One magic trick performed by great musical theater lyricists I find particularly impressive is when a repeating lyrical hook, often found in the title, evolves throughout a song and takes on new meanings. Rather than just the usual redundant repetition, the same phrase progresses based off the goings-on of the verse, and it continues to shed light on a situation. I am always awestruck when a musical theater writer reaches this level of lyrical complexity. Usually an actor is left to come up with his or her own intention for each repeated lyric; in this case, the lyricist has made his intents obvious and draws a clear arch for the actor.
“Send in the Clowns” from Act Two of A Little Night Music is a perfect example. In this song, Desirée looks back at an affair she had many years prior with the lawyer Fredrik. He had asked for her hand in marriage all those years ago, but she rejected him. She has finally returned to tell Fredrik she is ready for the commitment, but he informs her he is now dedicated to a new, younger bride.
Desiree is an actress, so Sondheim uses theatrical vocabulary and imagery throughout the song. “Send in the Clowns” starts as a show business reference, which is to say, “This show isn’t going well, so let’s start giving them our best jokes!” As Desiree rummages through her life’s disappointments in this ballad, she realizes what fools she and Fredrik both are. The lyric “send in the clowns” takes on an entirely new meaning at this point- these two tired old people with a long list of regrets are the clowns.