Watch Stephen Sondheim (RIP) Teach a Kid How to Sing “Send In the Clowns”

Stephen Son­deim’s  “Send in the Clowns,” like the much man­gled “Mem­o­ry” from the much maligned musi­cal CATS, has weath­ered any num­ber of ill-advised inter­pre­ta­tions.

The show-stop­ping solo from 1973’s A Lit­tle Night Music’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 CollinsFrank 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.

Here are the lyrics. If you need fur­ther inspi­ra­tion, watch Ing­mar Bergman’s Smiles of a Sum­mer Night, on which A Lit­tle Night Music is based.

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.

Car­ol Bur­nett stuck close to the spir­it of the orig­i­nal in a non-com­ic sketch for her 1970’s vari­ety show, costar­ring the late Har­vey Kor­man.

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Tay­lor Teach­es You to Play “Car­oli­na in My Mind,” “Fire and Rain” & Oth­er Clas­sics on the Gui­tar

David Lynch Teach­es Louis C.K. How to Host The David Let­ter­man Show

What Books, Movies, Songs & Paint­ings Could Have Entered the Pub­lic Domain on Jan­u­ary 1, 2014?

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the musi­cal­ly ungift­ed Bride of Urine­town. Fol­low her  @AyunHalliday

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Comments (4)
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  • Steven says:

    Nice tim­ing that I stum­bled across this today. I’m teach­ing this song this after­noon. And Stephen must’ve thought Bar­bra’s was OK or he would­n’t have writ­ten an extra bridge for her. just say­ing… :-)

  • Karla says:

    The mean, pow­er-hun­gry vocal coach who told 14-year-old me I had no busi­ness even attempt­ing this song could learn a thing or five from the man him­self!

  • pablo says:

    she got it and he was right. the pro­nun­ci­a­tion made it spe­cial and nuanced.

  • Greg Schreiner says:

    such bril­liant coach­ing. Reminds me of Karen Mor­row and her vocal class teach­ing. Always go for the words.

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