Sending Out the Unmusical Elizabeth Taylor

by David Hajdu | March 25, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor had nothing to do with music—or, more accurately, nothing to do with the formal standards of technique that traditionalists still conflate with musicality—and that fact has led me to realize something about Frank Sinatra. In all the encomia to Taylor in all the media this week, one of the few aspects of her career spared inflation was her brief and tenuous but illuminating dalliance with theatrical song in the film version of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, produced in 1977. Taylor was cast well as Desiree, the aging but still alluring fulcrum of the cad Fredrik’s moral dilemma. Since the play’s first New York production in 1973, when Glynis Johns introduced the role, Desiree has been played by non-singers, and Sondheim composed her showpiece number, “Send in the Clowns,” as a piece to show the power of non-singing. Meticulously constructed in short bursts of phrases, the song calls for an actor’s skill at phrasing and interpretation, rather than singerly technique at tonal production, intonation, and breath control. Taylor took on “Send in the Clowns” valiantly, unburdened by the musical habits of a skilled singer and sustained by her considerable talent as an actor.

“Send in the Clowns” is so overdone—and by that I mean not only done to excess, but done with excess—that I would be happy never to hear it again. Still, watching the YouTube clip of Taylor’s rendition led me to reconsider Frank Sinatra’s struggle with the song in the last decades of his career, and I realized that the narrative of his efforts to come to terms with the song is the story of his transformation from a singer to a non-singing actor of songs as a form of drama.

“Send in the Clowns” was a new and relatively little-known song when Sinatra first tackled it, in 1973, for Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back, the album he did to announce the end of his brief retirement from singing in the early ’70s. He had begun to lose the extraordinary voice that had served him since the mid 1940s, and despite the title of the record, the ol’ Sinatra was not back. His tone had coarsened, his breath was failing him, and he was trying to figure how to work with a limited set of tools. For Ol’ Blue Eyes, Sinatra did “Send in the Clowns” in a gentle croon, his voice floating lightly over a bloated arrangement by Gordon Jenkins for string orchestra.

After living with the song on the road for a few years, Sinatra recognized that both the Jenkins arrangement and his singerly approach to the song were wrong for the material—and for the singer at that point in his life. He dropped the arrangement and began doing “Send in the Clowns” intimately, quietly, accompanied only by his longtime pianist Bill Miller. In 1977, essentially to satisfy himself, he re-recorded “Send in the Clowns” with Miller and released the track as the B side of a 45-RPM single. The record begins, extraordinarily, with Sinatra telling the listener a little story about what “Send in the Clowns” means—to him, more than what it means narratively in A Little Night Music.

In time, Sinatra found a way to do the song even more intimately, quietly, and artfully, talk-singing it in his last years as a voice-and-guitar duet with Tony Mottola. He barely sang the song at all, but acted it beautifully like the virtuoso non-singer he learned to become.

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