Send In the Clowns

"Send In the Clowns" is a song written by Stephen Sondheim for the 1973 musical A Little Night Music, an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night. It is a ballad from Act Two, in which the character Desirée reflects on the ironies and disappointments of her life. Among other things, she looks back on an affair years earlier with the lawyer Fredrik, who was deeply in love with her but whose marriage proposals she had rejected. Meeting him after so long, she realizes she is in love with him and finally ready to marry him, but now it is he who rejects her: he is in an unconsummated marriage with a much younger woman. Desirée proposes marriage to rescue him from this situation, but he declines, citing his dedication to his bride. Reacting to his rejection, Desirée sings this song. The song is later reprised as a coda after Fredrik's young wife runs away with his son, and Fredrik is finally free to accept Desirée's offer.

Sondheim wrote the song specifically for Glynis Johns, who created the role of Desirée on Broadway. The song is structured with four verses and a bridge, and uses a complex compound meter. It became Sondheim's most popular song after Frank Sinatra recorded it in 1973 and Judy Collins' version charted in 1975 and 1977. Subsequently, numerous other artists recorded the song, and it has become a jazz standard.

Meaning of title

The "clowns" in the title do not refer to circus clowns. Instead, they symbolize fools, as Sondheim explained in a 1990 interview:In a 2008 interview, Sondheim further clarified:


Judi Dench, who performed the role of Desirée in London, commented on the context of the song during an interview with Alan Titchmarsh. The play is "a dark play about people who, at the beginning, are with wrong partners and in the end it is hopefully going to become right, and she (Desirée) mistimes her life in a way and realizes when she re-meets the man she had an affair with and had a child by (though he does not know that), that she loves him and he is the man she wants."

Some years before the play begins, Desirée was a young, attractive actress, whose passions were the theater and romance. She lived her life dramatically, flitting from man to man. Fredrik was one of her many lovers and fell deeply in love with Desirée, but she declined to marry him. The play implies that when they parted Desirée may have been pregnant with his child.

A few months before the play begins, Fredrik married a beautiful young woman who at 18 years old was much younger than he. In Act One, Fredrik meets Desirée again, and is introduced to her daughter, a precocious adolescent suggestively named Fredrika. Fredrik explains to Desirée that he is now married to a young woman he loves very much, but that she is still a virgin, continuing to refuse to have sex with him. Desirée and Fredrik then make love.

Act Two begins days later, and Desirée realizes that she truly loves Fredrik. She tells Fredrik that he needs to be rescued from his marriage, and she proposes to 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, and apologizes for having misled her. Desirée remains sitting on the bed; depending on the production, Fredrik walks across the room or stays seated on the bed next to her. Desirée – feeling both intense sadness and anger, at herself, her life and her choices – sings "Send in the Clowns". She is, in effect, using the song "to cover over a moment when something has gone wrong on stage. Midway through the second Act she has deviated from her usual script by suggesting to Fredrik the possibility of being together seriously and permanently, and, having been rejected, she falters as a show-person, finds herself bereft of the capacity to improvise and wittily cover. If Desirée could perform at this moment – revert to the innuendos, one-liners and blithe self-referential humour that constitutes her normal character – all would be well. She cannot, and what follows is an exemplary manifestation of Sondheim’s musico-dramatic complexity, his inclination to write music that performs drama. That is, what needs to be covered over (by the clowns sung about in the song) is the very intensity, ragged emotion and utter vulnerability that comes forward through the music and singing itself, a display protracted to six minutes, wrought with exposed silences, a shocked Fredrik sitting so uncomfortably before Desirée while something much too real emerges in a realm where he – and his audience – felt assured of performance."

Not long thereafter, Fredrik's young wife runs away with his son, so he is free to accept Desirée's proposal, and the song is reprised as a coda.



Sondheim wrote the lyrics and music over a two-day period during rehearsals for the play's Broadway debut,

The song uses an unusual and complex meter, which alternates between and .

The dramatic performer must take on the character of Desirée: a woman who finally realizes that she has misspent her youth on the shallow life. She is both angry and sad, and both must be seen in the performance. Two important examples are the contrast between the lines, "Quick, send in the clowns" and "Well, maybe next year." Sondheim teaches that the former should be steeped in self-loathing, while the latter should emphasize regret.}}

Another example arises from Sondheim's roots as a speaker of American rather than British English: The line "Don't you love farce?" features two juxtaposed labiodental fricative sounds (the former [v] voiced, the latter [f] devoiced). American concert and stage performers will often fail to "breathe" and/or "voice" between the two fricatives, leading audiences familiar with British slang to hear "Don't you love arse?", misinterpreting the lyric or at the least perceiving an unintended double entendre. Sondheim agrees that "[i]t's an awkward moment in the lyric, but that v and that f should be separated." Sinatra's version plays in the end credits of Todd Phillips' 2019 film Joker.

Two years later Judy Collins recorded "Send in the Clowns" for her album Judith. The song was released as a single, which soon became a major pop hit. It remained on the Billboard Hot 100 for 11 weeks in 1975, reaching Number 36. The single again reached the Billboard Hot 100 in 1977, where it remained for 16 weeks and reached Number 19. At the Grammy Awards of 1976, the Collins performance of the song was named Song of the Year. After Sinatra and Collins recorded the song, it was recorded by Bing Crosby, Kenny Rogers, and Lou Rawls.

In 1985, Sondheim added a verse for Barbra Streisand to use on The Broadway Album and subsequent concert performances. Her version reached No. 25 on the Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary chart in 1986.

The song has become a jazz standard, with performances by Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, the Stan Kenton Orchestra and many others. The definitive version was performed by the Phish from Vermont as part of the 2020 New Years celebration at Madison Square Garden. It has been recorded by more than 900 singers.

Chart history

Weekly charts

;Judy Collins

Year-end charts

;Lani Hall

;Barbra Streisand

Other versions

  • A snippet of "Send In the Clowns" appears as part of the song "The Electric Co." on the U2 album Under A Blood Red Sky. However, the band lacked appropriate licensing and failed to pay the required royalties; they were fined $50,000. They removed the song clip from subsequent pressings of the album.
  • In 1977 David Essex and Twiggy performed a duet version on Essex's BBC TV show, in character as two clowns removing their greasepaint after a performance. At the conclusion, Essex threw a pie in Twiggy's face.
  • It is the first track on Grace Jones first album, from 1977, "Portfolio".
  • In December 2010, Stephen Colbert wrote and performed an "extended ending" to "Send in the Clowns" to composer Stephen Sondheim when he appeared on Colbert's program, The Colbert Report. "Where are the clowns? / I booked them for eight / Oh wait that's them on the phone / Saying they're late / Traffic was bad / The tunnel's a mess / All twelve of them came in one car / They lost my address / You just can't trust clowns / That's why they're called clowns."
  • Krusty sings his own version of the song, with new lyrics to make it more clown-focused in the episode "Krusty Gets Kancelled" from the Simpsons fourth season.
  • In a concert at Madison Square Garden on August 3, 2019, Barbra Streisand sang a version with altered lyrics including "Who is this clown?", criticizing president Donald Trump.
  • At their New Year’s Eve show on December 31, 2019 at Madison Square Garden, Phish played a modified version of the song as their midnight ‘gag’ with the word “clowns” replaced by “clones”. Just before midnight, the band appeared on stage dressed in four colors. As they ascended into mid-air on four moving platforms while playing the song, many color-coded look-alikes of the band appeared on stage beneath them and danced in synchronization.