Vol. 5, No. 1, Summer 1998
Sondheim receives the William Inge Award at a festival in Kansas
News & Notes
A Little Night Music
For Your Amusement
By Terri Roberts
Few actresses are as closely associated with a Broadway song as Glynis Johns. Ever since her Tony Award-winning performance in A Little Night Music, her poignant interpretation of "Send in the Clowns" has left an indelible mark on the musical theatre.
Recently, over afternoon tea at the Westwood Marquis Hotel in Los Angeles, her face still round, her voice still raspy, Johns recalled the frustrating rehearsal that led Stephen Sondheim to write what would become both her signature song and his most publicly popular piece.
Johns and co-star Len Cariou had been rehearsing a pivotal, emotional scene between former lovers Desirée and Fredrik. Hugh Wheeler, who wrote the book, had rewritten the scene, but not much had changed. Cariou had gone to lunch while Johns, Wheeler and director Hal Prince sat on the floor discussing what to do next. Prince suggested that Johns explain to Wheeler how she felt about Desirée and what the woman would be feeling at the time. And Johns did so.
"(The explanation) made sense to Hugh," she said, "and it hit the button with Hal. So when Len came back from lunch, we very briefly filled him in, and then Hal said, 'Now I'd like you two to play the scene and ad-lib it.' And in the middle of this ad-libbing, Hal said he was going to ring Steve (Sondheim) and tell him to get there as soon as possible. This was at 3 p.m. Hal told Steve that he thought he would get an idea about my solo here. Hal instigated that! He had a genius for realizing what Steve needed to see to tip him off.
"So Steve arrived around 4 p.m. and watched it. Then he went off, came back at 10 the next morning, sat down and played 'Send in the Clowns.' Len and I were standing by the piano, and he played the first half a dozen notes, if that, and I had tears in my eyes. I could tell by the timbre of the chords, of those few bars, and I looked at Len and his eyes were full, too."
Before all this, Prince became aware of Johns after she received rave reviews for her performance in Noel Coward's period piece The Marquise at the Kennedy Center. She read for Desirée, then returned to sing Coward's bittersweet "If Love Were All" for the vocal audition. Then it was home to London to await the news.
Prince himself finally called. Johns laughed as she remembered his excitement. "One of the great things about Hal is that he has got the joy of the theater and the love of the performers. I'll never forget it. He said, 'Whoopee! Wow! You got it! Marvelous! You're going to do it! Great! Do 16 pirouettes!' And I was jumping about. It was wonderful!
"I knew then that rehearsals were going to be an enthusiastic joy. That's what people get from Hal when he's directing. I never saw him let up. And, of course, Steve has such love for his music and lyrics. I'd never had a chance to really listen to the words properly of 'Liaisons' all the time it was being sung by Gingold, and I had no reason to really study them until I had to play Madame Armfeldt here (1991, the Doolittle Theater, Los Angeles). But I remember thinking when I was playing Desirée, 'I hope to God I'm never asked to play that! It's such a difficult, impossible number!'
"Of course, when you actually read the words, it's all so subtle and they're so brilliant that I got fascinated. And my terrible worry about the song left because I fell in love with the lyrics."
Lyrics of any kind became a problem when Johns was struck with bronchial pneumonia soon after the show's debut on Feb. 25, 1973 at the Shubert Theater. "I lost my voice just after the first night and we had to do the album," she recalled. "But first we had to do a concert tribute to Steve (Sondheim: A Musical Tribute, March 11, Shubert Theater). Johns remembered begging Prince and Sondheim not to make her perform the song. "It's so wrong for Steve!" she pleaded. But both men were adamant. So, with virtually no voice, Johns had only one recourse.
"I used the emotion, the acting--that was the reason I got through. And that wonderful pianist, Bobby Short, was in the front row sobbing louder than I was singing! And Steve said, 'That's the best you've ever done it!' But I'm telling this because Len was in the wings. He's not an overly demonstrative man, but he was standing there with tears running down his face and his arms out--'You did it!' And that's what he was like all through the show. We didn't discuss anything, but he was absolutely there for me."
Probably Johns' biggest regret came in recording the Night Music cast album. With her still fragile voice, even fabulous acting wouldn't save her on a record. "When I got to the studio," she remembered, "Steve said, 'I've heard your head voice. You use it two or three times when you normally sing this song. Put it all up into the head. Don't try for your normal chest register.'
"So on the album, you'll hear it's all head. There's a certain sweetness to it, but there's not the dramatic impact like when I performed it because I didn't have the voice to do it. So I've never done a recording of the song the way I did it on stage."
However, Johns did tell the head of Columbia Records, which released the cast album, that she'd love to do a single of "Send in the Clowns" when her normal voice returned. His response? "Darling, you've got to remember that 'Send in the Clowns' is Cartier. It's not Woolworths, or even Saks. It's Cartier. And it will never sell as a single!"
After twenty-five years, doesn't Johns get a little tired of singing, and crying through, the same song? "Never! I did it for eighteen months in New York, and in Boston. I've sung it I don't know how many times for special performances. And not once did I ever sing that song that I didn't time the tears.
"When I first started to sing it at rehearsals, I told Steve, 'I'm never going to get through this. I cannot control the emotion!' And he said, 'Sing it alone again and again and again, even if it's thousands of times. Sing it until you can control where those tears come, and if you want them. You must keep on and on and on.'
"He was right. I got to control it; I knew exactly when I would let the tears roll down and how long it took. I had to be quiet, and I timed it with the orchestra when I knew certain things were going to happen. And there wasn't one performance when I didn't get them coming at the same time.
"I said to Steve, 'The big problem with me is that I get emotional with anything beautiful. I don't cry at disaster. I cry at beauty.' But not having a singer's voice, I had to render it in a dramatic way.
There are some artists' renderings, though, that she cannot abide.
"When they sing in a strict, strict tempo, then it's nothing to do with the lyric. I can't take it that way. It's not sour grapes, its just that I find it's meaningless. And I hate that! It's nothing to do with how or why he wrote it.
"When it comes out of context of the play, it's acceptable when you have a lovely singer like Judy Collins doing it. She does it in the most acceptable way for me. One singer, who shall be nameless, said to me, 'I've never known what that lyric meant!' And I nearly said, 'That's pretty obvious, dear!'
In retrospect, Johns doesn't mind that Sondheim takes whatever time he needs to write pieces like "Send in the Clowns."
"Everybody's got their own way," she explained, "and you cannot hurry it up. You cannot say, 'We're starting rehearsal in two weeks' time and we're minus two solos. Can you please present those before we go into rehearsal?' Actually, a lot of people you could say that to, and they'd give it to you. But on the whole, they're not people of the same quality, are they?"
Terri Roberts is a writer in Los Angeles and the West Coast correspondent for The Sondheim Review
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