Friday, July 25, 2008

The Meaning of Send in The Clowns - A Song by Stephen Sondeim

As a child, I heard this song by Judy Collins and it was so haunting and the words so strange to an 11 year old child.

The album had been a gift to my mother from her friend Ross. To me, it was a song about clowns but it made no sense to me. Just surfing and found this little tidbit in Wikipedia.

Meaning of title

The "clowns" in the title do not refer to circus clowns (i.e. performers in the circus who wear white face with red noses). Instead, the "clowns" in the title are theatrical imagery, as Sondheim explained in a 1990 interview: "I get a lot of letters over the years asking what the title means and what the song's about".

In a 2008 interview, Sondheim further clarified the meaning:"As I think of it now, the song could have been called "Send In the Fools". I knew I was writing a song in which Desirée is saying, "aren't we foolish", or "aren't we fools"? Well, a synonym for fools is clowns.[2] But Sondheim agreed that "Send In the Fools" lacked the same ring.[2]

Around 20 years before the play begins, Desirée was a young, attractive woman, whose passions were the theater and men.[4] She was a stage actress, and she lived her life dramatically, flitting from man to man. Fredrik was one of her many casual lovers, but he fell deeply in love with Desirée and asked her to marry him. Desirée refused his proposal, because she lived "in the air". When she refused, Fredrik abandoned the quest and left her. He did not know it when they parted, but Desirée was pregnant with his child.[4]

A few months before the play begins, Fredrik fell in love and married a beautiful woman who is 18 years old – much younger than he.[4] In Act One, Desirée and Fredrik meet after 20 years apart. Fredrik meets his and Desirée's love child, who is now a handsome young man, around 20 years old. Fredrik explains to Desirée that he is now married to the young woman, whom he loves, but she is still a virgin and refuses to have sex with him. Desirée seduces Fredrik, and they enjoy a passionate night together.[4]

Act Two begins the next morning, and Desirée realizes that she truly loves Fredrik and that she should have married him so long ago. She tells Fredrik that he needs to be rescued from his marriage, and she proposes to him. She tells him that she needs to be rescued and asks if she too can rescue him. Fredrik explains to Desirée that he has been swept off the ground and is "in the air" in love with his beautiful, young wife. So Fredrik refuses Desirée's proposal, and he apologizes for having misled her. Fredrik walks across the room, while Desirée remains sitting on the bed. As she feels both intense sadness and anger, at herself, her life and her choices, she sings, "Send in the Clowns".[4]

The lyrics of the song are written in four verses and a bridge and sung by Desirée. As Sondheim explains, Desirée experiences both deep regret and furious anger:

[“Send in the Clowns”] was never meant to be a soaring ballad. It’s a song of regret. And it’s a song of a lady who is too upset and too angry to speak – meaning to sing for a very long time. She is furious, but she doesn’t want to make a scene in front of Fredrik because she recognizes that his obsession with his 18-year-old wife is unbreakable. So she gives up. So it’s a song of regret and anger. And therefore fits in with short-breathed phrases.” [1]

[edit] First Verse
The lyrics of the first verse introduce Desirée’s deep anger and regret.[1]

Isn't it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air.
Send in the clowns.

Isn’t it rich? This is a common theatrical expression, which in context means “our relationship has become so ironic”. The line and the entire song are sung with intense anger and hurt. Throughout the song, all questions are rhetorical: Desirée is not asking questions but is making rhetorical statements based on theatrical imagery. The word “rich” is emphasized in the dramatic song to highlight the bitter irony she feels.

Are we a pair? This is not question. Instead, it’s a rhetorical statement of anger and regret, which means, approximately, “Look at the two of us: how stupidly we have led our lives.” Recall that, just before this song in the drama, Desirée was rejected by Fredrik, and now she has abandoned her quest to be “a pair” with him. This song expresses that she is angry, sarcastic, bitter and sad at the situation in which she and he now find themselves.

Me here at last on the ground, Desirée has spent her life “in the air”, flitting from affair to affair. Now, however, she finally has her feet “at last on the ground” and wants to settle down with only one man: her long-ago lover, Fredrik.

You in mid-air. On the other hand, her previously grounded lover himself is now himself “in mid-air”: now madly in love with his new wife. So she sings these lines with anger and regret about the irony of their reversed roles.

Send in the clowns. The title is introduced. It means, “This is a theatrical performance so extremely bad that it can be saved only by bringing in comedy.”

[edit] Second Verse
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.

Isn't it bliss? Just like the word “rich” in the first verse, the word “bliss” here means irony and means the opposite of happiness. The word “bliss” is sung with an elongated “hiss” -- it drips with anger.

Don't you approve? Another rhetorical question, which in this case means “Surely you’re as unhappy with our relationship as I.”

One who keeps tearing around, This refers to Desirée herself.[5] She is the one who has been running around with different lovers.

One who can't move. This is Fredrik,[5] who has just recently been married to his young trophy wife.

Where are the clowns? Desirée means, “This play that is my life can be saved only by changing the performers”. The word “where” is smooth and elongated.

Send in the clowns. This is the theatrical expression. The closest lay expression may be “I don’t want to think about it anymore. Let’s change the subject”. As she sings the word “clowns”, she emphasizes the hard ‘k’ and makes the word almost two vowels (KUH – lowns).

[edit] Bridge
Just when I'd stopped opening doors,
Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours,
Making my entrance again with my usual flair,
Sure of my lines,
No one is there.

Just when I'd stopped opening doors, Desirée remembers that, after years of flitting from affair to affair (“opening doors”), she is now ready to “stop opening doors”.

Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours, The important word is “that”, which does not mean “that person”. Instead, the word “that” refers to “that door”. The phrase, “knowing the one that I wanted was yours”, refers to the “door” to Fredrik’s heart and can be paraphrased: “finally I discovered that, after spending my life searching for true love, I know that you are my true love.”

Making my entrance again with my usual flair Desirée’s theatrical background as an actress is apparent in her expression about “making [her] entrance”, which she often does “with [her] usual flair”. Sondheim wrote the word “flair” itself to be sung with flair: "She is an actress, and she is used to sweeping in and out, so there is a certain amount of self-irony . . . ."[5]

Sure of my lines Desirée uses another theatrical expression about being “sure of [her] lines”. she was sure that her proposal to Fredrik, which she made just before this song, would be successful, but . . .

No one is there. That is, after opening so many doors looking for true love, she finally came to her senses and opened “Fredrik’s door”, but he was not there – he rejected her, after so many previous times when Fredrik proposed to her, but she rejected him. Desirée is surprised, hurt, angry and full of regret – at herself and her situation. She is not angry at Fredrik but at herself. Desirée almost whispers the line, demonstrating that “no one is there”.

To paraphrase the bridge, “Just when I’d stopped looking for lovers, Finally realizing that I love only you, I came to you again, Sure that you would accept me as your lover, But you refused.”

[edit] Third Verse
Don't you love farce?
My fault I fear.
I thought that you'd want what I want.
Sorry, my dear.
But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don't bother, they're here.

Don't you love farce? Like the first sentences of the previous verses, this is a rhetorical question that means, “My performance in my relationship with Fredrik is not a love story but a farce – a bitter tragedy.” Of course, “farce” is yet another of the many theatrical references that permeate the song. A farce is a type of comedy with improbable situations and often sexual innuendo, like her life.

My fault I fear. Of course, Desirée blames only herself.

I thought that you'd want what I want. Desirée believed that Fredrik would accept her as his true love, just as she is ready (finally) to accept him.

Sorry, my dear. Desirée is sorry for her mistaken belief. She is sorry for the situation she has created. As she sings, her self-loathing increases.

But where are the clowns? Desirée is asking rhetorically, “My performance is horrible.”

Quick, send in the clowns. This repeats the phrase. Sondheim instructs that the word “quick” should be sung quickly and with a clipped phrasing, because the "quick has an angry separation".[6] This line is sung in complete contrast with the line in the fourth verse, “Well, maybe next year.” As she begins to sing the line at this point in the drama, Fredrik begins to walk toward Desirée, who until that point had been singing (thinking) to herself. As Fredrik approaches, she turns toward him and sings, in an angry, bitter manner . . .

Don't bother, they're here. Desirée almost spits out the word “bother” (often pronounced with a ‘b’ that sounds like ‘p’). She has turned the title (the theatrical expression) upside down. As she sees Fredrik walking toward her, she suddenly realizes that “her horrible life’s performance” results from its actors: herself and Fredrik.

The meaning of this last line requires an understanding of context. Sondheim explains that, in the drama, this is the last line, the climax and the entire point of the song. (Note that it is indeed the last line of the scene in the drama, as explained below.) In the previous scene, Desirée was rejected by Fredrik. In this scene, as she sings the song, she sings of her anger and regret. The scene ends as Fredrik walks toward her, and she sings the last line, which may be paraphrased as “Don’t bother to change the subject, because we ourselves are the subject: we are the horrible actors in this tragic, farcical performance – we are clowns”.

As she sings the last line of the fourth verse, she looks up and sees Fredrik. Therefore, the line, "Don't bother, they're here" makes sense.

Fredrik's Lines
After Desirée sings the angry line of regret, "Don't bother, they're here", Fredrik says the following to her:[7] "I never should have come. I’m sorry. To flirt with rescue when one has no intention of being saved. Do try to forgive me." Judy Dench commented that this reference to "being saved" echoes Desirée's proposal to save Fredrik. Fredrik walks away from Desirée, who reprises the song.

[edit] Fourth verse
Isn't it rich?
Isn't it queer,
Losing my timing this late
In my career?
And where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.

Isn't it rich? This repeats the opening line of the first verse. As there, Desirée means “This situation is so ironic”.

Isn't it queer, This echoes the first line and means “This situation is so absurd.”

Losing my timing this late This is another theatrical reference, which describes the irony of her realization, too late, of her love for Fredrik.

In my career? Another reference to her career as an actress: her entire life has been a theatrical performance.

And where are the clowns? Desirée wants to change the subject, to think of something other than her anger and regret.

There ought to be clowns. She repeats her desire for theatrical effect.

Well, maybe next year. The final line of this reprise adds a touch of hope that Desirée will find happiness. After the horrible performance that her life has been, she longs for, but she cannot find, something to save her life’s performance from this tragic farce. But Desirée does not abandon all hope -- she hopes that her life’s performance will be a success and that she will find true her love with Fredrik “maybe next year”. Sondheim teaches that the word "quick" in verse four has an angry separation, but the word "well" in this verse has a kind of resigned separation and should be sung almost as an interjection, not really part of the phrase


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much =) I really enjoyed it and hleped me to understand.

Beth said...

I also heard this song many times as a little girl, but when I heard it just now on So You Think You Can Dance, I suddenly needed to know what it meant and your explanation was terrific. Thank you.

Magoozan said...

That's so funny, I looked it up too after seeing it on the show tonight. I've always liked this song, but had no clue what it was about. I had always liked Krusty's version of it from the Simpsons. But after reading this and watching that AMAZING clip -- wow! I was blown away. Thanks!!!

vicario3 said...

I truly understand the song .
I have lived for many years.
We were truly fools.
Maybe next year,maybe not.

angelo said...

After feeling like this and living through it, the song means so much more.Loosing someone is like loosing a bestfriend ...never to be seen again .A life of change.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. Its a beautiful song and you have explained it in a beautiful way.

kimlouise said...

Thank you great site

Anonymous said...

I just saw the revival on Broadway and came to your site after watching Bernadette Peters performances seeking more clarification.
You do a great job. Thanks.

rytysdad said...

this is the best explaination I've ever heard for this song. Very nice detail. A friend is doing this song as requested by her voice teacher and asked me what it meant. I found this and forwarded it to her. Again: Good Job!

monish said...

I guess it goes for all folks of either sex who r impulsive, insensitive and kinda care free who really don't know how much their words, actions and attitude hurts others untill they too get miffed in this round world with gravity. beauty doesn't last, love does ......... a wonderful masterpiece, the world owes sonbheim a zillion

monish gaur

q4 said...

Beautiful song! i wonder if there's a list with all those who sang this song.

I'm looking for the name of a man who did it mid 70ies.



Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I just listened to Barbra Streisand sing this and she has another verse. It goes like this:

What a surprise!
Who could foresee
I 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 cliché

And then she doesn't end it with the hope of "Maybe next year", she ends it with "Don't bother they're here."

It's so beautiful, sad
and so tragic. I love it!!

Gresham said...

I'm really sad to learn the song lyrics were written to such a specefic purpose and meaning by Sondheim; all my adult life I took it to be a regertful, yet no-fault, benign explaination of lovers come to the mutual conclusion that break-up/divorce is the best alternative to continuing mismatched. It struck me as if they are reminiscing over the folly of the real-life farce of their disintegrated relationship, calling themselves clowns. Maybe I thought they were parted with some respect and friendship intact, but tinged with feeling the bittersweetness life delivers so consistently.

Allan Trivette said...

What a beautiful breakdown of the meaning of each line of lyrics! I totally LIVE for this kind of in-depth analysis!! Finding the motivations of characters, the hidden meanings to sarcastic lines or words and, finally, the artistic way a writer reveals these things. "Send In The Clowns" is at the very top of the list for this. While I've always gotten the "overall" message of the song, your intricate break down of each line has added such profound depth to the song that I just can not thank you enough. You are the kind of person I would LOVE to see a play with, or a movie, a ballet, etc., and then discuss the why's and wherefore's that were presented. SUPERB!!!!!

Anonymous said...

this line by line explanation was amazing! thank you.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely loved reading this. I stumbled on your blog while searching for the meaning of Both Sides Now which eventually led me to YouTube to watch performances. Noticing a clip of Barbra Streisand singing Send in the Clowns I thought to myself, "oh yeah, there's another one", so on another search I went. Thank you. It made perfect sense to me.

Anonymous said...

beautifully explained, thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite songs of all time;I always got the gist of it but this explanation was very fulfilling.

Fred 7 April 2015

Anonymous said...

This is definitely the richest, most accurate and most complete guide to the meaning of this song I have seen on the Internet. Outstanding.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating, as a doctor and a geriatrician-facing death of my patient

Sometimes so very regretfull of passing away many Deisrees and many Frdricks

And many have were Desires and Fredrick but utterly not clowns

It is both a somber experience and sometimes a delight

Knowing I that I do love and love to aspire to the line Maybe next year.

Also knowing the next year may never come as the numbers of years left are decreasing

and having been a Fredrick myself-but having been a clown at the same time.

And having known a Desiree as well. Who still seems to be a clown

I must say "Isn't is rich" and Isn't it even more queer

I must believe in "Maybe next next year.." Even though the next year may never come.

I have to at least believe it for for the sake of my patient's " maybe next year" will come.

And sometimes I believe I must lie when the end is near for my patient's who have been clown . That perhaps Maybe next year. With lips bit hard and a sinking heart.

Perhaps even Next year for myself.

I have always known there was depth and sadness and hope in the song becaue the eyes don't well up no reason at all.

Comments and criticism welcome.

My friends Maybe next year.

How wonder a genius who wrote this song.

God Bless the Man

Roger Koh said...

I appreciate your very in depth explanation. I love this song before reading this and now I love it more.

Michael Shell said...

I am confused. YOu give a very descriptive account of Desiree and Fredrik's past but there is no indication in the script or score that Fredrik asked Desiree to marry him. Where are you getting this information?

Anonymous said...

I absolutely LOVED this article. It helped me a lot, since I'm not a usual theater-goer and the lyrics are kind of rhetorical.

Thanks A LOT.

György Tibor Szántó said...

There is a van Morrison version too to it.He sang as guest at Ronnie Scott's and is accompanied by the late great Chat Baker,about a year before his death.Van Morrison makes this song so universal, tremendously painful and torn out of its original theatrical context only to elevate it to a high place up above where all grieavaces of each and every one of us combine.People listen clearly in awe and mesmerized.
Great,great song and verse.
George Szanto,Budapest,Hungary,
(Sorry to interfere.)

Anonymous said...

Finally!!! Gracias!

Anonymous said...

thank you for this article
for years this song has always made me teary eyed when I heard it. Now I have more of an understanding of why.

Anonymous said...

I'm somewhat surprised at the comments here -
How could the song mean anything else other than what is shared above??? Isn't it pretty clear from the lyric as is???
Wow, folks, stretch yourselves some, learn and use the English language!
Although I might would differ very slightly in some of the motivational interpretation. I've seen it done by an incredible actress where the scene was played with more gentle (though still from the depths of regret and sadness) bitterness and irony,less anger. I thought it was devastatingly effective - the line "don't bother...they're here" was done devoid of anger but dripping with regret and the irony of self realization and sadness so deep that it made her numb. It made you ache for the character so hard, having fallen so far, and only now seeing it. the representation of her quietly giving up on life and love was beyond sad. Everyone in the theater choked back crazy sobs as she delivered this.

Francois Robillard said...

I knew that song by Sarah Vaughan rendition with the Count Basie Orchestra on record but was flabbergasted when I heard it by Carmen McRae in concert. It is still one of my favorites. The emotion, the regret and the longing expressed in this song are giving me goose bumps every time I hear it. And your interpretation of the lyrics were greatly appreciated.

Joe Martin said...

I know that Sondheim says that the song is not referring to circus clowns, and in the context of the musical, it certainly does have more specific meaning.

Still, he uses imagery which certainly fits with a circus imagery. When a trapeze artist fell & was injured or killed (or there was some other tragic accident in a performance) the command was to “send in the clowns” in order to distract the audience from the accident while the injured performer was rushed off-scene. (After all, the audience was there to be entertained.)
Here are Sondheim’s words that fit that a circus trapeze-fall imagery:
> Me here at last on the ground
> You in mid-air
> One who can't move

But certain images in the song definitely are more directly from the theater – which of course is the context in the story:
> Making my entrance again with my usual flair
> Sure of my lines
> Don't you love farce?

A line which fits equally well a circus or a theater context is this:
> Losing my timing this late in my career

I have to accept Sondheim’s denial that he intended to refer to circus clowns and that “send in the fools” is closer to his meaning. Even so, he has – whether inadvertently or subconsciously – used lines which fit the circus imagery well.