Lyric discussion by viceprincipalgupta 

Sondheim wrote this song for a character named Desiree in his musical "A Little Night Music." Desiree is an actress approaching fifty. She spent her younger years "tearing around" with a bunch of men and never actually settled down. One of the men was Fredrik, who wanted a committed relationship from her when they were younger. He truly loved her. She turned down his proposal because she was not yet ready to be "on the ground."

Years later, they find each other. Fredrik has a very young and very beautiful (but very naive) wife. Desiree decides that she is going to seduce him and win him back because she is finally ready to give up all of her little affairs and settle down. She invites him to her mother's enormous estate in the country.

Much to her dismay, when she asks him if he will share with her a "coherent existence after so many years of muddle," he actually says no. He loves Desiree when his eyes are open, but when his eyes are not open -- which is most of the time -- he loves his young wife.

"Send in the Clowns" is Desiree's response to this rejection. She is disgusted with herself for having turned down his overtures when she was younger, but she is also bemused by the absurd irony. Since she is a person of the theater, she is used to having comedic moments (clowns) sent in to save a show that is failing. She says "send in the clowns" because she feels that the situation is so devastating and ridiculous that "there ought to be clowns." But there are already clowns -- She and Fredrik are the clowns; the fools. After she sings "Don't bother -- they're here," Fredrik apologizes to her and leaves the room.

She sings the last verse to herself. She is laughing at herself and crying for herself at the same time. Desiree, the "one who keeps tearing around," has lost her youthful mask.

Song Meaning

Interesting post, principal.

But there's soooooooooo many ways this song can be interpreted, IMHO. It's just a great universally sad song.

Two of my favorite ways to interpret it are thusly:

1.) a naive, idealistic 60s child who is upset with herself for having been so naive about her beloved country of America prior to Vietnam. I find this interpretative view to be particularly poignant because of Collins' idealistic 60s crowd.

Thank you for the detailed explanation. This is a song I just listened to on YouTube. From childhood I had always wondered what it meant, never fully taking the time to read/hear the lyrics. Now that you've explained it I see that it really is a well-written song rich with meaning. Plan to return to many of the songs from my youth and take the time to figure out their meanings. There were many excellent song writers in the 60's and 70's, although I am partial to those of the 70's.

this was brilliant

An error occured.