Judy Collins recalls the night "Send in the Clowns," her version of a musical theater classic, took home the top prize, achieving a rare feat in Academy history.

We've seen plenty of gifted theater composers come and go, but they're rarely able to spin their success into Grammys gold — typically, that's reserved for the Best Musical Theater Album category. However, on a couple of rare occasions, a Broadway gem has broken through to nab the coveted Song of the Year prize. This happened in 1965, when Jerry Herman's "Hello, Dolly!" won, and in 1976, when Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" snagged the award.

Sondheim was a groundbreaking master in the field of musical theater, but "Send in the Clowns" remains his biggest mainstream hit, having been recorded by artists around the world close to a thousand times. Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Kenny Rogers, Grace Jones, and Barbra Streisand have all covered the song, which Sondheim originally wrote for 1973's A Little Night Music.

But it was Judy Collins' version that earned the song a major Grammy Award in 1976, enshrining it in musical theater and pop music history.

Sondheim died in November 2021, and the Recording Academy is honoring his prodigious body of work with a special tribute at the 64th Annual Grammys ceremony Sunday night. To commemorate his big win — one of many — we caught up with Collins to talk about her decision to record the song, her memories of the night "Send in the Clowns" took home the top prize, and what her relationship with Sondheim was like.

Stephen Sondheim and Judy Collins
Stephen Sondheim and Judy Collins
| Credit: Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did "Send in the Clowns" come into your orbit? And what made you decide to record it?

JUDY COLLINS: A Little Night Music had just come out. It was 1973. [Actress] Nancy Bacal, who was my friend, called me up and said, "I'm going to send you over this cast album." I put the needle on the cut, and I played "Send in the Clowns." I just sat up and said, "Well, that's it." The name on the cast album was one I recognized. So I called Hal Prince. He said, "Well, it's been recorded already by 200 people." I said, "I really don't care. I have to sing it. I have to record it." And so then I said to him, "Who should orchestrate it?" And he said, "Why don't you go to the source? Call the guy who did all the orchestrations for A Little Night Music, Jonathan Tunick." And I called Jonathan Tunick. And he said, "Of course, by all means." So then we got into the studio and we did it. His orchestration, which includes the English horn phrase at the top, was one of the great secrets. It started to go crazy in England. It was immediately on the charts and was a big hit over there. I think it was on [them] for 70 weeks or something, which was extraordinary. And then it was a very big hit here in the States. And I still sing it. I sang it last night with the Nashville symphony.

What about it made you immediately want to put your stamp on it?

I can never put those things into words. Why did I love "Both Sides Now" when I first heard it on the phone? I don't know. Why did I record "Turn, Turn, Turn"? Why did I pick up "Send in the Clowns"? It's because it belonged to me. That's what my whole apparatus said — whatever it was that was automatically put there, either by my DNA or by listening to my father sing all the best songs of Rodgers and Hart, of Rodgers and Hammerstein, which I grew up on. You're almost born with something in that way. If you have a talent for something you've inherited, you just depend upon it. And when you hear something you know is yours, you have to go for it.

Tell me more about the recording process. Did it take a lot of tweaking or was it an instant thing?

We had the very best players in New York. All of the orchestra was first-rate. And I had everything I wanted, really. It was a smooth, wonderful, extraordinary experience. It went out in sort of a lightning flash and went up the charts immediately. The whole process was exciting, with an incredible reception from radio stations around the country. It was a whirlwind.

It became one of the only musical theater songs to win the Grammy for Song of the Year.

That's right. And of course, Mr. Sondheim did not love the song. The play was already being rehearsed, and the singer who wound up singing "Send in the Clowns" needed another song. She was singing one that wasn't working. I know lots of these things because I became very friendly with [theater director and producer] Hal Prince. We were talking one day and he said, "Glynis Johns' song was not going well." And so Hal said to Sondheim, "You've got to go home and write a song for Glynis."

Stephen went home and wrote this song and came back the next day and said, "I don't think this is going to work." But Hal said, "Well, give it to Glynis and have her sing it." So, Glynis sang the song, and Hal looked over at Sondheim, who went, "Eh," and Hal said, "No, it will do." But he didn't like it. I think it broke his heart in a way that "Send in the Clowns" was a big hit. Especially for me, because I was not a member of his crowd. I think he despaired about it. He was very kind about it for the most part, at least at first. But I have a feeling his feeling for the song was not my feeling for the song — and not the feeling that his audiences had about the song. But he wrote it, and God bless him, because for me, it was the song.

Judy Collins and Stephen Sondheim
Judy Collins and Stephen Sondheim in 1978
| Credit: Everett Collection

Why do you think your version stood out besides, say, Sinatra's take?

Who knows? I know the recording had the mark on it that put it into the stratosphere immediately. I respect Sinatra — my God, we all grew up on him and we all adore him — but his orchestrator did not pay attention to the original score. Jonathan was the one who used "da, da, da." That's the first thing you hear. And it is the English horn. The English horn is an unusual instrument. And to come up with it in the first place was a stroke of genius. Sondheim wrote the phrase, but Jonathan put in the English horn, and that was the magic touch it needed.

What do you remember about the night you won the Grammy? Were you surprised "Send in the Clowns" won Song of the Year?

Oh, shocked. But you know, in those days I was out on the road all the time. I didn't pay any attention to anything that was going on with accolades or pieces in the paper.

Were you at the Grammys that night, then, or were you out touring?

I don't think I was there. I'm sure I would've remembered. You know, I got the award for the song, but I never received a Grammy because people who perform the song do not get the Grammy. The person who wrote it got the Grammy. I don't hold in my hand a Grammy for "Send in the Clowns," although everyone knows I deserved it and got it that night. However, it's not in my living room.

Oh, man. Well, that's not fair.

It is unfair. But life is not always fair. And as far as I'm concerned, it's a loss which I can take. I'm a big girl. He wrote it and, of course, he deserved an accolade, but I wouldn't have minded a small version of the award.

He never loved the song, but did you ever have a sense of what his reaction to winning was?

Oh, he loved winning. I mean, Stephen was a winning lover. He was never unhappy when he won. I remember something funny. He came with Hal Prince to see me perform. I made an album of Sondheim's songs and did it with an orchestra. I just loved the experience because I got to dig into some of the other wonderful songs he's written over the years that did not achieve status in the Grammys, but that are wonderful, wonderful songs — his whole creative life is so stunning. But anyway, he came one night to see me at the Carlyle in New York. And I sang and did my dance and my routine, and I came off, and they were all so excited. And I said, "How did you like it?" And Hal said to me, "You know we liked it. We liked your singing very much. You know we know you can sing, but what we didn't know was you have shtick." My making them laugh was actually what got their attention.

Do you think after this rendition won the Grammy that it altered Stephen's view of the song at all?

No, but I do think he was happy that dozens of people recorded it and lots of royalties came into his life. There's no question that it set up a recording frenzy for him, which was fantastically profitable and exciting. And on that level, I mean, I guess he was very happy to have a song that had won a Grammy.

There've been so many versions of it. Besides your own, do you have a favorite rendition?

No, no, no. I get it, but I also know it feels as though it were a gift to me from Sondheim and from my friend Nancy Bacal.

As you've sung it over the years, has the meaning of the song shifted for you?

When you sing a song, it always has to feel, and be, as though it was the first time you ever did it. You have to find out what's in it at the moment you're singing it. If there is a trick or a talent or a gift or whatever you want to call it, you have to have that because people want to feel, and you want them to feel, as bowled over by it as you were when first heard it.

This might be another thing that's kind of intangible, but what made, and makes, Sondheim's music so special?

He's a genius and very unpredictable. He surprises constantly. He just had a way of turning something into a unique piece of art, and not everybody has it. Not everybody does it more than once. And he managed to do that over and over and over again. I had a long day once with him after I had recorded "Send in the Clowns," and we were very friendly at one point, and he said, "Come on over and we'll sit down and go through things." And we went through all his shows, and he played many, many things for me. One of the things that absolutely bowled me over was that every note in every one of the songs he'd written was as he had written it. Usually the material somebody writes for any kind of orchestrated play is orchestrated in a way that takes liberties. You don't take liberties with Stephen. You do what he's written, and he writes it all.

I'm sure that's why the power of his work in the theater has changed the way people think about and do things. He's made it an open territory for all kinds of creativity that maybe wasn't as acceptable because he was out there doing something that was very different for Broadway. I love the man. I'm grateful to him from the bottom of my heart for that song that got me through many doors — and that has kept me in a position where I sing this song and people start to go completely crazy.

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