Let's take a look at "Twin Soliloquies" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific and "Send in the Clowns" from Sondheim's A Little Night Music. Now, I know what you're thinking. These two songs have absolutely NOTHING in common. One is a duet and the other is a solo. South Pacific premiered in the late 1940's, but A Little Night Music wasn't written until the early 70's. The duet is a sweet depiction of two people falling in love. The other deals with lost love and disillusionment. So what is the common thread here? Well, both of these numbers were written for very specific practical reasons.
At the time of South Pacific's premiere, Mary Martin (the original Nellie Forbush) was one of the biggest stars on Broadway, and when you have a star like Mary Martin, you've got to be prepared to give her pretty much whatever she wants. Well, Martin had a very specific stipulation - Nellie could never sing at the same time as her lover, Emile. You see, Ezio Pinza, the actor who had been cast as Emile, was a famous opera singer. Martin feared that her voice would be overshadowed by Pinza's and so she made sure her contract forbade the authors from writing any duets. 1 Here's the problem, though: South Pacific is a romance. How are you supposed to write a love song if your lovers aren’t allowed to sing together? The solution, of course, was "Twin Soliloquies." Essentially, the piece is a set of twin monologues. The two never speak to each other, but as the audience, we get to hear what both Nellie and Emile are thinking in this intimate moment. They are falling in love and experiencing all the hope and doubt and wonder that comes with the territory, but it's still too soon for them to share these thoughts with each other so they lapse into a pensive silence. They cannot sing together (emotionally, but also contractually) and so the music continues on without them. Because of this, the climax of "Twin Soliloquies" actually happens in the orchestra. This moment is titled "Unspoken Thoughts" in the score, and though our lovers cannot speak their thoughts aloud, the swell of the orchestra beautifully captures their depth of feeling.
Okay, so what about “Send in the Clowns?” Well, much like “Twin Soliloquies,” this number was written for a specific actress. A Little Night Music was already in previews in New Haven when Sondheim and his collaborators decided that the show was missing something in the second act. 2 Their solution? A solo for Desiree at the climactic moment when she finally admits her feelings for Frederick…and gets rejected. Desiree may be the protagonist of Night Music, but before this point she actually has very few chances to sing. Anne has “Soon,” Charlotte has “Every Day a Little Death,” Madame Armfeldt has “Liasons.” Even Petra gets a solo number with “The Miller’s Son,” but Desiree, our central character, rarely sings more than a few phrases at a time. Perhaps because this character is given so few chances to express herself through song, it’s an exciting moment for us as the audience when we finally get a deeper glimpse of her feelings in "Send in the Clowns." But here's the problem. By the time Sondheim got around to writing this emotionally fraught, 11 o’clock number, Glynis Johns had already been cast as Desiree. Johns was a brilliant actress, but a singer? Not so much. What do you do when you have a singer that can’t handle much more than a phrase or two at a time? Well, you write “Send in the Clowns.” Listen to the piece and see if you can hear what Sondheim has done to accommodate the limitations of the actress. The phrases in “Send in the Clowns” are INCREDIBLY short. Just take a look at the first few lines to get a sense for this.
Isn’t it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air.
Send in the clowns.
Not only has Sondheim accommodated Johns by giving her short phrases with a very small intervallic range, but he is also giving her PLENTY of space to breathe after each and every phrase. It’s the perfect song for a singer who maybe isn’t capable of longer phrasing or a larger range of notes.
Okay, so now we have a better idea of the contractual disputes and casting woes that led to the creation of these two iconic songs. And while that information is certainly interesting in and of itself, what I find truly incredible about "Twin Soliloquies" and "Send in the Clowns" is how the composers used the limitations to their advantage. These numbers worked in their original context because the composers did what they had to do under the circumstances, but they have endured because Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim did more than that - they drew from the truth of the narrative, they created musical moments that work because of the restrictions placed upon them, not in spite of them.
Let me explain what I mean by that. Rodgers and Hammerstein were pros so it probably would have been easy for them to write some generic love song for Nellie and Emile even given the restriction that the characters can't sing together. But here's what's not easy: writing a piece that gives the impression that these two soliloquies are happening simultaneously. Throughout "Twin Soliloquies" Rodgers uses the chord progressions to indicate this simultaneous narrative. For those of you who are perhaps new to music theory, let me just explain that in Western music certain chords are supposed to lead to other chords. So pre-dominant chords lead to dominant chords and dominant chords lead to tonic chords, etc. Yet in this number, more often than not, our lovers refuse to follow the rules.
Take the first few phrases for instance. "Wonder how I'd feel living on a hillside, looking on an ocean, beautiful and still," sings Nellie. She starts with the tonic and then moves to this really unusual chord - it's either a III or a V/vi. A V/vi chord is really going to want to move to a vi in this situation, but either way this is a chord that wants to lead us somewhere else. (Ironically, we would be better able to identify what kind of chord it is if we were able to see where it's going, but Rodgers isn't going to let that happen.) Once Nellie has finished her phrase, Emile chimes in but instead of picking up where Nellie left off, he essentially re-starts the piece by bringing us back to the tonic. "This is what I need. This is what I've longed for, someone young and smiling climbing up my hill," sings Emile and underneath we hear a I-IV progression - a tonic chord moving to a pre-dominant. This pre-dominant VERY CLEARLY should be leading us to a dominant (V), and if Nellie and Emile were having a conversation it probably would, BUT these characters aren't actually speaking to each other - they are monologuing - and so each character moves through the musical landscape of the piece completely independent of the other. According to the "rules" of music theory, Nellie should probably start her phrase with the dominant (in this instance, an A major chord), but instead she establishes a completely new key (C major) and sings her own I-IV progression. When we next hear from Emile, he likewise ignores the intended chord progression, instead bringing us to the key of A major. Funnily enough, A major was the chord that Nellie should have sung in response to Emile's last line. It's almost as though Nellie's phrase never happened. He is supplying the A major that we had expected to hear before, it's just coming 6 measures too late. This, more than anything else, is what helps us to understand the timing of their thoughts. Nellie and Emile are experiencing these moments completely separately and more importantly, simultaneously. Emile's responses prove that he cannot hear Nellie's leading chord progressions - his second thought simply stems from his first. Nellie's phrase doesn't exist for him because it is happening simultaneously with his own.
"Twin Soliloquies" is proof positive of the genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It is the perfect solution to a sticky contractual situation. They responded to their limitations with incredible finesse, in fact using the restrictions to give this piece depth.
What about "Send in the Clowns?" I've already mentioned the deftness with which Sondheim has sidestepped the limitations of the original actress, the short phrases of the piece allowing Johns to catch her breath after each thought. And yet, what I love about "Send in the Clowns" is how the solution to the problem is also the source of the number's incredible pathos. Yes, the short phrases are practical, but they are also remarkably expressive. This woman has just lost the love of her life, her pride, and possibly her last chance at happiness. The short phrases beautifully capture her bitterness at her defeat.
It's also worth noting that Sondheim has done something a little unusual with the chord progressions here. As we discussed earlier, dominant chords naturally want to progress to tonic ones. Dominant-tonic (V-I) is the single strongest chord progression in Western music. Moreover, the I-IV-V-I progression (tonic - pre-dominant - dominant - tonic ) is perhaps the most recognizable progression of chords ever used and can be found in everything from Beethoven to Taylor Swift. However, in "Send in the Clowns," Sondheim undermines the power of nearly all the dominant chords by having them move back to IV's before progressing to the tonic. I-IV-V-I is a strong progression. I-V-IV-I is unsettling, unnatural, and ultimately weaker. Consider however, which progression is more appropriate in this situation. Throughout Night Music Desiree has proven herself to be the ultimate puppet master, the master of her own fate, a tower of strength ... and now she has been rejected. Desiree has lost and the chord progressions, particularly the weakening of the dominant, reflect that defeat.
At first glance, "Send in the Clowns" and "Twin Soliloquies" may have nothing in common. But both are masterful examples of how a composer's skill can transcend practical limitations. Necessity is the mother of invention, indeed.
1. Jack Viertel, The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows are Built (New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2016), 80.
2. "Stephen Sondheim -Composer and Lyricist," www.achievement.org, last modified August 31, 2017, http://www.achievement.org/achiever/stephen-sondheim/#interview.