Never have I enjoyed a song sung so well
Composing a song, especially about love, is not as easy as it used to be. The age of Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Lerner and Loewe, is over. But there is one indisputable exception, and that is the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, especially in the haunting and now quietly aging lyrics of “Send in the Clowns.”
Even in its seminal recordings by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins in the mid-1970s, it is haunting and hummable still. Sarah Vaughan’s version, though, — one of them — is a particular favorite of mine. Still, nothing compares with Judi Dench’s performance that you can see on the YouTube recording of the 2010 BBC Proms. She was 75 then, and Sondheim was 80.
Now it’s a full decade later.
Dench is pure magic. I believe she’s the greatest actress of all time. She’s short. I believe I’m a full inch, maybe two, taller than she is. I aspire to characteristics that friends use to describe her, like “hooligan” and “joker.” Her antics, including rapping with her grandson on TikTok, are priceless, and did I mention that she’s 85 now?
And on top of all that, she can sing. She doesn’t have the greatest range, but her rendition of that Sondheim classic is pitch-perfect and in perfect accord with her self-described “menopausal” performance of “Cleopatra” on stage when she was 60-something.
The song, of course, is a perfect companion. A ready reference has told me that “Send in the clowns” is circus talk, a way of saying that when there’s a fiasco, you “send in the clowns” to cover it over. They are the perfect distraction; they will rescue and re-stage you.
In the play called “A Little Night Music,” the main character, Desiree, meets the love of her life again when she’s older. Ready now to do what she wouldn’t do then, Desiree longs for him. But he doesn’t for her anymore. It is over. To that, Sondheim says:
Isn’t it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air,
Where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
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
…But where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns
Well, maybe next year
When you go to Google for Judi Dench in the 2010 Proms, I want you to notice how flawlessly she takes the stage; how effortlessly she appears; and how much she’s revered by that audience. I have seen Judi Dench in performance everywhere I could short of ever being abroad. I saw “Shakespeare In Love” in which she won an Oscar for only eight minutes onscreen. I was a fan of all her “M”s as the boss of James Bond.
I’ve seen and I know all her tricks. But I’m always surprised; always delighted. As when she slipped quietly onstage to such thunderous applause. And when she smiled at that audience in that way to say thank you. And when without artifice, she slipped into performance, becoming Desiree in that song.
And how finally when she came out of that song, she did not linger but gracefully left the stage for the next performer.
If ever a song and composer were made for each other, this is the one.
Sondheim and Dench.
Go hear it now.
Yolande Robbins is a community columnist for The Vicksburg Post.