Amassing millions of hits on YouTube, ‘Send in the Clowns’ is one of Sondheim‘s most recognisable tunes, but few people know where it comes from, because it has developed a life outside the musical it comes from. The song appears in the second act of Sondheim’s 1973 musical A Little Night Music, in which the character Desirée reflects on the disappointments of her life.
Sondheim’s ‘Send in the Clowns’ from A Little Night Music: the best performances
Judi Dench first performed the role of Desirée in the London revival of A Little Night Music in 1995 at the National Theatre, for which she received the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical. But it was actually her revival of the role at the 2010 BBC Proms that people associate with the song, thanks to its proliferation around the internet.
The performance was part of a concert celebrating Sondheim’s 80th birthday, featuring songs from his much-loved musicals. The BBC Concert Orchestra accompanied Dench in her touching rendition of the song. Despite having performed a long run on the West End in Cabaret in the late 1960s, Dench is still best known as an actor – and she utilises all those acting skills in this deeply moving performance.
Bernadette Peters is considered to be one of the leading interpreters of Sondheim’s work, having appeared in many of his Broadway shows over the years – including a Broadway revival of A Little Night Music in 2010. Sondheim himself referred to her as ‘flawless’, praising her ability to act through song like no other. It’s certainly clear here, in this clip of Peters singing ‘Send in the Clowns’ with Sondheim himself on the piano. A truly iconic duo.
Frank Sinatra recorded his version of ‘Send in the Clowns’ in 1973, the same year as Sondheim’s A Little Night Music itself was premiered, and immediately put his own inimitable stamp on it. If, in the musical, Desiree sings with restrained ruefulness and resentment, Sinatra brings a deliciously sardonic edge to it – every time you hear the word ‘clowns’, you can imagine him rolling those famous eyes – and also a certain world-weariness. And just as importantly, the pace and shape of the music suits that richly coloured, slightly rough-edged, voice to a tee.
Barbra Streisand’s gorgeous, pathos-packed recording of 1986 is a real treat. Having sung it on her 1985 album of Broadway tunes, she knew the nuances of the song inside out and was able to play around with vibrato and speech patterns. This creates a real sense of urgency and desperation in her tragic portrayal of the character of Desirée. Weep-tastic.
Though more an actress than a singer, it was for Glynis Johns that Sondheim first wrote the song and indeed the role of Desirée. In this clip where Johns reprises the song in a 1982 TV special, it’s wonderful to hear such a multi-dimensional and emotionally honest performance: you can hear Desirée’s bitter anger and self-reproach as well as the regret in Johns’s delivery.
Ruthie Henshall brought her incredible poise and that knockout voice to ‘Send in the Clowns’ back in 2006 as part of a BBC TV series called The Sound of Musicals. She navigates the dramatic nuance required with such poise, while at the same time maintaining what is a divinely polished vocal.
Then there’s Glenn Close. Like Dame Judi Dench, not the first person you think of to be belting out a showtune. But then this song is so much more than that, and needn’t be perfectly pitched. That said, she has a fabulous voice. She was mooted to star in a Broadway revival of A Little Night Music, but it wasn’t to be. The audience’s loss! Close’s presence on stage in the 1992 Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall is huge; she nails (of course) the pathos within the lyric in what is an assured and gutsy performance.