The show-stopping solo from 1973's A Little Night Music’s reference to clowns is not meant to be literal, but that didn't stop the Muppet Show from sending a trio of them in to back Judy Collins. Frank Sinatra peeked around on every chorus, as if he'd yet to come to grips with the fact that Bozo wouldn't be popping up on cue.
It's misinterpretations like these that set composers spinning in their graves, but Sondheim is still very much in the game. His approach to musical theater continues to be exacting, no doubt nerve wracking, though the Guildhall School of Music and Drama student he's fine-tuning in the video above bears up bravely.
She's a couple of decades too young to play Desiree, whose unsuccessful attempt to woo an old lover away from his teenage bride occasions the song, but no matter. Her adjustments show the dividends a close reading of the text can pay.
See what you can do with Sondheim's advice next time you're singing in the shower, the only place private enough for me to believe I'm doing credit to his oeuvre. Those of us who can't sing can take heart knowing that the original Desiree, Glynis Johns, couldn't either, at least by the master's usual standards. The song's uncharacteristically short phrasing allowed her to shine as an actress, and deflected from any vocal shortcomings.
Those who are more director than diva may prefer to evaluate the performances below. In my opinion, at least one of them merits a firm rap on the knuckles from Maestro Sondheim for excessive wallowing. (Hint for those whose time is short: we've saved the best for last.)
Judi Dench, Desiree in the 1995 Royal National Theatre revival, performing at the BBC Proms 2010, in honor of Sondheim's 80th birthday.
Glenn Close, another Night Music vet at Carnegie Hall.
I know Barbra Streisand’s got her fans, and will hold my tongue, lest they come after me en masse.
(Given the choice between Krusty the Klown and Barbra…)
Bernadette Peters, the 2010 Broadway revival's Desiree, at Southern Methodist University. Her accompanist seems pretty happy with this performance.
Dame Judi again, showing us how it's done, in costume on the edge of a giant red bed, with Laurence Guittard as Frederik. Have a hankie ready at the 3:10 mark.