I cannot claim to have known Stephen Sondheim. Long, long ago, he sent me an acid note informing me that he would never forgive me for the last line of a review of one of his shows - and he stuck to that. Mutual friends would occasionally attempt to intercede on behalf of some BBC special or even a charity stage performance, but unforgiving was something he did very well. I ran into Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard, author of Freaky Friday, etc) just after her mother died, and she mentioned that she'd bumped into Sondheim on the street and he'd offered his congratulations.
"Don't you mean 'condolences'?" I asked naïvely.
"You don't know Steve's mother," replied Mary. "He says she'll never die."
I wrote about him at length in Broadway Babies Say Goodnight and elsewhere. Our old friend Tim Rice is characteristically generous here:
I doubt Sondheim would have reciprocated. He was wont to remark to pals: "No matter how much I spend on therapy, I still can't understand why Andrew Lloyd Webber is so much richer and more successful than I am." Which is a fabulous line, by the way.
Still, you can't help noticing that, in the clips above, Tim is mainly talking about Sondheim's lyrics, and artfully sidestepping the matter of his music. There will be more scholarly pieces in the days ahead, but in Steve Sailer's analysis speaks the voice of the masses: songs are supposed to be about catchy tunes, and Sondheim's a dud at that. A chap goes to a musical to be transported by a ravishing melody: If it's the Merry Widow waltz, who cares about the words? If the melody has words of an equal standard, such as "I Get a Kick Out of You" or "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered", so much the better. But clever words on notes that seem to object on principle into cohering into a take-home tune is a much tougher sell to a mass audience.
So Sondheim, the protégé of Oscar Hammerstein and sometime composing partner of Richard Rodgers, took the great central throughway of American popular culture and made it a dead end. Broadway is Spin-off Boulevard now: screen adaptations and jukebox musicals. He raged against that in the last couple of years, without apparently reflecting on what his own role might have been. "Finishing the Hat ...where there never was a hat" became making a wasteland where there never was a wasteland.
Seventies Sondheim was at least particular to its subject matter: Company is different musically from Pacific Overtures, Follies from Sweeney Todd. But by the Eighties Sondheim had degenerated into a style - and, as his collaborator on Gypsy Jule Styne once told me, "styles never last". Eventually, it impacted the lyrics, too. If had to distill my critique of Sondheim into a single objection, I'd rest on this, from Broadway Babies Say Goodnight:
In Passion, the big love song goes like this:
Loving You is not a choice
It's who I am...
And you think: is that really an expression of love, or an intellectual defence of it?
Setting aside Johnny Mathis singing "Small World" and Marvin Gaye "Maria", there was just one moment when a Sondheim song, words and music, connected with the broader public. It's the one Alastair Stewart picked above - the big Act Two solo from Sondheim's 1973 musical, A Little Night Music.
We have Ingmar Bergman to thank for it: Without this particular Swede, we might never have had a rare song hit from Sondheim. In 1955, Bergman made a film called Smiles of a Summer Night, which over the years inspired a lot of other pieces, including Woody Allen's Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy. One result of the picture was that eighteen years later Glynis Johns found herself on the stage of the Shubert Theatre in New York singing:
Isn't it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground
You in mid-air
Send In The Clowns...
The smile of a summer night is a tease, at least in Sweden, where in midsummer the sun never entirely goes down. In other words, night doesn't ever quite fall, which Bergman uses as an image of sexual frustration: you never quite close the deal. In adapting the film for the stage in 1973, Hugh Wheeler, Stephen Sondheim and their director Hal Prince retained the time and place - rural Sweden at the turn of the century - and the multiple intersecting romantic convolutions. Fredrik, a wealthy lawyer, has a new 18-year old wife, Anne, his marriage to whom remains unconsummated after a year. His boring son Henrik is also in love with his stepmother. Meanwhile, Fredrik's former mistress, the actress Desiree, is having an affair with a fanatically jealous soldier, Carl-Magnus. Desiree's mother is a once legendary grande horizontale. Etc.
Sondheim wrote the entire score in variations of three-quarter time, with the characters waltzing in and out of various plot complications. But "Send In The Clowns" was not part of that original unending schema. Instead, it was written, overnight, during rehearsals and for the oldest of rewrite reasons: they had a Second Act problem.
Hal Prince had cast in the role of Desiree the wonderful Glynis Johns. We all love Glynis, ever since Mary Poppins. She's pretty and charming and a wonderful light comedienne and was perfect for the role of the glamorous actress-mistress. But she doesn't have much in the way of a singing voice - or at least that's not the reason anyone hired her. And so Sondheim hadn't really given her much to do. In the big scene in Act Two between Desiree and Fredrik, it was the male lead who did all the talking, and the composer figured, well, if there's going to be a song, it'll be his. And he'd started to rough one out when Hal Prince said to him that he thought Miss Johns' character needed one. And Sondheim looked at the scene again and decided Prince was right: even though Fredrik's the one yakking, it's Desiree's reaction you're interested in. So he composed something for what he calls Glynis' "nice little silvery voice". "I wrote it for her voice," he said, "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." So he wrote the song as a series of four-syllable questions:
Isn't it rich?
Are we a pair..?
Isn't it bliss?
Don't you approve..?
Don't you love farce..?
Isn't it queer..?
Irving Berlin wrote a famous song that was also a series of questions, questions that are answered by other questions. Which sounds like too clever a conceit for its own good. But it's not:
How much do I love you?
I'll tell you no lie.
How Deep Is The Ocean?
How high is the sky?
How many times a day do I think of you?
How many roses are sprinkled with dew?
The form doesn't seem tricksy because the basic premise of the song is so simple: How much do I love you? By contrast, for half-a-century, no one's been quite sure what exactly "Send In The Clowns" is about:
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...
Yes, but what does it mean? Well, in the show Desiree's an actress, so it could be a showbiz metaphor. She and Fredrik are obviously misalligned lovers: when he's hot, she's not, and vice-versa. It's like a circus trapeze act, with one half of the team wheeling through the air and the other lying flat on his back in the net. And in the circus, when something goes wrong, what do they do? They send in the clowns. Or maybe it's simpler than that: when love goes awry, it's like Cupid putting on a little red nose and giving you a squirt with the soda syphon. "The song could have been called 'Send In The Fools'," said Sondheim, years later. "I knew I was writing a song in which Desiree is saying, 'Aren't we foolish?' or 'Aren't we fools?' Well, a synonym for fools is clowns."
And that's about as clear as he's ever been on the subject.
But gosh, that tune is beguiling. What's "Send In The Clowns" about? It's about three minutes long, and the music always sounds pretty. Sinatra was the first to get to it, for his "comeback" album Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back, an odd mix of unknown soft-rock-ish material scored by Gordon Jenkins. The Sinatrologist Jonathan Schwartz is very snooty about Jenkins compared to Nelson Riddle, and it's true Jenkins doesn't have Riddle's harmonic textures. But he was a master storyteller: "(When I was seventeen) It Was A Very Good Year" is the famous example, but on that Blue Eyes Is Back set he did as compelling a job on "There Used To Be A Ballpark", Sinatra's elegy for the Brooklyn Dodgers. And the Sinatra-Jenkins "Lonely Town" more or less singlehandedly rescued from oblivion one of Leonard Bernstein's greatest songs after it had been cut from the film version of On the Town. The trouble on "Send In The Clowns" was that the master storyteller didn't have a clue what story he was supposed to be telling:
"That arrangement of 'Send In The Clowns' was easy to play," Frank's trombonist Milt Bernhart told Sinatra scholar Will Friedwald, "but it didn't do much for the song. It had some sort of a fanfare going on that just didn't do much, and I don't think Sinatra cared either. Eventually, Frank gave up on the arrangement."
By "fanfare", Bernhart presumably means that thin little paraphrase of circus music that recurs half-heartedly throughout. Gordon Jenkins, on the other hand, used to tell friends it was his all-time favorite of all the songs they'd done together, apparently impervious to the singer's abandonment of the chart.
I think Jenkins was in awe of the material. Not long before his death, he said that he considered "Send In The Clowns" "the best song in the last 25 years". Even if that were true, which it's not, it's not the best attitude with which to approach an arrangement. Jenkins' predisposition to stateliness and formality played up the most potentially perilous aspect of the song: its preciousness.
Yet, that said, the album sold a ton of copies, and, for the first time on a Sondheim score, alerted singers to the possibility that his music could work as a stand-alone song. Two years later, Judy Collins recorded her version, and not only wound up with a Top 40 hit but also a Song of the Year Grammy - only the third showtune to win the award in its history (after "What Kind Of Fool Am I?" and "Hello, Dolly!"):
Miss Collins has a pretty voice but, when she sings standards like "Bewitched" or "Funny Valentine", she seems to bland all the truth out of the number. Oddly enough, her "Send In The Clowns" made the liability a virtue: because it wasn't entirely clear what the truth of the song was, the fey folkie treatment left you with an impression of the thing as a pleasant blur. As Glynis Johns, who doesn't care for most of the pop versions, put it:
When it comes out of context of the play, it's acceptable when you have a lovely singer like Judy Collins doing it. She does it in the most acceptable way for me.
Boy, there's high praise: "acceptable". But Miss Johns is right: Judy Collins' singing is "lovely". It also has a simple directness, which (unlike the Gordon Jenkins arrangement) tones down that quality of Sondheim that most irritates non-fans: the way everything seems over-considered, and too pat, - and (as I wrote above) less an expression of love than an analysis of it.
Needless to say, Barbra Streisand's recording a decade later embraced that particular aspect wholeheartedly, on a mostly Sondheim Broadway Album that plays like a Barbra-meets-Steve summit of self-congratulatory pretentiousness. For all that, Miss Streisand did coax a few extra lyrics out of the author. She told Sondheim she didn't get the emotional transition toward the end of the song, and he replied: "Well, it's because there is no emotional transition - there's a missing scene in there." As he explained, "In the show, something happens between the chorus and that reprise to give the character an entire change of attitude."
"I adored the melody of the bridge," said Streisand, reasonably enough: It's a beautiful broad legato contrast to those four-syllable questions in the main theme. So she decided that that's the part of the melody she wanted to repeat. "But I thought to myself, 'Do I dare ask him to write a new lyric for a song that was already standard?'" Well, amazingly enough, she did dare, and he obliged:
What a surprise!
Who could foresee?
I'd come to feel about you
What you felt about me
Why only now when I see
That you've drifted away
What a surprise
What a cliche...
And, after Judy and Barbra, between Lou Rawls and Kenny Rogers, Count Basie and Stan Kenton, Frida from Abba and Olivia Newton-John, the Tiger Lilies and Stars of the Lid, they never sent off the clowns, and it remains Stephen Sondheim's best-known song as a composer.
As Streisand saw it, the song was already a standard. But was it? The pianist and composer Richard Rodney Bennett once made a very interesting point to me, more or less en passant. Sondheim may be the heir to Rodgers and Hammerstein and Hart and Gershwin and Kern and Jule Styne, but, unlike them, his songs are not really standards. A "standard" is a song that singers do as slow ballads and up-tempo swingers and bossa novas, as r'n'b and country and rock and jazz. And hardly anyone does that with Sondheim: ninety-nine per cent of Sondheim recordings are done as an hommage to Sondheim, respecting the original arrangement of the song to a degree that would seem bizarrely restrictive with Cole Porter or Frank Loesser.
Yet most of the overwrought cabaret darlings perform Sondheim identically: Send in the clones. I once repeated that observation in the Pheasantry in London in the presence of our great friend and pianist Geoff Eales, and Geoff immediately turned to the keyboard and played "Send in the Clowns" as a bossa nova. But the fact that we all fell around laughing testifies to the likelihood of anybody taking that treatment into the studio.
There is a significant exception to that rule, and it goes back to the very first pop recording by Sinatra. "The chart by Gordon Jenkins was crowded with the arranger's trademark weepy violins and romantic reeds and while it was expansive enough for Sinatra to move about in comfortably I have always felt it too busy," said Rod McKuen, the pop poet who'd been writing a lot for Frank in this period. "I'm not sure I'll ever confess to what I know about the epiphany that caused Sinatra to go into a studio three years later and record 'Send In The Clowns' a second time. It's quite a story and I'm sure FS wouldn't mind my sharing it but this is not the time or place."
Oh, well. What we do know is that in 1976 Frank went back in without Jenkins, without the orchestra and with only his longtime pianist Bill Miller. Sinatra actually puts a spoken intro on the song, which he never did in studio recordings. It's almost as if he's trying to clarify his own thinking on the number:
This is a song about a couple of adult people who have spent, oh, quite a long time together till one day one of them gets restless and decides to leave. Whether it's the man or woman who leaves isn't important. It's about a break-up.
Is it? In recent years, Sondheim has sounded kinda snottily condescending about Frank's view. "Somebody asked Sinatra what it was about," the composer recalled. "He said, 'Listen, you love a chick, she walks out, send in the clowns.' That was his explanation."
But it works. He found a way into the song: Your chick splits. Pow! Right in the kisser. Egg all over your face. The yolk's on you. "This performance from February 5th 1976," said McKuen, "lays to waste his earlier version. It is one of the most stunning recordings this man, who cut thousands of sides in his seven plus decades as a recording artist, ever made":
It's spare and raw and has a real punch. And, if Sondheim weren't such a snob, he'd have realized that Sinatra is the first interpreter to really wring all the juice from those four-syllable questions he wrote to accommodate Glynis Johns' singing voice. It's not just that she couldn't sustain notes but that it's perverse in the extreme even to try to do so: Sinatra puts a real bite on the "ch" of "Isn't it rich?" and on "Don't you love farce?" tinges that last word with a palpable self-disgust. Unlike the Collins or Sinatra recordings, you feel there are real people feeling real pain. True, you can't really extend and sustain "rich", although I was once on a radio show with the cabaret singer Ann Hampton Callaway where she did a little musical joke previewing an album called Dylan Sings Sondheim and gave it a jolly good try:
Eeeeesn't it reeeeeeech?
"Steve Sondheim is, without doubt, a classy composer and lyricist," said Sinatra. "However, he could make me a lot happier if he'd write more songs for saloon singers like me." He had other fish to fry, and I think that will hurt his catalogue's prospects with posterity. It seems strange consciously to court unpopularity in a popular medium. But, despite his best efforts, this song wiggled free five decades back, and once in a while you hear a version that reminds you of Jule Styne's great dictum. In his last fifteen years on the road, Sinatra liked to do it with just guitar - a treatment Sondheim disliked because he missed some of his harmonic colors from the Broadway chart. I can't speak for Alastair Stewart, but it's how I hear it in my head. Here's Sinatra on stage with the wonderful Tony Mottola:
Rest in peace, Stephen Sondheim.
~If you enjoy our Sunday Song of the Week, we now have an audio companion, every Sunday on Serenade Radio in the UK. You can listen to the show from anywhere on the planet by clicking the button in the top right corner here. It airs thrice a week:
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