Like many songs of the era, the true meaning behind the lyrics is somewhat esoteric. It appears that the singer is going through some hard times, trying to figure out the disappointments of life in general and relationships in particular. Then this “Send in the clowns” line pops up. What’s with that?
Here’s a reminder of the first verse:
Send In The Clowns
Words & Music by Stephen Sondheim
Isn’t it rich? Aren’t we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground, and you in mid-air.
Send in the clowns.
Isn’t it bliss? Don’t you approve?
One who keeps tearing around, and one who can’t move.
But where are the clowns? Send in the clowns.
Allow me to explain about the clowns.
In any live performance, sometimes “stuff” happens. When it happens on Broadway, that usually means somebody forgot their line. Or a dancer has a sprained ankle. Or the tuba player has asthma.
But when “stuff” happens in the circus, it may mean that somebody just fell off the high-wire and is now laying in two pieces in the middle of ring number two. Or some trapeze artist ate too much buttered popcorn and his slick fingers failed to catch his partner. Or somebody got his head bit off. Literally.
Who cares about asthmatic musicians when performers are dying?
In the tradition of “the show must go on”, well, the show must go on. The traditional response by the circus management is to send the clowns in to entertain and distract the audience while the maintenance crew mops up the mess in the dark, leaving the audience to wonder if that was really all part of the act.
When tragedy strikes the circus, the cry goes out backstage: “Send in the clowns!” And everybody knows exactly what that means.
Sometimes life is like that. Sometimes things get so bent out of shape that you find yourself looking around for the clowns. Surely there must be some comic relief around here. Surely. Somewhere.
But not always. Here’s the last verse:
Isn’t it rich? Isn’t it queer,
Losing my timing this late in my career?
But where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns...
Well, maybe next year.
The clowns don’t always show up. Sometimes there is no comic relief.
Sometimes you just have to face your problems with no help. Either that, or find your own clowns. Because this ain’t the circus.