Song Lyrics Sunday: Send In the Clowns

Jim Adams’ Song Lyric Sunday this week asks for songs with one (or more) of these prompt words:


This doesn’t fit in exactly with the “cash and flowers” idea that Jim talks about, but Send in the Clowns is such a beautiful song, although sad. My favorite version is sung by Barbra Streisand, a singer whose voice I’ve always loved. (When my son was a baby, he heard a Barbra Streisand song and was captivated!)

Send in the Clowns lyrics:
Isn’t it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air,
Where are the clowns?
Isn’t it bliss?
Don’t you approve?
One who keeps tearing around,
One who can’t move,
Where are the clowns?
There ought to be 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
Send in the clowns
Don’t bother, they’re here
Isn’t it rich?
Isn’t it queer?
Losing my timing this late in my career
But where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns
Well, maybe next year

The song was written by Stephen Sondheim for the musical A Little Night Music (1973), which was an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night. The song is sung by the character Desirée, who is reflecting on the disappointments and ironies of her life. Many years before, during a period where her passions were theater and men, she flitted from man to man. She met Fredrik, who fell deeply in love with her, but she rejected his marriage proposal. Years later, when they meet again, she introduces him to her adolescent daughter, “Fredrika” (he doesn’t know yet that Fredrika is his daughter). By this time, she has become more mature and has realized she is in love with him, but this time Fredrik rejects her. He has married a much younger woman, and although their marriage is unconsummated, when Desirée suggests marriage to get him out of the situation, he rejects her due to his loyalty to his young bride. Desirée sings Send In the Clowns in reaction to his rejection. Later the young bride runs off with Fredrik’s son and he is finally free to accept Desirée’s offer, and the song is reprised.


Holly Twyford as Desiree in the Signature Theatre production of A Little Night Music.

Sondheim wrote this song especially for Glynis Johns, who played the role of Desirée on Broadway. Johns had a nice voice but was not good at long, sustaining notes, so Sondheim wrote the song with short phrases in the form of questions. It became his most popular song after it was recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1973 and Judy Collins’ version made the charts in 1975 and 1977. It was covered by many other artists after that, including Barbra Streisand on her LP The Broadway Album.

The clowns in the title do not refer to circus clowns. It is a theater term – Desirée is an actress – which means “if the show’s not going well, let’s send in the clowns,” i.e. “let’s tell some jokes.” Clowns, then, takes the meaning “fools.”  In a 2008 interview, Sondheim clarified: “As I think of it now, the song could have been called ‘Send in the Fools’. I knew I was writing a song in which Desirée is saying, ‘aren’t we foolish’ or ‘aren’t we fools?’ Well, a synonym for fools is clowns, but ‘Send in the Fools’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

Judi Dench, who played the role in London (and YouTube has a concert recording of Dench singing the song) commented in an interview that A Little Night Music is “a dark play about people who, at the beginning, are with wrong partners and in the end it is hopefully going to become right, and she (Desirée) mistimes her life in a way and realizes when she re-meets the man she had an affair with and had a child by (though he does not know that), that she loves him and he is the man she wants.”

Information about Send In the Clowns obtained from Wikpedia.


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