Let’s start with Sondheim himself, teaching.
Sondheim Master Class
Before we get into “Send in the Clowns,” which is the point of this post, can we for a moment revel in the wonderfulness that is Sondheim the teacher? His gentle exactitude in coaching the lovely-voiced young woman taking this master class, who is singing about things beyond her experience, and keeps forgetting to enunciate the separate “t’s” in “there ought to be clowns.”
That’s my favorite line of the song. I imagine the aging actress Desiree, her wiles waning, summoning one last time the fools to amuse her. At once self-loathing and imperious.
Sondheim’s precision is astonishing. His music is laced with an exquisite and melancholy longing, and the instrumentation is legato and expressive. And then the lyrics are sharp, ironic, short bursts of inquisition. Which is why he won’t let slide the soft eliding tendencies of the young singer.
Love the moment when Sondheim acknowledges his failure to make music and lyric “apposite” (had to look that up) in the phrase “maybe next year.” Quite possibly the only syllable in his composition that isn’t apposite. He tells his student, “That’s my fault, but you as the singer have to overcome that.” As if. The singer seems to sense Sondheim is being kind as much as particular. Her last take is her best, and she enunciates all the “t’s.”
Let’s turn to the pros:
Bernadette Peters (Accompanied by Sondheim)
Bernadette’s rendition is more brooding than angry, an interpretation that allows her to extend the notes and let her voice luxuriate a bit in lines like “No one is there.” By contrast, when she comes to “don’t bother, they’re here” – the moment it dawns on Desiree that she herself is playing the role of the fool – Bernadette sings “don’t bother” with an unvarnished, plaintive quality. The irony is stripped away, and it’s a raw moment of reckoning.
Love the arms-extending, diva exhale before she launches in. Classic Streisand, by turns lyrical and emotive. She conveys a hint of the charm of the young Desiree, with her winking delivery of bitter lines. “What a cliché,” Streisand sings, giving a wonderful little wry smile to the Hollywood audience. It isn’t until the coda when Streisand lets the true heartbreak creep into her voice.
This clip isn’t the best quality, but I wanted to include a rendition of “Send in the Clowns” in the context of the actual musical – which, indeed, is how Sondheim conceived it. Dame Judi Dench, in the 1995 Royal Theater of London staging of A Little Night Music, gives a dramatic interpretation of Desiree coming to terms with her choices. This isn’t a pretty ballad at its core. Dench is raw and affecting; she lets her voice crack and break off. “I thought that you’d want what I want / Sorry, my dear.” This song was written as Desiree’s conversation with her former lover, and ultimately with herself. Dench does full justice to this story, and gives the most satisfying reading to my favorite line, “There ought to be clowns.” I’m compelled to summon them for her.
Finally, a complete departure from Sondheim’s original intent:
Yuna Kim (Figure Skater)
This instrumental version of “Send in the Clowns,” without the intelligence and sharpness of Sondhiem’s lyrics, could tend towards the mawkish in the hands of more pedestrian talents or more indulgent sensibilities. Yuna, like Sondheim, is a distinctly unsentimental artist, and habitually skates to expressive music with a sense of simultaneous flight and restraint.
Note the lovely timing of the triple lutz-triple toe at 1:35 – a technically difficult trick, unfurled almost matter-of-factly in the breath before the denouement of the first verse. (“You in mid-air.”)
Yuna, returning to the Olympic fray at the top of her game, has arguably never lost the timing in her career, and interprets Sondheim’s music with that sensibility – the exquisite longing without the regret. This is a performance that breathes the conviction and attack of youth come of age; Yuna’s speed, amplitude, and cool grace evoke the spirit of Desiree at the height of her prowess and self-reliance.
Indeed, maybe the instruments sing of one Desiree and the lyrics of another? Oh, Sondheim. Now that’s apposite.