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Send In The Clowns
written by Stephen Sondheim (for A Little Night Music – 1973)
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 bothеr, they’re herе
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…
Disclaimer: I love this song, but I love it in the sense that I have enjoyed making fun of it for most of my life. It’s just so… over-dramatic. But I’ve loved it ironically for so long now that I’m not sure if my feelings are even still limited to irony. The song got a particularly heavy run of mental airplay, in my brain, during the 2016 “evil clown sightings” craze.
If it’s one of your favorites, I apologize. I suspect my predilection for this song traces back to The Simpsons:
What is the song about?
The song is from the perspective of a character named Desiree. Earlier in her life, she rejected the advances of a man named Fredrik. Years go by, and she subsequently realizes she is in love with him. However, by now, he has moved on and he rejects her. She sings the song as an expression of her disappointment and anger over love and bad timing.
Sondheim has this to say regarding what the song actually means:
“I get a lot of letters over the years asking what the title means and what the song’s about; I never thought it would be in any way esoteric. I wanted to use theatrical imagery in the song, because she’s an actress, but it’s not supposed to be a circus […] [I]t’s a theater reference meaning “if the show isn’t going well, let’s send in the clowns”; in other words, “let’s do the jokes.” I always want to know, when I’m writing a song, what the end is going to be, so “Send in the Clowns” didn’t settle in until I got the notion, “Don’t bother, they’re here”, which means that “We are the fools.”
The song could be titled “Send in the Fools.”
The meter of the song is complex and gives it a waltz-ish feeling. From Sondheim:
When I worked with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story, one of the things I learned from him was not always necessarily to think in terms of 2-, 4- and 8-bar phrases. I was already liberated enough before I met him not to be sticking to 32-bar songs, but I tend to think square. I tend to think … it’s probably because I was brought up on mid-19th and late-19th century music, and you know it’s fairly square; there are not an awful lot of meter changes.You often will shorten or lengthen a bar for rhythmic purposes and for energy, but … when you switch in the middle [of a song], particularly when it’s a modest song, when you’re not writing an aria, you know … [I mean,] if you’re writing something like Sweeney Todd, where people sing at great length, you expect switches of meter, because it helps variety. But in a little 36- or 40-bar song, to switch meters around is almost perverse, because the song doesn’t get a chance to establish its own rhythm.But the problem is, what would you do?: Would you go, “Isn’t it rich? (two, three) Are we a pair? (two, three) Me here at last on the ground (three), you in mid-air.” Lenny [Bernstein] taught me to think in terms of, “Do you really need the extra beat (after ‘ground’) or not.” Just because you’ve got four bars of four, if you come across a bar that doesn’t need the extra beat, then put a bar of three in. So … the 9 [beat bars] and 12 [beat bars] that alternate in that song were not so much consciously arrived at as they were by the emotionality of the lyric.
Following the success of the musical, Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins released the song on albums of their own, with the Collins version being very popular at the time. Sinatra’s version, in turn, received some renewed interest recently because it plays during the credits of the 2019 film, Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix.
Sinatra’s version is imbedded below: