Send in the Clowns

Originally Performed By Glynis Johns
Original AlbumA Little Night Music (February 25, 1973)
Music/LyricsStephen Sondheim
Phish Debut2019-12-31
Last Played2019-12-31
Current Gap164
HistorianCassidy McManus (donttouchthatknob)
Last Update2023-10-26


“There ought to be clones…” 

Phish’s music has always had a theatrical quality to it. Phish expresses emotions in ways that are larger than life. Their music is full of sudden emotional shifts. Many of the early Phish tunes were written for a musical concept album. As a teen, Trey played a role in The Pirates of Penzance. Trey has even been nominated for a Tony Award for the score he wrote with Amanda Green, Hands on a Hardbody. Musical theater is very much one of the many many styles of music in the cosmic gumbo we call Phish. 

While the DNA of musical theater is seeped into a lot of the band’s songs, they don’t perform very much rep from the musical theater canon. Besides the one-off performance of “Night and Day” or the twice performed “New York, New York,” the only “mainstay” is Fishman singing “If I Only Had a Brain.” The most recently played Phish musical theater song new to the repertoire is Stephen Sondheim’s classic “Send in the Clowns.”

Stephen Sondheim - "Send in the Clowns" - Video by Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim was an American composer and lyricist, who is best known for his work on the Broadway stage. He started his career writing the lyrics to classics like West Side Story and Gypsy. But Sondheim’s most critically acclaimed work comes from the 1970s and 1980s, where he wrote the scores to modern classics including Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Company, and Sunday in the Park with George, among countless others. Sondheim’s unique sense of rhythm and rhyme, combined with his cynical look on relationships and people, helped turn him into one of the 20th century’s most celebrated writers for the stage. 

Trey has made his love of Sondheim known. In an article published for the composer’s ninetieth birthday, he said, “My mother was a huge fan of Broadway’s golden age. She had all the original cast recordings, and she gave them to me when I was about 10 years old. Gypsy was the one that I played until it wore out the grooves. My childhood favorite was probably “Mr. Goldstone”: 'Have a lychee, Mr. Goldstone/ Tell me any little thing that I can do/ Ginger peachy, Mr. Goldstone/ Have a kumquat, have two!' The show had a huge effect on my career, as crazy as that sounds. It was just a giant, giant part of my musical upbringing and landscape.” 

Send in the Clowns” was written by Sondheim in 1973 for the musical A Little Night Music. Sung by the character Deirdre, the song is about an old actress reflecting on her life and realizing the man she fell for would never love her back. The act of sending in the clowns is not about literal clowns but about the old theater concept of following a tragedy with a comedy. By the end of the song, the clowns refer to Deirdre and her lover themselves. The song was written for Glynis Johns, who originated the role, during the show’s Broadway previews. The song was built around Johns’ voice, which Sondheim himself described as “a lovely, crystal voice, but sustaining notes was not her thing.” Because of this, the song’s melody is made up of short phrases with very few sustained notes.

Glynis Johns “Send in the Clowns” - Video by mitchellivers

When A Little Night Music debuted, the song was an instant favorite with theater audiences, but it was the covers, first by Frank Sinatra and later Judy Collins’ Grammy-winning rendition, that helped cement the song in popular culture. To this day, it remains one of Sondheim’s most recognized songs.This heartbreaking, angry ballad about an old woman’s regrets may not seem like an obvious choice for Phish to cover, but with its closing lyric, “send in the clowns, there ought to be clowns, well maybe next year,” it was a perfect opportunity to be included as part of a New Year’s Eve gag. 

The night before New Year’s Eve on 12/30/19, after an all-time greatTweezer,” Trey told a “pan story” from when they first played Madison Square Garden 25 years before, referencing getting hit in the head by someone backstage. The next night after “Axilla” in set one, the band continued the “pan story,” referencing pan flute player Zamfir, who proceeded to walk on the stage to his music (played by Richard Glasgow, a.k.a. Dickie Scotland). These lead-up-to-the-gag moments were Phish at one of their weirdest and funniest.

Opening the third set of 12/31/19,  after the stage had been completely cleared of instruments, equipment, and lights, aside from four microphones on a stand, a “backstage conversation" was played over the speakers:

Page: Hello, Trey?
Trey: What’s up Page?
Page: These microphones are not on, are they?
Trey: Nope, the microphones are not on, our headset mics are turned off, no one in The Garden, can hear a single word we say. What’s up?
Page: I am so excited right now, I can barely contain myself. I can not believe we are about to walk on stage and perform an entire set of jazz ballads a capella.
Trey: After 25 years into our career at MSG, we’re finally gonna give the people what they want, right on stage, an entire set of jazz a capella ballads for our New Year’s set. It’s gonna be perfect.
Fishman: That is, provided that Zamfir does not show up at the last second and hit us with a pan. Because when that has happened in the past… strange things have occurred
Mike: You know what I think. I think that’s him right there walking toward us!

The band then walked onto the stage to the spot-lit mics, each dressed in different color outfits, to the intro piano of “Send In the Clowns.” The band then sang this debut in their usual four-part harmonies, with Trey taking the melody in the verses and Page taking the melody in the bridge, with piano notes continuing over the speakers.

Lyrically, they were faithful to the original, with one notable exception critical to the gag that would follow: instead of clowns, the band sang to send in THE CLONES. 

Phish “Send in the Clones” – 12/31/19, New York, NY

Following this performance, the band was hoisted in the air on platforms, and a group of clones of all four members of the band emerged for a dance routine set to “First Tube.” The less faithful will lead you to believe the clones were a group of professional dancers all wearing wigs and matching outfits as the band. In either case, the clones then stayed out for the third set, providing beautiful choreography and adding vocals to all of the songs. 

This is the only performance of “Send in the Clowns” and, based on precedent, it’s unlikely the band will play it again. Stephen Sondheim passed away on November 26, 2021, at the age of 91. His passing hit the theater world hard, with countless tributes, concerts, and restagings of his major works in the following year. The Broadway geeks amongst us wonder if the song will make a return, or if not, maybe another Sondheim song? Maybe an a capella “Being Alive”or “Sunday.” Or, if you’ll allow me a minute to dream, a full band “Cool.” But for now, send in the “Send in the Clowns.” There ought to be “Send in the Clowns.” Well, maybe next year.

Last significant update: 10/26/23

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