée Armfeldt, dragging around the country in shoddy tours, carrying on with someone else's dimwitted husband. And the Great Lawyer Egerman, busy renewing his unrenewable youth.

FREDRIK: Bravo! Probably that's an accurate description of us both.

DESIRÉE: Shall I tell you why I really invited you here? When we met again and we made love, I thought: Maybe here it is at last—a chance to turn back, to find some sort of coherent existence after so many years of muddle. (Pause) Of course, there's your wife. But I thought: Perhaps—just perhaps—you might be in need of rescue, too.

FREDRIK: From renewing my unrenewable youth?

DESIRÉE: It was only a thought.

FREDRIK: When my eyes are open and I look at you, I see a woman that I have loved for a long time, who entranced me all over again when I came to her rooms ... who gives me such genuine pleasure that, in spite of myself, I came here for the sheer delight of being with her again. The woman who could rescue me? Of course.

A pause. Hope rises, tangible. And it's then that the clarinet—that haunting, lonely voice—begins to play, and it's the instrument alone that tells us she has lost even before he speaks.

FREDRIK: But when my eyes are not open—which is most of the time—all I see is a girl in a pink dress teasing a canary, running through a sunlit garden to hug me at the gate, as if I'd come home from Timbuktu instead of the Municipal Courthouse three blocks away...

What she regrets is her own foolishness; what she had the courage to hope and to reach for, after "so many years of muddle," is beyond her grasp. And she sings:

Isn’t it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air.
Send in the clowns.

Isn’t it bliss?
Don’t you approve?
One who keeps tearing around,
One who can’t move.
Where are the clowns?
Send in the clowns.

Just when I’d stopped
Opening doors,
Finally knowing
The one that I wanted was yours,
Making my entrance again
With my usual flair,
Sure of my lines,
No one is there.

Don’t you love farce?
My fault, I fear.
I thought that you’d want what I want—
Sorry, my dear.
But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don’t bother, they’re here.

Another pause while the music continues underneath. He speaks, and his lines make the rest of hers make sense:

FREDRIK: Desirée, I’m sorry. I should never have come. To flirt with rescue when one has no intention of being saved. Do try to forgive me.

And then he leaves. She stands alone and finishes the song.

Isn’t it rich?
Isn’t it queer?
Losing my timing this late
In my career?
And where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.

The stage direction reads: The lights iris out on Desirée.

Me? I start to cry the instant that clarinet sounds, low and plaintive, bittersweet. To know what's coming doesn't matter. When it's done right—when it's done like this, with all the desperate hope and disappointment and middle age and exhausted, clear-eyed irony Glynis Johns brings to bear—I will weep from start to finish, and when that last light fades, please pat me on the shoulder and then step away.

Here's a delicious find from SarahB that explores the mechanics of the song itself, and the ways in which ambivalence, longing, and surprise were deliberately built into it: "Suddenly we change the bass note, and we go to minor, we feel we're not just going to a B section, we are literally going inside her heart for the middle." And look at that! Suddenly I have goosebumps on top of goosebumps!