‘Send in the Clowns’ (Singing as storytelling 5)

Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics of ‘Send in the Clowns’ for his 1973 musical, ‘A Little Night Music’. Before reading the rest of this blog post, you might want to read the excellent Wikipedia article on this song; it gives the dramatic context for the song, as well as highly informative detail, in Sondheim’s own words, about his thinking behind what he wrote, and how he felt the song should be performed. This is the 5th post in my series on Since I aim not to repeat repeat points I have already made in my ‘Singing as Storytelling’ series, you might want to read the earlier four posts first.

As has been my practice in this series, I’ll first share my favourite performance of the song we’re studying: Judi Dench at the Proms (2010). In essence, this song is about regret, about a character who realises too late that she has been a fool, and missed marrying the one man she truly loved. Dench sings this with breath taking fragility and pathos. In no sense does she try to sound ‘beautiful’ or musical; and, as a result, she achieves both. She brings total focus onto the character’s inner life and situation, making transparent the unfolding thoughts and feelings, almost word by word. In addition, her pronunciation is immaculate. She has taken to heart Sondheim’s advice to singers to articulate every consonant with crystalline clarity. There are so many details to commend in this performance, it could have a whole article to itself. Perhaps, as a way to compare some of the versions in this blog, listen out for how each the four singers treats these phrases:

  • “you in ….. mid air” (Dench 0:56, Sinatra 0:31, Close 0:49, Johns 0:30)
  • “finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours” (Dench 1:50, Sinatra 1:24, Close 1:39, Johns 1:20)
  • “don’t you love farce?” (Dench 2:24, Sinatra 1:54, Close 2:09, Johns 1:52)
  • “I thought that you’d want what I want – sorry, my dear” (Dench 2:36, Sinatra 2:06, Close 2:18, Johns 2:02)
  • “there ought to be clowns – don’t bother, they’re here” (Dench 2:52, Sinatra 2:22, Close 2:31, Johns 2:16)

Sinatra was a fine musician, and this is evident in this musically expressive rendition. But in comparison to the extraordinary subtlety of Dench’s attention to the words – and their interplay with the pauses, and nuances of rising and falling pitch in the melody – Sinatra almost completely neglects the journey of the lyrics. There are some changes of intention from phrase to phrase, but these are surface deep, and each phrase is sung with little variation in delivery.

Like Dench and Sinatra, Glenn Close has had a distinguished acting career. In this performance, she caresses the musical lines, but I have a sense that she plays safe with her voice, and wants it to sound ‘good’. I don’t think that she ever really surrenders to the full vulnerability of the character, and doesn’t plumb the depths of either anger or regret that Sondheim regards as the two emotional centres of his song.

Glynis Johns was the original artist for whom Sondheim wrote this song. Johns didn’t not have a great singing voice (narrow pitch range, unsteady breath control), and Sondheim adapted to this in his writing. Johns chooses to  emphasise anger and frustration. This performance continues to the reprise, where Frederik (Len Cariou), the past lover, returns; the song resolves lovingly as they reunite.

Here is a fascinating clip where Sondheim is teaching a masterclass to a young singer on part of the song. Note how much care Sondheim takes on the precision of pronunciation, and the difference it makes to the emotional direction of the song.

And so, back to Judi Dench’s performance – a masterclass itself in singing as storytelling.