Sondheim created the song specifically for the actress, Glynis Johns, who created the role of Desirée on Broadway. The song is written in four verses and a bridge, using a complex triple meter. It became Sondheim's most popular song after Judy Collins recorded it in 1975. Subsequently, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and many other famous singers have recorded the song, and it became a jazz standard.
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 "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”. [Emphasis Added]
In a 2008 interview, Sondheim further clarified the meaning:"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 Sondheim agreed that "Send In the Fools" lacked the same ring.
Around 20 years before the play begins, Desirée was a young, attractive woman, whose passions were the theater and men. She was a stage actress, and she lived her life dramatically, flitting from man to man. Fredrik was one of her many casual lovers, but he fell deeply in love with Desirée and asked her to marry him. Desirée refused his proposal, because she lived "in the air". When she refused, Fredrik abandoned the quest and left her. He did not know it when they parted, but Desirée was pregnant with his child.
A few months before the play begins, Fredrik fell in love and married a beautiful woman who is 18 years old – much younger than he. In Act One, Desirée and Fredrik meet after 20 years apart. Fredrik meets his and Desirée's love child, who is now a handsome young man, around 20 years old. Fredrik explains to Desirée that he is now married to the young woman, whom he loves, but she is still a virgin and refuses to have sex with him. Desirée seduces Fredrik, and they enjoy a passionate night together.
Act Two begins the next morning, and Desirée realizes that she truly loves Fredrik and that she should have married him so long ago. She tells Fredrik that he needs to be rescued from his marriage, and she proposes to him. She tells him that she needs to be rescued and asks if she too can rescue him. Fredrik explains to Desirée that he has been swept off the ground and is "in the air" in love with his beautiful, young wife. So Fredrik refuses Desirée's proposal, and he apologizes for having misled her. Fredrik walks across the room, while Desirée remains sitting on the bed. As she feels both intense sadness and anger, at herself, her life and her choices, she sings, "Send in the Clowns".
[“Send in the Clowns”] was never meant to be a soaring ballad. It’s a song of regret. And it’s a song of a lady who is too upset and too angry to speak – meaning to sing for a very long time. She is furious, but she doesn’t want to make a scene in front of Fredrik because she recognizes that his obsession with his 18-year-old wife is unbreakable. So she gives up. So it’s a song of regret and anger. And therefore fits in with short-breathed phrases.”
We hired Glynis Johns to play the lead, though she had a nice little silvery voice. But I'd put all the vocal weight of the show on the other characters because we needed somebody who was glamorous, charming and could play light comedy, and pretty, and to find that in combination with a good voice is very unlikely, but she had all the right qualities and a nice little voice. So I didn't write much for her and I didn't write anything in the second act. And the big scene between her and her ex-lover, I had started on a song for him because it's his scene. And Hal Prince, who directed it, said he thought that the second act needed a song for her, and this was the scene to do it in. And so he directed the scene in such a way that even though the dramatic thrust comes from the man's monologue, and she just sits there and reacts, he directed it so you could feel the weight going to her reaction rather than his action. And I went down and saw it and it seemed very clear what was needed, and so that made it very easy to write. And then I wrote it for her voice, because she couldn't sustain notes. Wasn't that kind of singing voice. So I knew I had to write things in short phrases, and that led to questions, and so again, I wouldn't have written a song so quickly if I hadn't known the actress. . . . I wrote most of it one night and finished part of the second chorus, and I'd gotten the ending. . . . [T]he whole thing was done in two days.
Thus, the song's lyrics are short phrases, and the song's melody is within a small music range.
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 – 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 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 [the] 12 [beat bars] that alternate in that song were not so much consciously arrived at as they were by the emotionality of the lyric.
The song is written in the primary key of E major.
Sondheim teaches both dramatic and lyric performers several important elements for an accurate rendition.
The dramatic performer must take on the character of Desirée: a woman who finally realizes that she has misspent her youth on the shallow life. She is both angry and sad, and both must be seen in the performance. Two important examples are the contrast between the lines, “Quick, send in the clowns” and “Well, maybe next year”. Sondheim teaches that the former should be steeped in self-loathing, while the latter should emphasize regret. Thus, the former is clipped, with a break between “quick” and “send”, while the latter “well” is held pensively.
Sondheim himself apologizes for mistakes which he made in the composition. For example, in the line, “Well, maybe next year”, the melodic emphasis is on the word year but the dramatic emphasis must be on the word next. Sondheim has said:
The word "next" is important: "maybe next year" as opposed to "this year". [Desirée means] "All right, I've screwed it up this year. Maybe next year I'll do something right in my life." So: "well, maybe next year" even though it isn't accented in the music. This is a place where the lyric and the music aren't as apposite as they might be, because the important word is next, and yet the accented word is year. That's my fault, but [the performer must] overcome."
Another example arose from Sondheim's American roots: he put two 'f' sounds together in the line, “Don't you love farce?” American performers in concert will often link the two 'f' sounds, so that the words are sung as one, and British audiences hear, "Don't you love arse?", with its altogether unfortunate meaning. Sondheim agrees, "It's an awkward moment in the lyric, but that v and that f should be separated."
In the line of the fourth verse, "I thought that you'd want what I want. Sorry my dear", the performer must communicate the connection between the "want" and the "sorry".
Similarly, Sondheim insists that performers separately enunciate both “t”s in line, “There ought to be clowns”.
The differences are illustrated and may be compared in the performances of Glynis Johns and Judi Dench with those of Judy Collins and Frank Sinatra. The former are dramatic and meant for the theater; the latter are lyric and meant for the concert.
Glynis Johns personifies Desirée. She created the character on Broadway. Her interpretation highlights Desirée’s anger and regret. Listen, for example, to her anger, when she sings, “Isn’t it rich?”
As Glynis Johns did in the U.S., Judi Dench created Desirée for the U.K. stage. In her performance, she does not sing so much as tell the story. Listen to the bitterness as she hisses the line, “Isn’t it rich?”, and the hard ‘k’ in “clowns”. She won the Olivier Award for her performance.
In contrast with the Johns and Dench, Judy Collins's performs not as an actress portraying Desirée but as a pop singer of a sad ballad. She never played Desirée in the theater. Instead, she used the beautiful lyrics and melody to create a major pop hit. Similarly, Frank Sinatra performs a traditional ballad, which has been reworded to the masculine.
In 1973, the play and song debuted on Broadway. The song become popular with theater audiences but had not become a pop hit. Sondheim explained how the song became a hit:
First of all, it wasn't a hit for two years. I mean, the first person to sing it was Bobby Short, who happened to see the show in Boston, and it was exactly his kind of song. He's a cabaret entertainer. And then my memory is that Judy Collins picked it up, but she recorded it in England. Sinatra heard it and recorded it. And between the two of them, they made it a hit.
In 1975, Judy Collins recorded the song and included it in her album, Judith. The album included the song, "Send in the Clowns", which soon became a major pop hit. In 1975, the song remained on the Billboard Top 100 for 11 weeks, reaching Number 36. Then, in 1977, the song again reached the Billboard Top 100, where it remained for 16 weeks and reached Number 19. At the Grammy Awards of 1976, the Judy Collins' performance of Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" named 'Song of the Year'.
In 1985, Sondheim added a verse for a Barbra Streisand to use in her concert performances. and recording, which was featured on The Broadway Album. In 1986, her version became a Number 25 Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary hit.