Judy Collins Remembers Stephen Sondheim

Judy Collins Remembers Stephen Sondheim

Judy Collins Remembers Stephen Sondheim

The singer and activist writes about discovering the “amazing, creative, thunderous force” of Sondheim’s music.

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In 1973, I was feeling desperate, searching for the next songs that I could record and not sure that I was on the right track in my own career. One afternoon, I got a call from Nancy Bacal, a dear friend, who said, “I’m sending you over a record I want you to listen to.” The song, on the cast album of Little Night Music, was “Send in the Clowns.” Hearing it was an extraordinary experience. I was shaken to my very toes, weeping and laughing at the same time because this song said everything. Here on my turntable was the answer to my prayers. I called Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim’s producer, and told him that I had heard “Clowns” and that it was a very good song. He said, “Yes, it’s a wonderful song! Two hundred people have already recorded it.” I said I didn’t care, that I just knew I had to record it.

Then I asked him whom he thought I should have do the orchestration and he suggested Jonathan Tunick, who has, I think, orchestrated all but one of his shows. That was the beginning of a very close working relationship and friendship between myself and Tunick.

My recording of “Send in the Clowns” became an instant hit, first in the UK and then here in the United States and finally around the world. The recording won a Grammy for song of the year in 1975 and has gone on to become a standard in the classic sense—everyone knows it and most people can even sing along with a lyric or two.

It was a triumph for Sondheim, having crossed so many boundaries from the theater world to the pop world to the folk world. Sondheim and I have often met and talked together. In 1993, I sat with him one day at his home in New York, and as he played me his songs, I realized that every note in his theatrical productions is a note that he placed there carefully himself before any orchestrator added strings, oboes, harps, violins, and percussion. The songs are all there under Sondheim’s fingers as he plays them with their nuances and the astonishing chord changes and leaps—think of “Finishing the Hat”; think of “Liaisons”; think of “Sundays in the Park with George.”

It had been a great life experience to delve deeply into his work and discovered this amazing, creative, thunderous force in his music and of course the dynamo whom Stephen Sondheim was. He changed my life for the better as well as changing Broadway for all time.

Sondheim’s passing is incredibly sad for all those who know his music, have performed in his theatrical productions, gone to his musicals, and sat in theaters while the mystery and majesty of his writing has thrilled them and set them laughing and weeping and knowing they are in the presence of one of the great artists of all times. Thank you, Stephen Sondheim, for sharing your soul with us. You have helped us weather the storms, lifted our spirits, and given us something to live for. That is what great art does, and you did it.

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