Thursday, June 17, 2010

Send out the fools, send in the clowns!

I've gone from not suffering fools gladly to demanding that we get some clowns on the scene, stat.


Quick background:

I wrote a blog post yesterday about the saying, "doesn't suffer fools gladly" (see post below - it's a barnburner) and ended it by saying: "Tomorrow: a complete analysis of Send in the Clowns."

Self-satisfied with my hilarious close, I popped open a beer, plunked my sorry carcass down on the couch, and watched last week's Tony Awards - the least-watched and most entertaining awards show on TV - and there was Catherine Zeta Jones singing...Send in the Clowns (above).

"Why, that's Kirk Douglas' fourth wife singing that song!" I yelped to the empty room, mentally checking off his other wives, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and the movie business.

As she sang the song, a Steven Sondheim composition from the 1973 musical A Little Night Music, I was sufficiently moved to momentarily wonder, "What the hell is this song about, anyway?"

Eight hours later, I woke up with a renewed sense of purpose to get to the bottom of it, and these words in my head:
But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don't bother, they're here.
Gee, I sure hope they're friendly clowns.


The first thing you have to do when you listen to the song is get these two versions of Send in the Clowns out of your head immediately:

Krusty the Clown:

U2 - the Electric Co (clowns arrive at 3:36)

U2 and Krusty? Strange days indeed.

Send in the Clowns is a strange song indeed, structurally - four verses and a bridge in triple time, three beats to the bar, waltz-style - and contextually.

In the musical, the song is sung by Desirée, who's feeling blue because she's living a life of regret and disappointment. I think I speak for all of us when I say, "Get in line, Desirée."

More specifically, she's pissed at her beau, Fredrik (not the kid in the white pantaloons from the Sound of Music) for not leaving his young wife for her. In light of this rejection, she sings this song:

Judy Collins has looked at clowns from both sides now.
Isn't it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air.
Send in the clowns.
So, she's depressed because her dude is happy, and the only way she can be happy is to get a little Volkswagen to roll up, and - cue hilarity - watch the clowns pour out of the car, right? Right!

Well, that was a hard day's work...err...turns out, my reading - and maybe everyone's reading - of the song is totally wrong.

Sondheim on clowns
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.
So, I found this interview with Steven Sondheim on YouTube here (embedding disabled, so I can't post it here - thanks, clowns).

He says:
"I get a lot of letters over the years asking what the title means and what the song's about; I never thought it would be in any way esoteric. I wanted to use theatrical imagery in the song, because she's an actress, but it's not supposed to be a "circus" - it's a theater reference meaning "if the show isn't going well, let's send in the clowns;" in other words, "let's do the jokes."
"I always want to know, when I'm writing a song, what the end is going to be, so Send in the Clowns didn't settle in until I got the notion, "Don't bother, they're here" which means that "We are the fools."
And then in the New York Times, he says:
"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." He agreed that "Send in the Fools" doesn't have the same ring to it."
Which actually makes this song the spiritual companion of "doesn't suffer fools gladly?" Except, we're suffering because we're the fools? Like, I'm funny? Like I amuse you? Like I make you laugh? Like I'm a clown?

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.
Laugh not at the clown, for the fool is thee! Better get out the lipstick and greasepaint...

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