Isn’t it rich?
New Yorkers for the next few weeks can hear on three different nights three different live, world-class renditions of one of the world’s favorite songs: Stephen Sondheim’s standard, “Send in the Clowns.”
On Tuesday night, Judy Collins, kicked off a two month long engagement at Café Carlyle. As her encore, the renowned singer-songwriter delivered a simple, yet eloquent version of “Send in the Clowns.” Collins’ recording of this song, from her album “Judith”, is arguably the most popular version of all of its incarnations, given its endless weeks on the pop charts during the 1970’s (it also won a Grammy award for Song of the Year, 1976).
At seventy-one years of age, Collins performed a beautifully rhapsodic set at the Carlyle (accompanied on the piano by Russell Walden) with wispy rambling between songs and her pure, crystal tone sounding as if her voice hadn’t aged since the 1960s. Even when her voice strained a little, Collins’ expressive gifts more than compensated (if anything, the limitations gave a more focused quality to her normally dreamy interpretation). Collins still looks stunning and remains a natural and magnanimous presence on stage. Her “Send in the Clowns” is but one of many delights in an intimate, evening of song.
Only a few blocks away from the Carlyle, at Studio 54, the new Broadway musical Sondheim on Sondheim actually shows a clip of Collins singing “Send in the Clowns.” It’s part of an amusing mash-up of different people—famous pros as well as outrageous amateurs—performing the song on YouTube. The montage is supposed to show how ubiquitous the number is. It works perfectly, but it’s not the most memorable performance in the show. That would belong to Barbara Cook who sings, “Send in the Clowns” (sans video) in the second act. As opposed to Collins, Cook (long an acclaimed interpreter of Sondheim) stresses the dramatic shape of Sondheim’s verses. Collins brings out the smooth, simple emotions of the music, whereas Cook interprets each line as if it were a scene in a Five Act Drama. Besides a slick, striptease singing of “Ah, but Underneath” from Follies (a number not heard in New York productions, as it was written for a London staging with Diana Rigg in the 1980’s) by Vanessa Williams, Cook’s “Send in the Clowns” is the only real virtuoso moment in an otherwise musically tepid show. (It is, however, required viewing for Sondheim fans, who may sometimes cringe at the singing—like Tom Wopat mangling “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George—but will still want to see the video shot inside the composer’s Turtle Bay house and hear the anecdotes and “lost” numbers from his early shows.)
A few more blocks down Broadway, Catherine Zeta-Jones is also performing “Send in the Clowns” on a nightly basis—singing where it originated: in Act II of the musical A Little Night Music. Zeta-Jones brings little in terms of interpretive brilliance to the song, but she has the advantage of performing the number in its full context, where it rightly has the most impact. The Welsh superstar is no slouch; she sings “Send in the Clowns” fully and with grace—and her chemistry with the “clown” she’s in love with, Alexander Hanson’s Frederik, gives the scene added charm. (She may even take home the Tony for the part.)
If these three interpretations weren’t enough—there was one other world-class performance of “Send in the Clowns” in Manhattan recently. Opera star Frederica von Stade gave her farewell concert at Carnegie Hall on April 22—and after an intoxicating evening of lieder, opera, and folk songs, “Flicka” (as she is known to her many fans) sang as her final curtain call: “Send in the Clowns.” It was achingly slow, very melodramatic and sentimental (even bordering on camp) but it was powerful. Von Stade is a consummate vocal artist, and she brought over 40 years of singing in the most important theaters around the world to the weary, worldly lyrics of Sondheim’s song. Like Collins, the voice is no longer as rich as it once was, but Sondheim’s song (written for Glynis Johns, who was already 50 when she originated the part of Desiree on Broadway) is not about vocal perfection, but about character and feeling. Fredrica von Stade has never lacked for either of those qualities. A touching farewell to which one can only say—as one can say for this rare alignment of stars for the these next few weeks: Isn’t it bliss?
Judy Collins performs at Café Carlyle though June 12; Barbara Cook performs in Sondheim on Sondheim at Studio 54 until June 27 and Catherine Zeta-Jones in A Little Night Music continues its open ended run at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
Images: Judy Collins courtesy Café Carlyle. Frederica von Stade courtesy Carnegie Hall.