First, a notice to all wannabe cabaret stars and Australian Idol contestants: never under any circumstances sing Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Send In the Clowns’ when auditioning for a musical or the like. You’ll be pegged as a tragic amateur, impaled on a flaming skewer of queer vitriol and tossed out the stage door on your barista arse. This once sublime show tune has long been a sad parody of itself; due to decades of other vocalists chowing down on to it like flies on rancid mutton. ‘Send In The Clowns’ is now the obligatory ‘poor me’ number that lounge singers will invariably pull out of their bag of tricks to try and make you sob in your veal parmigana. To really appreciate how sickening this show tune has become, just know this: even gays openly gag on it. I’ve seen it.
No doubt you would have heard one of it’s versions: whether that be by Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Cleo Laine, Acker Bilk, Grace Jones (a disco version? what on earth was she thinking?) Judi Dench, Shirley Bassey, Glen Close or for the under 30s, Krusty the Clown. But to fully appreciate it’s cyanide choking qualities, one must be forced to hear it (or in my case accompany the damn thing) in the most horrifying of venues: the cabaret lounge.
For fear of litigation, let’s call her Fifi Whatsherface. Imagine a creepy chanteuse who resembled Jocelyn Wildenstein after ten skin grafts draped in a red feather boa and sprawled across a baby grand. The band had several nicknames for her but my favourite was always ‘Lumpy: The Sequined Sausage’. Her first set would usually comprise of mangled interpretations of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Peggy Lee and, to show you she was impossibly hip, some selections from Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Ahem. ‘Send in the Clowns’ would unfailingly set the tone for the second set. The piano would begin with a sideways version of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ as Fifi stared cross-eyed into the imaginary distance. ‘Isn’t it riiiiiiii-CH…? Are we a paaaaaair?’ As she continued chomping away at the melody like some hyena feasting on a slow moving yak, Fifi then informed us she’s on the ground watching someone in mid-air. ‘Alrighty’, you think to yourself. Who exactly? The window washer? A bungee jumper? Spiderman perhaps? At the end of the first stanza she makes some half-arsed request for somebody to ‘send in the clowns’ At this point most of the audience (and the band) would motion the waiter to send in the booze. I think you get the idea.
I remember first hearing it when Barbara Streisand got a hold of it and being utterly clueless as to it’s meaning. Maybe because Stephen Sondheim was an obsessive wordsmith, known for going to great lengths to avoid being obvious. Which is great I suppose, but his songs only work within the context of the stage production they belong to. To worsen matters, he was oft inclined to shove a thesaurus into a blender and hit frappe. Now anyone that’s bothered to decipher the meaning of this song, probably think it’s about loss and regret. Oh no my friends. It’s the ‘poor me’ whimperings of a has-been who probably ate personal assistants for breakfast (or in my case publicly abuse the poor bass player for drinking on the job) Besides, anyone that talks about entering a room with their usual flair and walks like a duck in urgent need of a proctologist needs to have words ‘insufferably pretentious’ stamped on their foreheads.