When I was a kid, Judy Collins appeared on television and sang ‘Send in the Clowns.’ I felt sad as she sang the words:
Isn't it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground
You in mid-air
Send in the clowns
It was the 70’s and I assumed all pop music was like that, sad and melodic. Later I learned the song was from a musical written by Stephen Sondheim. For years he was a name, but PBS would show plays and musicals either through their Great Performances banner or American Playhouse. I remembered seeing this musical, but had to fact-check my own memories using Google and Wikipedia. I did remember seeing Into the Woods wondering what the heck is this? It’s Sondheim, my dear, you are seeing Sondheim again.
The bits I remember about Sondheim musicals usually involve not understanding them, but loving the music. Of course, I didn’t understand them, I had to grow into their themes. Stephen Sondheim didn’t write bubbly musicals. He embodied one of my favourite quotes by C.D. Lewis, he wrote to understand. Stephen Sondheim explored mortality, love, relationships, and confronting moments without a happy ending. As I write this this post, I just realized he wrote about disappointment and his music allowed us to feel it for what it is rather than repress it or finesse some positivity to it.
Like Send in the Clowns.
Wikipedia has a great entry about the song including writing the ballad for A Little Nigh Music to suit the voice of the actress (Glynis Johns) playing Desiree, an ageing actress reflecting on her life. In a Youtube I watched, Sondheim talked bout explaining every lyric and every note to answer any question asked by an actor. Other than the odd public television series, there’s always documentaries about the composer. I recommend finding Six by Sondheim for its unique format, a series of six films of his six signature songs, with the man himself playing a role. If you want an example, one that seems to ring very autobiographical, there’s a Youtube of a short based on ‘Opening Doors’ from the musical Merrily We Roll Along. As for ‘Send in the Clowns,’ this is best left up to you, the reader, to have a look at the different versions. (I am partial to Judi Dench’s version with an oboe setting the mood. Yes, an oboe.)
Sondheim passed away at 91, the last tribute to him was a Livestreamed 90th birthday celebration shown at the height of the pandemic, one that doubled as a fundraiser. The theatres went dark, everyone was in their homes, and this was on. (Sidenote: Lots of great performances and I deliberately chose that one.) His loss hit people hard and I get it. Yes, he was 91, but you get used to having someone around until they’re…not. Suddenly, it’s this hole where someone’s presence should be and now we move on, building a life after loss, around the grief and sadness. In this case, we build it with Stephen Sondheim’s music.